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.
Each day, Dan takes the remains to a farm, where they are cast in a pit and covered up. Can't throw them back in the river, Dan says -- it's against the law. They're buried at land -- not, as it were, at sea.
The catfish fillets are put on ice and then placed in a walk-in freezer. They will be sold by the end of the day or, at the latest, the next day. The buffalo fillets are taken to the other end of the fish house to be scored, or butterflied, a layering process that makes for easier breading. Jim's father and son, Jack and Jeremy Beasley, stand at the scoring machine. Jack feeds fillets into the contraption, and Jeremy takes them as they roll out, placing them carefully in an iced storage container.
For five hours, the Beasleys sort, gut and dress the morning's catch. After all the work is done, they take push brooms and sweep up all the scales and guts and any offal that happened to miss the bucket, then shovel it up like so much bloody sawdust. Next they take the water hose and some bleach and hose down the work bench and the floor, channeling any leftover gunk into a big drain. Before long, the place is spic-and-span, without a trace of the butchery that just took place -- save the smell.
And then, as the sun is halfway to its zenith, they get ready to go back out and do some more fishing.
Forget Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, yellowfin tuna -- high-end seafood found in places such as the Blue Water Grill and Wholly Mackerel. We're talking low-end here, catfish and buffalo, even carp -- the stuff of backyard fish fries. Finny fare that discerning diners thumb their noses at and call "trash fish."
Nationally, it's estimated, 95 percent of catfish sold at market is farm-raised -- the preferred but bland choice over the sometimes muddy-tasting wild variety taken from rivers. In contrast, no one raises buffalo fish. Yet, at least in the St. Louis area, the carplike buffalo is preferred over catfish, especially among African-Americans.
"So many fishermen throw them away," says Otis Woodard, a morning radio personality on WEW (770 AM) and dedicated river fisherman. "But we [African-Americans] love buffalo, we love carp, spoonbills -- all those fish. Some game fishermen who catch bigmouth bass, they would hate to get a big old fat catfish on their line. But, you know, we rejoice!"
Once there were hundreds of small operations in Missouri and Illinois, mostly family businesses that plied the rivers for fish the way a farmer works the land for crops. Their numbers have dwindled in the last few decades, and Rob Maher, a commercial-fishing biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, thinks he knows why:
"The market is just not there for these guys. They get the same price for fish now as they did in 1950, yet the cost of boats and motors has gone up considerably. Used to be a lot more guys fishing with smaller amounts of gear out of smaller boats. Now, the only ones left that can make a go of it are guys who have big dollars invested and catch large volumes of fish."
Ron Knoedler (pronounced "needler"), a local fishmonger, grew up on the Mississippi, 200 miles north of St. Louis.
"Up there," he says, "lots of families fished. You heard a name like Gilpin, and you knew they fished, their kids fished. I watched them get out of it little by little. Some took better-paying factory jobs and thought they could still fish on the side, but it didn't work."
Others contend the reason for decline is no more complicated than the fact that the hours are unmerciful and the work itself is grueling. One thing is certain: There aren't many young sons itching to step into their fathers' knee boots.
Still, people line up at places such as Knoedler's Floppin' and Fryin' Market in Wellston; Kram Fish, just north of downtown; and Seafood City in Olivette, clamoring for river fish netted by men like Jim Beasley. These folks want their fish and they want them fresh -- killed, gutted and dressed in front of them, if possible.
They like the taste, the freshness and the cheap prices. But are they aware of the potentially devastating caveat?
During the '90s, the Missouri Department of Health advised eating no more than one meal a week of catfish, buffalo, carp, drum, sucker or paddlefish taken from state waters. The primary cause for concern was the termite pesticide chlordane. In 1988, the EPA ordered the removal of chlordane from the market. In 2001, with the exception of a few specific locations, the state health department removed this advisory, noting, "These fish are again safe to eat in any amounts throughout Missouri."
The Illinois Department of Public Health has an ongoing concern with polychlorinated biphenols, or PCBs, in the fish from that state's rivers. The department has issued an advisory for pregnant women, women of childbearing age and children under the age of fifteen to restrict themselves to one meal a week of Mississippi River catfish, eighteen inches or under, and one meal a month of catfish measuring more than eighteen inches.
Despite health advisories on the consumption of certain fish, no areas are currently closed to fishing. If there were, warnings would be posted in those areas, but the onus is on the fish seller to keep track of problem waters.
As a health risk, pesticides and PCBs in fish rank right up there next to Escherichia coli in beef and salmonella in fowl. Even strawberries and alfalfa sprouts have their perils. Heed the advisories, says Illinois DNR's Maher, but keep the big picture in perspective: "Years ago, you couldn't detect those things, or, if you could, the levels were a lot higher. The fact is, levels of contaminants in the environment are going down."
Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and an authority on environmental health, agrees with Maher. But he also adds a somber note: Federal and state limits on fish toxins may not be stringent enough to protect the public from cancer and, even more worrisome, fetal brain damage resulting in declining IQs and altered behavior.
"When this standard was established 25 years ago, the primary purpose was to protect adults against cancer," he says. "We're still concerned about cancer, but since then what we've come to realize is that PCBs are actually much more effective at damaging fetal brains than they are at causing cancer.... And all of this is occurring at levels of exposure which are below the FDA standard. What we need, really, is a re-examination of the standards."
The Food and Drug Administration is the main agency standing between the consumer and the fish -- but it is a thin line of defense. FDA agents visit fish markets at least once a year, pulling a sample of salable fish for testing. The agency also oversees the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Program, a program that requires fishermen to tell fishmongers where they caught their fish and to vouch that their catch comes from safe waters.
But this honor system means scofflaws can put consumers and businesses at significant risk.
"You have to trust your fishermen," says Ed Kram, owner of Kram Fish Company.
Fish sellers, under HAACP, carry a greater responsibility than fishermen. Besides determining that the catch came from relatively unpolluted waters, they must keep a detailed record of the temperatures of fish that are received and the temperatures of fish that are sold. This system relies on a simple truism: Nothing kills business more than news of bad fish.
It's a small safety net, but one the regular fish-eater might appreciate -- if they gave it any thought. Instead, they tend to think about this: Fresh whole catfish or buffalo -- or even carp buried in a bed of ice at the local market -- looks mighty good. And tasty.
They also think about comfort food and family traditions. In long-gone days, Grandpa cooked buffalo at family picnics, maybe cat. Now they make it for their young ones, rubbing it in cornmeal and some special seasoning, throwing it in the frying pan with melted shortening two inches deep, watching it turn crisp and golden brown.
It's the way they do fish. It's a cultural thing, and health concerns will just have to take a back seat.
"They're two of my favorite animals," says Otis Woodard, referring to the much-maligned carp and buffalo.
Woodard, 65, regularly casts a line from the banks of the Mississippi in North St. Louis. He's not into catch-and-release. Nor is he worried about contaminants.
"I eat fish every day, most of it from the Mississippi that I have caught," he says. "I look at all the things they say are in fish, and then I look at the chemicals and hormones they're intentionally putting in beef and pork, and I come to the conclusion that what I catch on the waterways is safer to eat.
"You know, I go to my doctor for a checkup and he says I'm in good shape -- at least, I'm not glowing in the dark."
Up the Great River Road from Alton lies Grafton, a river town through and through, where you'll still see the rooflines of buildings showing the high-water marks from the Flood of '93, when the whole town was submerged and then-Vice President Al Gore showed up to wag his head in dismay and formally proclaim the situation a national disaster.
Of course, Graftonians were mightily put out by the flood. But they were also fatalistic, knowing that the river water and that which comes from it were, are and always will be their mainstay.
A series of water-related enterprises greet the passing motorist heading north through town: the Raging Rivers Water Park, O-Jan's Fish Stand, Ready's Fish Market and finally, the Fin Inn, a restaurant that boasts 8,000 gallons of aquariumized fish and turtles that stare from behind glass at diners as diners, in turn, stare at them.
Beasley Fish, at the far end of town, is a family operation. Jim and Jeremy fish from one johnboat. Jack fishes at his own pace, at different times, from another. Jim, Jeremy, Jack and Dan all help out in the fish house, dressing and processing their catch. Deborah, Jim's wife, runs the combination fish market and fish stand out by the road, selling the buffalo and catfish the men pull from the river. Deborah and Jack make deliveries.
Jack, 75, made a living fishing before Jim was born. Jim, 41, began going out on the river with Jack when he was twelve. Now Jeremy, fifteen, goes out with Jim. Another son has chosen not to fish routinely.
That's all right with Jim.
"It's not for everyone," he drawls. "You're not gonna do this unless you can handle hard work. And you ain't gonna get rich at it, that's for damn sure."
Jim Beasley speaks from profound experience. The man routinely works sixteen-hour days, and fishing is the only thing he's ever done or wanted to do.
The Beasleys are one of the largest suppliers of fresh river fish in the region. Combined, the wholesale and retail operations go through 350,000 to 400,000 pounds of fresh-caught buffalo -- about 20 percent of Illinois' recorded annual commercial buffalo harvest -- and up to 60,000 pounds of catfish each year.
That's a lot of fish flesh, and it's out there for the taking. All you need, says Jim, are a couple of johnboats, at $10,000 apiece; a $9,000 outboard motor; thousands of dollars' worth of nets and assorted gear; the proper licenses; and -- oh, yeah -- the know-how and a drive bordering on monomania.
Besides individual households, the fish go to taverns, restaurants, picnics, fairs and family reunions. Some of the fish are kept alive and used to stock pay lakes, where sportsmen buy the right to cast a line. In short, there's never a surplus.
The Beasleys don't have a corner on the market. There's Randy Waters and his crew over in Hamburg; John Ahrling in Elsah; and Gary Shaw in Hardin -- all full-time commercial-fishing operations based above Alton, on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. In addition, there's a raft of commercial houses in Kentucky, based on Kentucky Lake and the Ohio River, which likely deliver more wild fish to the St. Louis market than the Illinois operations.
Missouri, once a player in the commercial-fishing trade, passed a law ten years ago that prohibits the harvest of any catfish from the Missouri River. As a result, Missouri now has about 300 licensed commercial fishermen, compared with 1,400 on the Illinois side.
"They work themselves to death over there, trying to catch buffalo," says Jim Beasley. "They spend half their time throwing catfish back in the river. To me, that'd be heartbreaking, like throwing away money."
Illinois has size limits on individual fish, but the state allows commercial fishermen to net all year long with no limit on the numbers caught. In contrast, Missouri allows no fishing of Missouri River backwaters and no overnight sets of trammel nets -- sort of a wall of netting. One of the few potentially lucrative ventures remaining on the Missouri River is harvesting sturgeon for caviar.
Vince Travnichek, fisheries biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, says the law was created to counteract historic overharvesting of catfish and to enhance recreational fishing.
"There's not that many commercial fishing operations in the state, and there's only a fraction of that number on the Missouri, so you're looking at maybe 150 folks, at most, that we're impacting," he says, "yet we're reallocating that resource to thousands of weekend rod-and-reelers."
Travnichek notes that three other lower Missouri basin states -- Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa -- all restrict catfish harvesting on the Missouri River. This prohibition is unlikely to end anytime soon.
But it's all one big, connected river system. Let those catfish venture into the Mississippi, anywhere near Jim Beasley's nets, and they're as good as deep-fried.
Jeremy Beasley backs the pickup down the ramp at the Grafton boat launch. His dad, Jim, in the 22-foot johnboat, waits until the trailer is mostly submerged, then springs the release catch. Just before noon, on this last Friday in June -- another hot one -- the boat is afloat on the Mississippi, and Jim lowers the 150-horsepower Mercury outboard while Jeremy peels up the incline, spraying gravel, on his way to park the pickup and trailer.
Jeremy is working full-time for his dad this summer -- and that means long days and nights out on the river. He's brought along a pal, Vincent Cassens, whose dad owns the local bait shop. Both boys will be sophomores at Jerseyville High School. Vincent wears clean white jeans. In a few hours, they will be covered with river muck and fish slime -- so filthy that Tide won't touch it.
They are about to raise catfish nets, eighteen of them, put down two days before. The first net is just across from the boat launch. Jim guns the Merc, his long hair blowing back from beneath his cap, and heads for the far shore. The hoop nets are near the bank, yet submerged in about six feet of water. Even though many of his locations have no distinguishing landmarks -- nondescript shoreline is often the case -- some unerring sense tells Jim where each of his nets lie.
The lightweight nets with fiberglass hoops and nylon mesh are attached by line to an anchor on the riverbed. Placed in a current, the net billows, accordionlike, to its full length. As long as the current is good, the hoops of the net stand upright; the net is baited with at least one live fish, which attracts others, mostly of its kind. Fish swim into the net through an opening -- the throat -- and, once inside, cannot get out. It's a wonderfully low-tech method of fishing, and, save for the modern help of 150 mechanical horses, one that hasn't changed much in two centuries.
Jim maneuvers the boat to where the net should be. Jeremy throws in the grab hook, a weight with curved prongs at the end of a rope. It comes up empty the first time. The second try snags the line, submerged between the anchor and the net.
"Got it," he says.
He pulls, and Jim steps over to help. Here comes the net. Just a few catfish -- one big one, but he's the baiter, placed there to attract spawners.
Catfish are cavity spawners -- a hollow log is their favorite place to meet for sex, but a tunnel-like net can also serve as a fishy boudoir. When spawning catfish encounter one of their kind, putting out hormones and scent, they swim right in the net: "Hey, wanna fool around?... Uh-oh."
Hoop netting is an effective technique during the late spring and early summer, when spawning season is nigh and the catch is bountiful; a single pull of the net can yield 500 pounds of fish.
Netting regulations vary from state to state. As a general rule, Northern and Western states are more restrictive, whereas the South is more liberal. There are exceptions to this rule: Commercial netting has been banned along parts of the Gulf Coast and is controversial in other parts of the country, including the Pacific Northwest, where Native American tribes, citing old sovereign treaty rights, have been allowed to spread trammel nets across rivers and harvest already-threatened salmon.
With year-round seasons for catfish and buffalo, Illinois is one of the more liberal netting states. Even with an annual statewide harvest of close to an astounding two million pounds of buffalo per year, though, Maher of the Illinois DNR says the river is in no danger of being fished out.
"All the studies we've done indicate it's not impacting the population," he says. "There's just as many fish now as there were twenty, thirty years ago. In fact, fish populations today are in better shape, mainly due to the effects of the Clean Water Act."
Back to the river.
The second net holds just one large buffalo and a couple of drum. Last night, Jim was out for buffalo; today it's catfish. Still, he'll take a buffalo. The drum can go back. Jim mutters an apology, something about having picked a bad day to go out.
Not only is it the end of spawning season, the river is "falling out." In prior weeks there was a flood, and now the river's getting low because of a lack of rain up north. When the river falls, it changes the way the current runs, and a change of current tends to disorient the nets.
If there's anything about the river that Jim Beasley knows, it's change. Weather, current, spawning season -- it's all in flux. And he's pliable. He can deal with change.
"When things change," he says, "you've got to figure out what's going on. You compensate here and there, get things situated."
In this case, getting things situated means changing the location of his nets, removing them from sluggish sections to bends with faster current.
Some nets are near one another, whereas others are far apart, up to a mile, perhaps -- hard to tell out on the water. It takes about three hours to check all the nets, remove the catch and put down new nets with fresh baiters. Fish won't swim into a dirty net -- Jim doesn't know why. But each net, after being picked up, gets dragged behind the speeding boat, sort of a high surf-action wash. In the old days, before outboard motors, fishermen would beat the muck off the nets with sticks.
Another net, set near a marina, is elusive. One more try, Jim tells Jeremy, and if he doesn't snag it they'll come back another day. Jim's not optimistic -- he reckons the falling river got so low it exposed the net, giving some rascal the opportunity to pinch it. That would be a shame, because his uncle, Bill Beasley, made it. The whole rig -- line, anchor and net -- is worth about $100.
But it's more about the craft than the money.
"A lot of difference," says Jim, "between getting a net from someone who's fished their whole life and buying one from a catalog made by someone who don't know what it takes to catch fish."
One net yields ten healthy-looking flathead catfish, some of them weighing twenty pounds. Jim singles out one of the biggest and places it back in the net. With catfish fillets going for $2.69 a pound at Beasley Fish, this old boy could be worth $15.
Why not use a $5 fish for bait?
"You want a real pretty one," Jim replies, "the one with a big belly that's gonna put the most scent out. Got to invest a little bit if you want to make anything. You put in one that's marked up, he might die on you, and then you got nothing."
Upriver, there's better luck. A net yields some good-size channel and blue cat, about a dozen. Jim untangles them from the net, shakes them out. They flop around, making wet squish-squish sounds. Taking up space in the boat are two 150-gallon Rubbermaid tanks, each with an air pump and a big chunk of ice to keep the water cool. Jeremy and Vincent toss the catfish into the tank, every now and then asking Jim whether a particular cat is a keeper.
One of Vincent's tosses glances off the tank, and a big old catfish bounces back into the river. Vincent apologizes. Jim shrugs it off in his usual deadpan style:
"Guess this is his lucky day."
Ed Kram, the fishmonger, is not having a great day. He's got one guy on vacation and another out sick, and his walk-in freezer has broken down.
"It's the first time in 20 years," says Ed.
As a result, he has to pitch 1,000 pounds of prime buffalo. That hurts. Fortunately, this is a rare mishap, or else the Kram Fish Company, at Thirteenth and Biddle, wouldn't have lasted 98 years -- all but three of them at this location.
Primarily a wholesaler specializing in custom cutting, Kram Fish also has a market that does a brisk morning business. Catfish and buffalo are the mainstay, but whiting, or jack salmon -- an import -- also sells well. Fish deliveries from the Kentucky Lake area come in five days a week.
Ed says that local freshwater fish consumption is about a tenth of what it was 25 years ago.
"People are traveling more, and they're being exposed to more kinds of fish," he says. "They go to Florida, they eat amberjack. They come back home, they ask for amberjack. The tide has reversed. The consumer has seen what's available, and he wants saltwater fish."
Grocery chains such as Schnucks and Dierbergs accommodate these customers by buying fish from the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico. But they also horn in on the few remaining independent fishmongers, offering farm-raised catfish and fresh-caught buffalo. Farm-raised catfish from Southern ponds have really taken a chunk out of the local, fresh-caught catfish market.
Those looking for a bargain, however, will steer clear of the grocery chains. At the Schnucks at Delmar and Kingshighway, the cost of a scored buffalo side is $2.99 a pound -- compared with $1.70 a pound at Beasley Fish and $1.89 a pound at Kram. Schnucks doesn't carry the wild-caught variety, but the chain's farm-raised catfish is going for $4.99 a pound, compared with $2.69 at Beasley's and $3.75 at Kram.
A portrait of Louis Kram, Ed's grandfather and the company founder, hangs over Ed's cluttered desk. The business was a lot different when Louie Kram and his boys started out -- for one thing, they did live fish.
"It was pretty much a carnival with my father, Paul, and his brothers," says Ed, mid-fifties-ish, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans. "Then, as now, people wanted their fish as fresh as they could get it. A customer'd walk in and point to a fish: 'I'll take that one.' They'd dip it out of a tank and put it on a scale, and it was flopping around. They'd kill it, gut it, dress it right there in front of him. They put on a show, and customers loved it. My father and uncles worked fish all their lives. They knew everything about fish. They could look at a fish and tell you who his father was."
Kram Fish closed the carnival in 1965.
Live fish got to be too labor-intensive," explains Ed. "Would you butcher a cow to make hamburger patties? Why do it with fish? It took a long time, too. Customers'd wait 30 minutes for their live fish. Now they wait 30 seconds."
Selling live fish is not too labor-intensive for Ron Knoedler, 38, a veteran fishmonger who says he doesn't mind hard work. The sign in front of the Floppin' and Fryin' Market reads: "Live River Fish," and that's what they sold until earlier this summer, when Ron decided to shut down the live tanks in order to upgrade them.
Customers still stop in Thursday through Saturday for fresh catfish, buffalo and river perch; it's just that they're temporarily denied the macabre experience of seeing their dinner whacked before their eyes.
The market, a former Shell station at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Lucas & Hunt, is painted bright yellow. Outside the door stands a Vend-A-Bait machine, holding refrigerated nightcrawlers; inside there's a colorful array of plastic lures -- both a convenience to neighborhood anglers. Ten years ago, Ron and his wife started out on the parking lot with a truck and trailer.
"We were street peddlers," he says. "We had a tank on the truck and sold live fish -- dressed them to order."
The location proved so lucrative that they bought the building and moved the fish operation indoors. Since then, there's been lots of floppin', but no fryin', in spite of the name.
"That was the plan on paper," says Ron, "live fish, a small grill, and some produce."
The market does provide a unique service not seen anywhere else in the city: For $2 to $3 per fish, anglers can have their catch professionally dressed. "It's mostly during snagging season," says Ron, referring to the art of, well, snagging large cat and buffalo with a treble hook. "They'll bring in some big ones: 'I want to get these cleaned.' We don't advertise this, and it's strange to me how word gets out. Reminds me how hard some jobs are if you don't know the skill."
Ron and three other employees dress fish all day long using no more than a nine-inch boning knife, skinning pliers, hatchet and a pair of gloves. They don't waste time scaling the buffalo; they simply slice off the scales just beneath the skin.
Over near the counter, where customers can watch, Roosevelt Clay works the fish-chopper -- a heavy, movable blade with a handle that is attached to a platform, not unlike a paper cutter. Chop, chop. Neatly cut steaks fall into a plastic bag, ready to take home.
At 11 a.m. when the market opened, there were six people waiting in the sun.
"This is the best place for good, fresh fish," says Val Harlston, 62, a retired secretary and ordained minister, who is purchasing $18 worth of buffalo. "They usually have live fish, but I know these fish are very fresh because I saw them delivered as I arrived."
David Spann also buys a nice mess of buffalo sides.
"I eat all kinds of fish," he says, "but I come here for the buffalo. It's very, very good."
He taps on the accelerator of his car. He seems in a hurry to leave:
"Yeah, in fact, I'm fixin' to go home and cook them right now."
Jim guns the boat to the next site, a covelike stretch along one of the many small islands in the river. He has three nets in this area, and one of them is awry, floating on the surface, buoyed by a mess of big, dead fish. Suddenly, something flashes silver near the stern, and the boat takes a hit.
What the hell was that?
"Bighead carp," says Jim over the putting motor, the trace of a grin on his mug. "They'll jump right in your boat. They're dangerous, too. Buddy of mine got hit right in the forehead by a bighead -- damn near knocked him over."
Jim pulls alongside the net. Jeremy grabs it, and they start to pull. Whew, it stinks! The dead fish, in the net one or two days, begin to disintegrate, releasing putrid gases. What went wrong is clear to Jim.
"A bunch of these bigheads got in the net," he explains.
A slack current and too many bigheads have yielded a netbound fish kill. He wrestles the net into the boat, shakes out the contents. Adding to the stench are dead turtles and a dozen or more dead bighead. But there are some live fish, too -- no keepers, except one lonely channel cat, probably the baiter. Jim shakes the rotting fish from the netting and tosses the rank parts into the drink. Another net nearby holds some nice catfish but three times more bighead.
"Throw them all back," says Jim to the boys, already tossing bighead out of the boat like so many logs. He looks at the last few flopping fish and mutters to no one in particular, "They get much worse, it's gonna be where you can't hardly fish."
Originally imported from eastern China to improve water quality in Southern catfish ponds, the bighead is thought to have escaped containment during the Flood of '93. In the last decade, they have become ubiquitous in the upper Mississippi River, achieving notoriety for being ugly, erratic and a nuisance to hardworking fishermen.
Bighead grow rapidly, and it's not unusual for them to reach 60 pounds. The largest on record weighed in at 90 pounds. So when one crashes into the side of the boat, you tend to sit up and take notice.
"We started getting calls around the time of the '93 flood," says Danny Brown, fisheries-management biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. "Now we get calls everyday from commercial and sport fishermen: 'What are these things, and why are they jumping in my boat?'"
Brown theorizes that they're stimulated by boat motors. "If you're out paddling with oars, they never jump. But boat motors stir up the plankton. They get into a feeding frenzy and jump out of the water like a slingshot."
The jumping prowess of the bighead has gotten the attention of the media. In the last few years, both Inside Edition and a Japanese crew have been in the area filming the kamikaze fish.
With small scales -- unlike a common carp or buffalo -- the bighead is not unattractive. Yet it has one arresting characteristic: Its eyes are located forward and low on its big head, the orientation so exaggerated that on first take you think the fish is upside down -- or some sort of mutant.
The biggest problem -- one that has wildlife-management folks scratching their heads -- is that bighead carp are filter feeders, or plantivores. This puts them in direct competition with native species such as paddlefish, buffalo and the larval young of most river fish.
"They're going to throw the whole system off," says Brown. "We don't know when it's going to be noticeable or to what extent, but there's a lot of biomass [bighead] out there that has to be supported by food that normally would go to native fish. We can't figure out anything to do with these crazy things. The only hope is that commercial fisherman some day could find a market for them, maybe cat food or dog food or something."
Because they don't go for bait, they rarely wind up on the end of a sport fisherman's line, and commercial anglers say they need at least twenty cents a pound to make harvesting them worthwhile. Nobody wants to pay that much.
Good news, though: Pearl, Illinois, a small town on the Illinois River, is poised to start up a processing plant that will specifically process bighead for human consumption. Holding up the venture is the completion of a feasibility study. Most likely, says Maher, the bighead will end up being canned like tuna. But if it's going to sell, some PR genius is going to have to devise a new handle.
Lose the "bighead" and the "carp." Call it Pisces Rex or Neptune's Pride.
"It's gone from good to pretty bad," says Jack Beasley, assessing the day's catch as Jeremy and Vincent unload fish from the boat to the entrance of the fish house, where they will be dressed immediately. They tried, but the river just didn't cooperate.
"When the river first starts falling," Jim says, "it's actually a lot better, because the fish bunch up in the timber and weeds, set in right tight. Then, after a while, they scatter, get hard to find. We'll find 'em."
He found them recently on the Illinois River and its backwaters during a spell of high water. He and Jeremy were getting up at midnight, driving two hours to Meredosia and raising nets all night. They'd come back with a miracle of fish that took them all morning to clean.
Jim would then spend the rest of the day out on the Mississippi -- nonstop fish business, around the clock. He'd fall asleep at the dinner table and practically have to be carried to bed.
Now is a time of lean. They've returned with 300, maybe 400 pounds of cat -- a pittance compared with the salad days of 1,500, even 2,000, pounds of fish. Jim is unfazed.
"To me, it's always fun," he says. "I don't mind if it's pouring down rain, lightning flashing -- I still have a blast. Cold, snowy -- I love it. A lot of guys get down, though, from losing a net or not catching no fish. Some guys'll be pouting all to hell. It don't bother me. I'll survive. It got better last time, it'll get better again."
Jim gets his boning knife ready for the job at hand. Maybe it isn't the best haul, but there's a couple hours' worth of filleting to do before dinner. He pulls his cap down over his forehead, gives a wink:
"You know, when I find a place to sell them bigheads, it'll be a breeze."
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