Killing My First Fish

The day I kill my first fish I eat a tuna sandwich for lunch.I’m on a bush excursion, assisting a field biologist. On our lunch break, which we take on a log on the marshy edge of Snafu Lake, I open a can of tuna I purchased at the Superstore and spread the flaked bits of meat between two slices of bread. An hour later, casting off the reedy shore on another edge of the lake, I hook a fair-sized pike. It struggles, but not as much as earlier, bigger ones I’d hooked and failed to land. This one makes it to shore and I stand there, letting it circle my boots, unsure of what comes next.The biologist is somewhere in the woods behind me, taking a measurement, and I yell, tentatively, “I’ve got one.”She runs out, grabs the line, yanks the pike up onto the bank. She looks at me as she hands me the light wooden club she uses to whack fish.“Are you ready for this?” she asks.Earlier in the day I revealed the limited extent of my fishing experience: when I was a girl I caught a lot of fish with lures my dad baited for me, so I didn’t even have to pierce the worm. He would twist the hooks from mouths of fish while I went off to play, and later they would reappear in a significantly different condition on a plate set in front of me at the dinner table.Once, though, I wanted to keep a fish that must have been too small. Despite my father’s advice, I was determined — this fish should be our meal. He told me he would only keep it if I watched while it was killed. I would then know, forever after, what I was asking him to do.There is a memory in my mind I can press play on, like a video: two men stand around a fish placed on a wooden stump, framed against a blue and sunny northern Ontario lake. One holds the writhing body in place; the other raises a bludgeon and lowers it, again and again. Blood flies everywhere.The memory is surely more dramatic than the actual event, but this moment has remained my closest encounter with death.It occurs to me shortly before today’s catch: I’ve never killed anything; I’ve never looked at something alive and used my own hands to make it dead.As I try to keep my squirming pike still with one hand and hold my bludgeon in the other, the biologist warns me it might take a while to die, that it might struggle when I hit it, and that it might keep twitching even after it’s dead.I say a quick “thank you” to the fish, and then awkwardly club him between the eyes. He stills. I hit him again, to be sure, and kind of miss, hastily apologizing. Still he is calm in my hand. I take out my knife and slip it into the spot I’ve just hit with the bludgeon. There is almost no blood. “He’s dead,” says the biologist.With her direction, I slit open my pike’s belly, and pull out his guts. I learn what each piece is as it appears – the liver, the float bladder. I scrape out the spinal goop with the back of my thumbnail. The next morning I skewer him on a stick to roast for breakfast.It isn’t until I do this with three more fish that I understand how easy on me my first was, how gracious he was in his death.

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