Betsy Shebang - Column for 7/2

The Food Chain Gang

I'm visiting in-laws in Missouri for the week, staying at a relative's idyllic estate - a comfortable double-wide trailer on ten acres of pristine land, half Oak and Hickory forest, half lush green lawns with a small garden, blackberry bushes, and an enormous fishing pond stocked with bass, catfish, bluegill and other critters; the pond even features a small island connected to the shore by a bridge. The air is warm (hot during the day) and humid; insects and birds sound off all day long; highway traffic is audible but not too close by. It looks and feels like Tom Sawyer country; while the ticks and chiggers and snakes may be discouraging, the air and sunlight and foliage does beckon me to strip down to bare feet and loose-fitting overalls and wander through the land with only a fishing pole to occupy my time and keep me well-fed. The environment alone, the smell and sound and warmth of the air at six in the morning, makes me understand as I never have before the romantic myth of the nearby American South - a wonderous, exotic, place, thick with life and history and beauty, despite the never- quite-resolved issue of the centuries-long holocausts against its Black and American Indian populations. My personal experience here has been very, very nice.

I've gone fishing before, but not for some time and, strangely, not since I learned to enjoy eating fish. I'll spare you the ramble about how fishing naturally and almost effortlessly induces a state of Zen contentment on those who practice it; suffice it to say it's fun.

I haven't set out to kill anything in quite a while, though, and as a self-rightous California enviro-passivist wuss, I like to think that no creature shall suffer unnecessarily on my watch. I do eat some meat, so I must acknowledge that maintaining such a lofty attitude is at least a luxury, but it still seems reasonable not to encourage myself to make a hobby out of hooking and smashing and squishing living creatures until they're dead as a form of recreation. Within a few hours, I'd be tearing live worms in half with my bare fingers to bait two different hooks. Just gotta get on with the tasks at hand.

The in-laws had baited their hooks with worms, kernels of corn, "stink bait" (a rancid paste which does, in fact, stink) and other things. I started off with corn and cast my line into the water. I cast a few more times. I like casting. I enjoyed the sunshine and the air. I got a bite and reeled it in. It was a little bluegill, five inches long. I unhooked it and threw it back.

Well, that's oversimplifying. I tried to unhook it. Bluegill have a thick, hard lip connected by a membrane to the rest of the mouth; the hook ripped through the membrane and was a problem to take out. The fish looked scared and sad. I worried about the suffering I was causing, my caution only prolonging the poor creature's agony. I ripped out the hook and threw the fish back.

I caught another bluegill. The hook went in its mouth and poked through what seemed to be a nostril on its snout. I unhooked it and threw it back.

I caught another one. Might have been the same one, the hook now poking through the other nostril. Or were these just holes my hook had poked in the tiny creature's face? Not sure.

By now I'd decided the Bluegill were the freshman of the lake - biting into any bait, any mess of hooks, any stupid thing sure to get them in trouble. I began to lose my sympathy. Mind you, it was also hard to maintain that sympathy for a tiny fish in a small pond getting a quick piercing when kids all over the country pay big bucks to have bohemians push needles and hooks and jewelry through their lips and noses and nipples and (eck) genitals.

Caught another bluegill and found that it had swallowed the hook. Father-in-law Rich - a wonderfully sweet, gentle man - sliced the fish in half and set the head as bait for a larger fish. The fins were still flapping as it was cast back into the water.

Went fishing again that evening, and the next. Tried a three-prong fishhook coated with stink bait.

By then it was dark, and we had thrown fish pellets, which look like dry dog food, into the water; the pellets float and the catfish emerge from below the surface, eerie dark shapes with thick flesh whiskers and sharp fins and smooth rubbery skin, to open their mouths and gather the floating pellets in with a slithering motion before disappearing into the depths again, never having fully risen into visibility. The fish were the color of the water, black.

I cast my line into the frenzy, like a kid in church trying to steal coins from the collection basket, and after a long wait, I had a bite. The bobber pulled under the water and the line dragged back and forth in a panic.

That moment was all the drama - feeling the line come alive from the depths and having no clear idea what was on the other side. In the fading daylight, it felt for all the world like I'd hooked the soul of the lake itself and was wrestling to pull it to the surface. An overdramatic statement, perhaps, but that's the joy of fishing.

It was indeed a catfish, and with Rich's help with the net, I got it out and onto the ground. Catfish make an odd barking sound in the open air. Probably just the wheezing of the air through their gills.

I'd felt it with the bluegill, and I felt it even more with the catfish. These creatures lived their whole lives underwater, flirting with the surface and ducking back down to the safety of the depths. A sudden pull from the water has gotta feel like an alien abduction, complete with invasive examination and disorienting, humiliating return to the pond. We were the aliens.

Rich caught two catfish himself and we carried all three up to a platform by the garage. One by one, he rinsed them, lay them on the platform - they were still gasping, flapping their fins - and, with a cloth held over the fish's face to pin it down, he raised an electric knife, sawed into the flesh below the head, and cut the meat away from the spine in one slow motion, revealing perfectly intact inner organs in place below the spine. Pulling the body away from the filet, he then sliced away the layer of outside skin and slid the meat into another bucket, turning over the still-moving fish to filet the remaining side.

By then it all made more sense to me. We must, in some way, kill to survive, so we might as well get used to it. The fish wouldn't enjoy having their flesh removed so brutally, but it would all be over soon enough, and it's not like they'd have to spend the rest of a long lifetime being rejected by sexy catfish of the opposite sex due to some awful facial deformity brought on by a hunting accident or short-lived body manipulation trend. Maybe fish don't have nerves, or they're too dumb to care, or we have dominion over them, whatever. We gotta eat something.

But it did make me think of alien abductions in a whole new light. How are we supposed to convince the tentacled, octopus-headed aliens that we come in peace when we're perfectly happy to drink a beer, pack a lunch and saw the flesh off a gasping, struggling catfish with an electric knife?

I dunno. These things are complicated. I'm hungry. Think I'll go eat something. Perhaps...cookies.

Copyright 2002 Betsy Shebang

Columns by Betsy Shebang