Illustration of A Person Made of Waves

Fish Cleaning Makes for Dirty Work, Good Poem

James Proffitt

An article I wrote for Ohio Outdoor News this summer detailed the industry that, in Ohio, is uniquely Lake Erie: Fish cleaning houses.  They are smelly, wet and when the fishing is good, extremely busy.  The workers are paid piecework, generally -- that is, by the pound.  The more they clean, the faster they clean, the more they get paid.  It is long, hard, dirty work, but can pay well.  While I usually clean my own walleye, I always take my yellow perch (which are tiny compared to walleye) to the cleaners.  And there began my admiration, and there began my poem, “The Fish Cleaners.”  A little imagination, a little thinking, a little verse.

Mostly the cleaners use commercial food prep knives, and not birch-handled knives.  But there is a company in Ohio, Warther & Sons, which has been making beautiful knives, including fileting knives, for years, so why not birch handled knives?

And the anglers bringing in fish are often giddy, and often childlike, filled with their joy.  Yet it is the fish cleaners who tackle the toughest task, the cleaning.  And while there is a honkeytonk in the area with great specials on eggs, ham and whiskey and such, it ain’t dockside and the fish cleaners ain’t there at dawn because they finish at night or in the early a.m. and sleep, waiting for the next catch to come in.  So yeah, it’s clear I embellish, I move things around, I make it fit.

There are no hmmphs! and hrrrghs! because those pros slice through those fish like they were warm butter.  But there is often beer in the fish cleaning houses, and maybe a nip or two of liquor.  And a quiet, professional camaraderie.  But the tasks are the same, and the cleaners get the job done, whatever it takes, however late they work.  And likewise for the poet.

If we wrote it word for word, detail for detail by the book, as it were, we’d be news reporters or scientists, and not poets.  And who the Hell would want to be that?

James Proffitt

James Proffitt is a freelance writer and photographer on Ohio's north coast.  He is a regular contributor to Ohio Outdoor News and the discovering Ohio travel blog.  He has recently published poems in Blueline, The Gap Tooth Madness, Bluestem, River Poets Journal, Briar Cliff Review and Rattle.  In February he will read at Rattle's winter issue launch in Los Angeles, and is currently working on a book about the Marblehead Lighthouse for The History Press. James was featured in issue 296.3, Summer 2011.

Top Illustration: Anthony Ventura is a graduate from the Sheridan College Illustration Program in Oakville Ontario, Canada. Anthony has done work for print, multimedia, advertising and television.
Anthony currently resides in a Hamlet North of Toronto Ont., Canada with his wife Georgia, his dog Larry and his new born son, Finnegan.