Last week a stretch of office talk turned to fishing. Women and fishing.
“Women don’t normally fish,” got my attention. “It’s a man thing,” more so.
These statements, made by women colleagues, are largely accurate. Still, I found myself thinking, boy, I come from a land far, far away, because I was handed-down a love of fishing from none other than my grandma.
Lillian was a diary farmer, etc. The short list: she gardened, raised chickens, butchered, canned, cooked, baked, laundered, hung clothes on the line, milked cows, put up hay, sewed, mowed, cleaned the church up the road, crocheted magnificently and healed others.
She also fished. I was especially aware of this.
Summer evenings, grandma would back out the red AMC Rambler, sit a rusting 5-gallon DAD’S Root Beer pail in the trunk in the clutch of a broken hand of fishing poles and a plastic ice-cream pail full of night-crawlered dirt, skid a lucky grandkid or two into the naugahyde back seat, and set out down the hill for Lake Redstone.
Bullhead. That was the slimy prize she was after. One after another is how it usually went. Some nights we’d fill the DAD’S to the brim with scores of these yellow-bellied catfish cousins. It was something to see, peering into the bucket at a floating mob of green-skinned, whiskered fish sucking the surface, doomed.
The thing I’m getting at came next. The root beer pail plunked onto the checkered kitchen floor, Lil sharpened her thick butcher knives in a blur up the round rasp toward her naked fingers. Lord almighty.
To clean a bullhead is to understand its name. The body is wrapped in skin, not scales, so instead of scaling, the act is more akin to pealing; a shallow slice below the head that necklaces the fish is followed by agonizing minutes with a pliers trying to grab hold of the slick skin to pull it off like a shirt from the neck down—in the case of the bullhead, a shirt adhered with industrial grade permanent adhesive. All the while, be careful to avoid the three or four spine “stingers” that are just as fearsome posthumously. It’s a nearly impossible task, and why more people don’t fish for bullhead.
But, if it were only about the quality of the meat, everyone who fished would fish for bullhead. It’s why grandma Lil fished for bullhead. It’s why she would sit at that kitchen table smeared in fish goo until midnight, slicing, pealing, gutting. She always saw it in terms of food, good food, delicious food that she had gotten using her own moxie. She was a proud woman. The perfect preparation of all food was important to her, but fishing, from pole to pan, was her culinary art, and she was a master.
It slithered off onto me. All but the master part. That’s a work in progress. I hope.