#10: Cleaning a fish

Posted by Megan on June 4th, 2011

If there is nuclear war I will now be able to provide food to my starving family.  This weekend my dad taught me two important lessons that will be critical for survival after Canada declares war on the United States over hockey players and ownership of Alaska. Neither country will want to claim it after Sarah Palin becomes President.

About five years ago my parents bought a cabin. It has been such a blessing for our family. We now spend several long weekends together at the cabin each year. My brother and sister have lost interest in fishing, but my dad and I hit the lake at least once every time I visit. Somehow the fishing habits of my youth never quite matured. My dad is still the sole boat driver and he always prepares my rod and removes my fish for me. This seems a bit silly- I should be a capable fisherperson! We have always practiced catch and release. We reel them in, ask them their name, say hello, then set them free to share their adventures with their fish friends. I have some guilt issues eating an animal I have personally met so cleaning fish has never been of much interest to me. I marvel when farm kids tell me they ate their pet cow. When my dad suggested he teach me how to clean fish I was immediately skeptical. How could I eat my fish friend?  My dad reminded me that people have been catching fish for food for thousands of years and that I routinely eat? Gordon the Fisherman’s catch. If I was going to be a meat eater, I should understand what it means to catch and cook my own food. He was right. I could continue burying my head in the sand like the true American consumer I am or I could learn how my ancestors fed themselves.

 As I mentioned, my dad is the only person in my family that knows how to drive our fishing boat. This is blasphemy in Minnesota. Most kids learn how to drive a boat long before they have their learners permit. I’m fairly certain I saw the eTrade baby zooming across Lake Minnetonka last weekend! Somehow I’ve always been too intimated to learn. There are boats darting all over the place – there are no lines or traffic signs to follow, it is like pirate rule out there! I once rode on a jet ski with my brother in law. I’m surprised he didn’t declare mutiny and throw me off the back – I was a shrieking mess. Something about the lack of decorum really freaks me out. Luckily my dad is very accustomed to my nature. He knows I panic easily and always explains things very thoroughly in a thoughtful and calm manner. He had plenty of time to hone this skill while I was a teenage disaster. I think he’s just thankful I no longer turn into a panicked mess when the doorbell rings. True story: up to age 14 I used to hide when someone was at our door. The idea of small talk and forced politeness really freaked me out.

 My dad carefully talked over the instructions on how to start the outboard motor.  

Dad give me an overview. Dad showing me a thingy I need to push.

 I have the memory of an eggplant, so remembering several steps in a brand new process is very difficult for me. Thankfully the motor came equipped with Megan-friendly hieroglyphic instructions. Unfortunately I don’t have the handy photo instructions available to me here, so I’ll have to recreate the process by memory (which we already established is about as sharp as a spork).

 Step one: Open some sort of nozzle
Step two: pump a thing that looks like a cow nut
tep three: push a lever
Step four: yell at dog for eating grass
Step five: open a thingy
Step six: put the boat in Neutral
Step seven: pull the cord
Step eight: try to pull the cord again
Step nine: have Dad pull the cord     

Why do the make boats woman proof? (or at least weak woman proof)


The master takes over to start the boat.

Voila! The boat was roaring and ready to go. It was time to get this fishing party started. Dad instructed me to turn the handle slowly and pull away from the dock. As we lurched forward we quickly noticed we had a stow-away trailing behind the boat. Chili dog, eager to join our fishing expedition, was swim/chasing us. 

Ahoy! There’s a dog submarine gaining ground!

 Chili is an excellent swimmer, but keeping up with the boat had him immediately winded and struggling to keep up. Enter PANIC MODE! I’m going to give my beloved black lab a heart attack. Dad saved the day, quickly took the reigns and ushered Chili back to shore. Chili took the walk of shame back to the cabin where he pouted for precisely 3.3 seconds before he found a butterfly to chase.

 I gave boat driving another shot and was scouting across the lake in no time. Thankfully there wasn’t much boat traffic on the lake so the lack of stop lights and speed limits didn’t seem overwhelming. After about 10 minutes tooling around the lake I got the hang of steering and accelerating. I now know enough to drive the boat if necessary. Given there is a dude around to pull the cord that is.

 When it was time to start fishing I handed boat driving duties back over to my dad.

I quickly captured the first catch of the day. “Butch” weighed in at about five pounds. Dad informed me that this is a nice size for cleaning, so we added him to our stringer. Suzie and Buddy soon met their fate and joined Butch. Several smaller fish received pardons and were returned to the lake. Frank and Rosie later joined the chain gang as our stringer filled up with fish. We had caught nine fish, five of which were on death row.

We decided to take one more short loop before heading home. Dad decided he wanted to try a different lure. Instead of going through the tedious process of putting a new lure on his rod, he instead grabbed an extra rod we had thrown in the boat in case I accidentally threw my entire rod in the lake while casting (this has happened before). This particular rod is called “Cananda” because my dad had used it on a legendary northern voyage fishing trip which harvested two very large fish that currently adorn the cabin walls. It’s a very heavy duty rod that very rarely gets used. He threw the lure out and within five minutes he had a bite. If you cast it they will come. At first, Dad wasn’t even sure he had caught a fish, we were in an area that is notoriously weedy so he thought he may have a heap of weeds on his lure. As he continued to reel, the weeds started fighting back. When I first got a glimpse of the fish I instinctively yelled “Holy Fudge” (except I didn’t say Fudge). I was instantly afraid I would be reliving A Christmas Story later that afternoon. The taste of soap flooded my mouth. Luckily my dad was too busy reeling in the monster fish to realize I had just dropped the F bomb loud enough for the entire lake to hear. I netted the great northern and dumped him into the boat. He dwarfed the other fish we had caught earlier. He was named him Rulon after a Biggest Loser contestant of yesteryear. We threw Rulon on our stringer and hustled back to the house so the rest of the family could see the prized fish. Rulon was by far the biggest fish we have caught in the relatively small lake that the cabin sits upon. He was approximately 15 pounds. Because Rulon was such a beautiful and prized fish he was granted amnesty and set  free to be caught another day.  

Rulon is now swimming around the lake telling all his fish friends about this near death experience and about how he was abducted by crazy looking aliens.

Now the reel work was over the real work was to begin. My dad set up a table to clean our fish upon.

The five fish were deposited on the table and he gave me an overview of the process. We each grabbed our first fish. I apologized to the fish and thanked him for allowing me to eat him. I like to think he was okay with it. Chili was very curious.

Mostly I think he was looking for an opportunity to roll on a dead fish – an activity that ranks fourth in his favorite activities (#1: swimming #2: walking with a pack #3: eating goose poop). Cleaning the fish involved making four very precise cuts. I tried my best to emulate my dad’s work, but my lack of skill was obvious and my fillets turned out very meager. 

The experience was actually quite enlightening. I feel so far removed from the food I put in my body everyday. A good portion of the food I use as fuel comes in packages shipped to me from a far away land. Lara bars and cereal make up about 40 percent of my diet. Catching my own food was empowering. In a strange way it was nice to meet the fish and have to experience the emotional conflict of taking its life to feed mine. It is an experience I imagine was very commonplace for our ancestors yet so rarely experienced in today’s culture. This is just a small example of how drastically life is different now. Today we buy a Lean Cuisine at the local megamart and within four minutes we have nourished our body. All we have invested into our meal is $2.25 cents. Generations ago our ancestors invested hours of painstaking work to grow their own crops and raise farm animals. This disconnect with nature bleeds into other consumerist behaviors. We’ve got a thing or two to learn from Disney’s Pocahontas: “you can own the earth and still all you’ll own is earth until you can paint with all the colors of the wind.” Wait – That doesn’t make any sense. How do you paint with wind and since when does wind have a color? Dear Disney: Please write a princess based animated feature that focuses on supporting local ethical farming practices. Love, Megan

My mom marinated and baked the fish. We ate them the next night for dinner.

This was my pre-poptart dinner.

My filleting skills could use a lot of work. They were extremely boney, but tasted great. Picking out the bones was actually a fairly effective food intake inhibitor. Perhaps I should propose this as a new weight loss idea: you can only have foods that require eating annoyance components like watermelon, mangos, edamame and pistachios. That actually sounds surprisingly balanced!  Someone get me an infomercial stat! After eating my meal I took a moment to thank mother earth for offering a bounty of food to feed my family. Then I toasted a poptart and ate my real dinner.

Thanks to my new fish hunting skills I’ll be all set if the Marshmallow Man destroys the Twin Cities. My fish diet food can be supplemented by the stock pile of PowerBars and applesauce cups I have inadvertently collected after taking too many trips to Sam’s Club without a list. And of course we’ll have mini marshmallows galore for dessert. According to the disaster preparedness expert at work, it’s only a matter of time before we experience a global disaster. I’m pretty sure if it’s not the Marshmallow Man it will be Kim Kardishian’s fault. When it occurs, I’ll be ready and I’ll be needing some floss.


  • © 2011 Megan Steil