By Sam Levin
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By Dennis Brown
The stainless-steel workbench is loaded with fish the size of skillets -- some catfish, but mostly buffalo -- that Jim Beasley caught in the Mississippi River the night before. They have been kept in live tanks on Jim's johnboat, and now, at 9:30 in the morning, the last of the night's catch is about to be dispatched. Some of the fish are still alive, gasping with their muscular, ringlike mouths.
Jim reaches for a buffalo, already scaled, and slides it in front of him. Bare-handed, he grasps the fish by the mouth and gills. Holding it steady, he takes a butcher knife and sections out a nice fillet of white flesh. He tosses the fillet in a bucket of once-fresh water. With each toss, bloody water splashes out on the floor. He flips the buffalo over and with quick, deft movements repeats the action. It takes twenty seconds to cut two fillets, one from each side.
It's a skilled trade, dressing fish, and Jim says he's never once missed and cut his finger. If he did, though, it just might go unnoticed; it would be hard to tell his blood from the fish blood already soaking his hands.
Across the table from Jim is a cousin, Dan Beasley. Dan got to the plain-as-rocks fish house around 5 a.m., just as Jim was coming in off the river with the night's catch, about 700 pounds of buffalo and 30 pounds of catfish. Jim was out for buffalo, and that's what he caught, using a hoop net five feet in diameter. He also baited the nets with live buffalo. Fish are only attracted to their own species, Jim explains, so the catfish in his buffalo nets could be seen as a bonus.
Dan wears an apron and knee-high rubber boots. Jim wears waders. Both men have fish parts liberally sprinkled over their clothes and skin, but Jim's cap -- encrusted with fish guts and muck and God-knows-what -- is perhaps the grottiest cap in Christendom, so organic you almost expect it to crawl off his head and look for someplace to spawn. "Beasley Fish -- Grafton, Illinois" reads the fading legend on the front.
"Aw, this one's not so bad," says Jim, taking the thing off and examining it. "It's got a while to go, I 'spose. I throw 'em away when I can't read 'em no more."
Don't tell Jim Beasley that he's working a trade considered to be on its last legs. It's what he knows and it's what he does, day in and day out, catching these big lunkers so that folks on both sides of the river can have their catfish fillets and scored buffalo sides. And folks do love their fish. Beasley and his fellow rivermen say they have no problem selling all they can catch -- although the catch varies, depending on the vicissitudes of the river.
The fish come from the Big Muddy and its tributaries, a river system that runs through the Grain Belt collecting run-off from vast crop fields and effluent from factories -- a pesticide- and heavy-metals-spiked potion that contaminates all living things. Americans are advised to eat more heart-healthy fish, but these fish also contain toxins that offer the long-term prospect of cancer and birth defects to the regular consumer. At what point do these contaminants in fish become unsafe?
It's a matter of whose interpretation you want to believe. State and federal agencies are charged with monitoring contaminants -- in fish and the waters they come from. They may warn fishermen to avoid certain parts of the river; they issue advisories to consumers not to eat certain fish too often.
But this is a bureaucratic tangle that's far from foolproof. And it's a safe bet that those raised on the virtues of pan-fried catfish and buffalo are more interested in taste than purity. In an age when food is irradiated, sanitized and shrink-wrapped, some folks prefer to take chances with wild-caught river fish, smacking slightly of silt and roe.
Commercial river fishing may not be the brawny endeavor it was a century ago, but as long as the hunger for fresh fish exists, those who still hunt catfish and buffalo will limp along just fine.
And as long as that hunger remains, the Beasleys will keep at it, pulling nets and chopping fish.
Dan scales the buffalo for Jim. Now Jim "rings" the catfish for Dan. With a sharp knife, he makes an incision behind the head so that Dan can grip the skin with pliers. Dan peels back the thin skin -- catfish have no scales -- and after the skin is removed, he grabs hold of the mouth and rips off the head. The fish goes over on Jim's side of the table to become fillets.
Heads, guts, fins and every other part that isn't used -- everything but the fillets -- go in a separate bucket. The ratio is around three buckets of offal for every bucket of fillets. This day's catch yields seven buckets of offal. These bloody carved-up carcasses -- eyes staring in blank apprehension, flies beginning to alight -- wait to be loaded onto the bed of Dan's pickup.
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