From line to rope, cutting bait to cleaning fish, a knife is essential gear for an angler, and indeed, any outdoorsmen. And whether you fish, hunt, camp, or hike, a good blade is a trusted companion and a thoroughly useful tool.
In this article, I’ll review a variety of excellent angling knives, but I’ll be skipping fillet knives for the moment. While awesome for that task, they’re not particularly well-suited to general angling tasks, given their length and thin, flexible blades.
Buck Slim Pro 112
Buck Slim Select 112
Ontario RAT 2
Opinel No. 6
Spyderco Delica 4
Schrade Old Timer Sharpfinger 152OT
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What I consider when selecting a fishing knife
The steel is the heart and soul of any knife, and a little bit of knowledge goes a long way when selecting a good fishing/outdoor knife.
Cutlery steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, usually with a few additions like boron, chromium, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, niobium, titanium, tungsten, or vanadium. The more carbon present in the blade, the harder it can be made. But the addition of other elements to the steel can boost wear resistance, improve ductility, or increase corrosion resistance.
Javfree Knife steel really begins its life in a kiln, where it’s heated to re-arrange its chemical and crystalline structure. This hardens the steel quite a bit, but it also makes it brittle. To bring the steel back to strength, it’s subsequently softened by tempering. A perfect balance between hard enough to hold an edge well and soft enough to bend rather than break, crack, or chip is what manufacturers seek, and this is probably the most important step in the making of a good knife.
For instance, Buck uses a lot of 420HC steel, a very modest stainless. But through exceptional heat treating, they bring out the best in it, allowing it to perform well above its composition.
Stainless or carbon?
So-called carbon steel–essentially any high-carbon steel that is not stainless–varies quite a bit. But typically, it’s mostly carbon and iron, with trace amounts of sulfur, phosphorus, and manganese.
Stainless steels typically replace some of that carbon and iron with corrosion-resistant additions like chromium and vanadium.
There are other kinds of steel, too: things like tool steels (D2) that are nearly stainless in composition, but very, very wear-resistant.
In the real world, these differences have practical consequences.
Carbon steels (1055, 1075, 1095, etc.) will corrode quickly when exposed to acids like fruit juices, or simply liquids like water and blood. As a result, care must be taken to keep them clean, as rust at the edge can cause pitting and compromise cutting.
But carbon steels–when treated and tempered properly–tend to be quite tough and are far more likely to bend than break, crack, or chip. This makes them excellent choices for larger blades and for applications that will transfer a lot of force to the blade: think axes, machetes, and anything that chops.
They also tend to leave the manufacturer’s hands at lower hardnesses than typical stainless steels and are not terrifically wear-resistant. That makes them very easy to sharpen but compromises edge retention.
Stainless steels (420, 440, ATS-34, AUS-8, VG-10, S30V, etc.) are able to resist corrosion quite well, though this depends on their precise composition and exterior finish. Very popular as cutlery steels because of their ease of maintenance, they tend to be finished harder than typical carbon steels to promote edge retention.
The downside? Some are notoriously difficult to sharpen (S30V), and they’re often a bit more prone to chipping, though this depends a lot on edge geometry, which I’ll discuss below.
This badly chipped edge was probably too thin and too brittle.
What does this mean for you?
Given that you’re spending a lot of time on or near the water, I’d generally recommend stainless steel of some kind. It’s simply easier to use and care for, holds an edge longer (generally), and is better suited to a life of (relative) abuse.
A dull knife is useless–and even worse, dangerous.
That’s because a dull edge requires more force, and more force often leads to mistakes and accidents. Dull edges can skip off whatever you’re cutting, the way a dull knife slides off the side of a tomato or onion.
By contrast, a sharp edge is easy and safe to use because it bites.
A good fishing knife will hold its edge well, allowing you to cut line, rope, bait, and pretty much anything else without dulling quickly. This performance has more to do with proper heat treating than composition, but composition matters, too.
In general, edge holding is inversely related to ease of sharpening: the longer an edge will hold, the harder it will be to restore. That’s not always true, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
Some steels are simple to sharpen; others will drive you crazy!
Composition matters, as tool steels like D2 are extremely wear-resistant, meaning that they don’t want to yield to your stone or ceramic.
Easy to sharpen stainless includes the 420-series, the AUS-series, and VG-10. At the other end of the spectrum is S30V, and pretty much all the other “wonder” steels.
I recommend a blade that takes an edge relatively quickly–let’s say in under 5 minutes–but will keep that edge through hard use.
To get a knife razor-sharp, I recommend the Spyderco Tri-Angle Sharpener. I’ve owned and used a lot of sharpening systems over the years, and this is the best and most fool-proof method I know.
There are a number of different point configurations, but the two most common are the clip and the drop.
Can you tell which is the drop point and which is the clip?
A drop point has the edge rise to meet the spine, resulting in a stronger, more robust tip. It also provides more “belly” for slicing cuts, for instance, for cleaning game.
A clip point, by contrast, rises to meet a swedge that descends significantly from the spine. This creates a pointy, sharp tip that’s great for penetration, such as the initial plunge into the cloaca for gutting a fish.
Both are excellent options and largely a matter of preference.
Grind: geometry matters
The grind on a blade really affects its performance and can make it good at some tasks and poor at others.