Skinning Catfish in Mary’s Kitchen

To celebrate Mother’s Day, all week long we’ll be publishing a series of stories all about moms––about their companionship in the outdoors, about them encouraging us to hunt and fish, and about how we wouldn’t be where we are, or who we are, without them. Fittingly, we’re calling this series “Thanks, Mom.” 

It can take a while for a son-in-law to earn his keep, and it didn’t seem like I was off to a great start with Mary, seeing as I’d slapped her in the face with a catfish tail. It sounds worse than it was; the catfish was dead, and I’ve seen live ones slap harder. And it was an accident besides that. Maybe I shouldn’t have been cleaning catfish in Mary’s kitchen—but it was her idea, and she was just standing too close while I was using the skinning pliers. A good piece of hide ripped free faster than I meant for it to, and the momentum of it all sent the tail and a rope of guts right into Mary’s cheek with a liquid plop.   

I took a moment of silence to measure the situation—with fish blood and slime running off my knuckles—as I waited for her to speak. She’d never scolded me before, but I thought that might be about to change. Instead, she wiped her cheek with her hand and said, “Well, finish that one up.” So, I twisted the catfish’s head off, and it cracked like smashing a bag of pork rinds. I dropped the severed head into the trash can, split the belly with my pocket knife, sloughed out the rest of the guts, and handed the skinned fiddler to Mary. She walked it to the sink and rinsed it off.

Technically she wasn’t my mother-in-law at the time, but I’d been dating her daughter, Michelle, for a couple years and really was trying to earn my keep. We’d all gone catfishing that day—Larry, Michelle’s dad; Mary, Michelle, and I. I’d taken them to one of my favorite bank-fishing spots, in a bay that’s choked with lily pads in the summer, but that loads up with channel cats and bullheads in the early spring, before the pads get too thick.  

I’ve tried worms there, but have never done much good on them. It’s always a chicken-liver bite, and Mary didn’t like that we were using up good livers for fish bait when we could’ve been frying them instead. But she came around because the cats were biting. You could barely bait a hook and set your rod in a forked stick before a catfish would run with it. Larry caught three nice ones in a row, just off a chunk of yellow liver gristle. If you’ve done any liver fishing at all then that tells you how hot the bite was, because they almost never hit that stuff. We only brought one tub of livers with us and soon, we were out of bait.  

We’d parked the truck and hiked a quarter mile into the spot, and we hauled our fish out on a rope stringer, wound around a hickory limb that Larry and I carried on either end. It was a March day, when the woods looked like winter, but the warm air and daffodils said otherwise. Still, the sun set early, and by the time we were home, it was dark.  

I don’t remember exactly how the suggestion to clean the fish in the kitchen came up. Catfish skinning is an outside job. But probably, we didn’t have a flashlight handy, and Mary’s kitchen was well lit. She’s always had a pragmatic, “solve the problem right in front of you first” type attitude.  

I couldn’t have made a bigger mess of her kitchen with a bucket of puke, and to top it off, I slapped her in the face with a dead catfish. Probably, mother-in-law–son-in-law relationships have been severed by less. But that’s been 25 years, and many meals and laughs and a few tears ago, in that same kitchen. I bet today, if I had a mess of catfish to clean, and it was getting dark with no flashlights handy, Mary would suggest we clean them in the kitchen, and she’d help, too. She might just stand back a bit while I was working the skinning pliers. 

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