|These are finely-tuned instruments|
Three times a day our outside worker and frequently myself come together at the fish cleaning shack where our guests have put their fish in blue plastic tubs in a system that we have pretty much perfected over the decades. We know from how the fish are placed in the tubs whose fish they are and whether we should clean and package them to go home or take them to the guests' cabins to eat in camp.
I got to thinking this summer about how many fish I've cleaned in my life. For about eight years I was the sole fish cleaner and that was back in the days when the limits were six walleye, six northern pike and five lake trout per person. It was also in an era when virtually everybody gauged the success of their trip on whether they took home "the limit." Needless to say, a lot of fish needed to be cleaned.
Since then limits and standards have changed. Now, if you have the full limit license you can keep four walleye and four northern pike. On Red Lake, no lake trout can be kept at all while this species rebuilds their population. However, most anglers today opt for the conservation fishing license which allows them two walleye and two northern pike to take home. So there are fewer fish to clean than in the old days. But since anglers also keep some fish to eat at camp before putting some in the freezer to take home, we still clean lots of fish.
My best guess is that I personally have cleaned at least 200,000 fish and probably far more.
The entire reason we began cleaning our guests' fish in the first place is because I learned how to take out the Y-bones from northern pike. It was a technique showed to me by one of our moose guides -- Jimmy Duck -- who had himself been shown by an American fisherman at another camp.
It's a slick method which results in two fillets per fish that are 100 per cent boneless.
But the technique is as much of an art as it is a science. I have shown it to hundreds of sportsmen and women and the only ones who have ever been able to duplicate it were our own outside workers. That's because you need to clean about 10 fish within a day or two with me by your side giving you instructions, watching your knife the whole time and alerting you when you start to make mistakes. There is very little margin for error or you end up with fillets that look like lace curtains.
To accomplish the task you not only need to know where to make incisions but how to angle your knife. You need to understand fish physiology and, on yeah, the Y-bones are invisible to you.
One other thing, what you do with your non-knife hand is as important as the one holding the blade. It needs to support the fillet in a particular way that makes the cuts you make with your knife take out the bones, but not the meat surrounding them.
As you might guess, it takes a very sharp knife to accomplish this. I always use two knives, one for filleting and another for skinning. The reason is skinning dulls a blade quickly and doesn't require a razor-sharp one in the first place. Our outside workers always use two knives as well.
This means you not only need to learn how to Y-bone a pike but you also need to learn how to properly sharpen a knife. It's a process that takes about half an hour per blade, if the knife is seriously dull. Once sharp you can keep it that way by touching up the edge every few fish. So we never let our knives get very dull. In our three-times-a-day ritual, we have about one hour maximum each session to clean everyone's fish. If it takes longer than that then we aren't completing our other daily tasks like picking up the garbage, cutting firewood, filling up the gas tanks, mowing the lawn, filling the generator with fuel, etc., etc.
This is where the faux pas comes in. Every once in awhile we descend upon the fish house planning for a rapid fish cleaning session only to find someone else has used our knives. Not only did they use the filleting blade for skinning but they also didn't place one of the cleaning boards beneath it and cut right against the metal cleaning table. Our razor sharp edges now wouldn't cut warm butter and we are now going to spend two hours in the fish house, one hour sharpening our two knives and the next cleaning fish.
In my mind, this is a cultural gaffe as great as wearing your buddy's underwear.
If you lived next door to Eric Clapton would you wander into his house and play his guitar, maybe re-tune it? It's the same thing.
Our knives may not look like much but they are finely-tuned instruments and we are highly skilled artists.
People who want to clean their own fish or who decide at midnight to clean some fish for a snack are welcome to do it. Just use your own knife, that's all.
Incidentally, fish brought into the fish house after our 5:30-6:30 p.m. fish cleaning time are put on ice until the next morning. This sometimes causes concern among our anglers who think the fish might spoil, hence their taking our knives and cleaning the fish themselves.
I can absolutely guarantee that the fish will be in excellent shape when we clean them the next morning. I say this because I've seen it happen hundreds of thousands of times.
Sometimes anglers, fearing the fish will spoil, keep them on a stringer overnight at the boat or hang our burlap keep sacks in the water. Now the fish really will be spoiled.
Just do what we advise: put the fish in the tub in the fish house in the evening. The last thing I do before I go to bed each night is to cover all the fish in the tubs with wet burlap bags and a milk jug of ice. They will be exactly identical in condition the next morning.
I don't claim to be an expert on anything else but when it comes to cleaning fish, more specifically -- northern pike and walleye -- I have never met anyone who knows more about it.
You would need to have cleaned hundreds of thousands of them since you were six years old to understand what I'm talking about.
Remember the first moon landing? It was in 1969 and my dad came to get me so I could watch it on TV. I was in the fish cleaning shack at the time and probably ended up cleaning 50 or more fish that day, just like I did every day. I was 16 years old at the time and already had been cleaning fish for 10 years.
By my estimate I had already cleaned as many fish by 1969 as most anglers clean in their lifetimes, at least pike and walleye. And that was 45 years ago and I've been at it ever since.
I've cleaned fish when I was so tired I fell asleep standing up. I've cleaned them with mosquitoes eating me alive. I've cleaned them in the dark and in below-freezing temperatures. It only takes me a minute or so per fish. At least, it does when I don't have to spend an hour sharpening my knives!
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