I think it should be noted that I’m writing this standing in front of the open oven door, seeing as how it is currently colder in our cabin than it is outside. 44 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact. Which doesn’t seem that cold to anyone else, apparently. But, I won’t see temperatures like these til Fall. I don’t know how one place can go from freezing cold to hot in such a short amount of time. I wake up in the morning and I’m camping out in front of the oven, eating cereal, in sweats and a hoodie. I come in for the afternoon and camp out on the front porch, in shorts and a t-shirt, because it’s warm and stuffy in the cabin. I’ve noticed that layers seem to be the key here.
Being in a fish camp is so funny. Everyone wants to know where everyone else has been, what they’ve seen, what they’ve caught. How deep? How many? What bait? What did the water look like? What direction was the wind blowing? Weeds? No weeds?
I let the guys talk those things over, while I go through my list of concerns. Do we have enough coffee to last us through the morning? Will I need two jackets or will one be okay? Do I want an apple or a banana as a snack today? You know, the truly important things.
The best of the talk happens in what I refer to as the fish house. Jesse, the expert fish cleaner, was in there with piles of perfectly cut fillets. So, I decided rather than stand around and talk about the walleye spawn, I’d watch and learn something relevant. While observing, I learned what instrumentation was, heard about a Canadian cattle farmer who cut his thumb off with a saw, threw it in the trash, wrapped it and kept on going, talked about bungee jumping vs. skydiving, scars from childhood games of falling out of trees (Canadians seem like a tough bunch to me), the difference between Canadian and American Netflix (did you know there was a difference or am I the only one out of the loop on this?) and our similar taste in music (my favorite Johnny Cash song just happened to be playing while I was there). There, of course, were guys who came in to talk fishing and I made some mental notes about maps and bays and such. But, talking about life stories seems so much more interesting to me than depths and maps and figures.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, I was inspired and thought it would be fun to learn to properly clean a fish. This is a true Canadian experience, right? What made me decide this, I have no idea. The opportunity just presented itself. There is nothing in my current skill set that lends to the fact that I would be good at this. Unless you count the 3 million watermelon I’ve cut up in my lifetime. Which is a total exaggeration. And, which is nothing like cutting up a fish.
Jesse agreed to teach me (I would say he had no idea what he was getting himself into, but he actually probably did) and since he hadn’t cleaned my catch yet, he methodically went through all the cuts and showed me what to do on one of my fish, then let me try on the second one. As you can imagine, I was half paying attention, half chit-chatting. which, I know, is coming as a huge surprise to anyone who knows me.
I made the appropriate cuts and was very proud at the end of that venture. Mine looked a little rough, but nothing too terrible. It came up a huge storm and started pouring buckets with the loudest thunder that echoed off the water, so I got a little distracted while Jesse finished up.
Let me interpret this for you: I missed all the important steps at the end.
After this venture, I realized I had no pictures to document the proof of my newly established fish cleaning capabilities. I decided that I needed to clean one more in order to document it, plus I was absolutely sure I’d be better at it the second time around. This poor fish, he had no idea what was in store for him.
(Let me make a side note that in the taking of this picture, I nearly fell out of the boat, then dropped the fish on my yellow rain jacket, covering it and me and the book I was reading, and everything else in my near vicinity in a layer of slimy mud.)
As I was walking to the fish house with him, my dad asked if I was going to cut the bones out. (Northern Pike have a row of Y bones that have to be cut out.) Only then did I realize that I hadn’t been privy to that lesson the day before and that I was going to need some “guidance”, at which Jesse walked up at the perfect moment for. So, I did filet the fish expertly (in my own opinion, probably not in anyone else’s), remembering everything he taught me, step by step from the day before.
Here’s the steps:
#1: whack it in the head. I’m not sure if this is an official step or not, but it seems necessary.
#2: cut right behind the gills, underneath the first fin, down until you hit the back bone. I was nervous about cutting through too far, but you actually have to push pretty hard because traction is difficult on a slimy fish.
#3: cut down his backbone making tiny, almost feathery motions, until you come to the end. You would think guys who cut up fish all day would be rough, but it’s a more delicate skill than it’s given credit for.
#4: at the end, stick your knife all the way through to its lower back fin and cut off through the tail. Do this on both sides and you’ll have your filets.
See, this is where I thought the process stopped. But, it was after this that the train completely derailed. So there are about 25 other steps and cuts after this, but I’ll shorten my experience for you.
#5: make a lot of really terrible cuts and effectively butcher it all to pieces.
You know, I thought fish cleaning was something you could be naturally inclined for. (I actually think this about a lot of things so I like to try everything because what if I’m naturally inclined for something random that I’ve never discovered before? Like playing the harmonica or something? You could go your whole life without knowing you’re excellent at something, and what a waste that would be, right?) But, no doubt, it is a skill, learned and honed by practice. I think it would take me 100 fish to learn to do one properly. Jesse even had this cool way to clean around the bones and get even more meat off the fish, which was impressive for my “waste not, want not” personality. He showed me the “easy” way. I wasn’t good at most of it (really any of it) but, I was good at skinning it. (He told me I was better at the whole process than most guys he had seen try to learn it, so I’m counting that as win, although I’m sure he was just being nice.)
I will say one thing about my fish cleaning escapade. You never learn anything if you don’t try and a willingness to learn new things will take you far in life. I just don’t think it’s gonna take me anywhere near a filet knife again.