Ever since we moved to Tennessee, my wife has been dreaming of buying a big plot of land somewhere and becoming more self-sustaining, raising chickens and goats, growing our own vegetables, and fishing in the many nearby waterways. We currently live in a subdivision and will for at least another year, but when school let out for the summer, she reminded me we don’t need our own mini-farm to go fishing.

My girls are huge fans of Man Vs. Wild, Survivorman, Dual Survival, The Alaska Experiment, and pretty much any show where people have to kill their own food, so as soon as they heard my wife mention fishing, they began begging me to take them shopping for fishing rods. So I did, figuring two fishing rods would be enough for the family. Then both girls selected pinks ones. Frankly, I’m not secure enough to stand around in public waving a long pink stick, so I chose a third fishing rod in a manly shade of deep green.

The trouble with owning fishing rods is that after a couple of days of using them for make-believe fencing matches, the kids actually demand to go fishing. Since there’s a public fishing area on the Harpeth River less than three minutes away, I quickly ran out of excuses. We went fishing on Monday.

I’ve held a fishing rod in my hands maybe three times in my entire life. My dad’s interest in lakes and rivers was limited to figuring out how to retrieve his golf balls from them, and when I once asked about perhaps taking my brother and me fishing someday, he patiently explained that fishing is just an excuse to sit in a boat and drink beer, which we could do in our own back yard.

So even though I’m 52 years old, this whole fishing business was all new to me … which became painfully evident when we climbed down the steep banks of the Harpeth River and opened our little plastic boxes of tackle.

“What’s that for?” my wife asked as I stood there flipping a wire semi-circle back and forth over some spool-thing attached to the rod.  (This was after I’d spent ten minutes figuring out how to keep the spool-thing from falling off the rod.)

“Uh … I think the line goes around it. Or over it. Or under it. I don’t know.” We took turns seeing who could spend the most time fussing with the spool-thing without accidentally accomplishing anything useful.

Fortunately, two teenage girls who were fishing a bit downstream recognized that when a grown man stares at a fishing pole for more than two minutes without moving, it’s a subtle cry for help. With the born-and-bred southern hospitality that makes this area such a pleasant place to live, they set down their poles and came over to serve as instructors. After feeding the line through some ring-things on the pole (which, as it turns out, you have to screw together first) and demonstrating how a reel works, one of them even tied a hook onto my line for me. Then they both moved a safe distance away.

Much as I adore my wife, she has a couple of annoying habits … one of which is being good at things she’s never tried before. On my birthday several years ago, she joined me for a round of golf on a par-three course. Since she’d never so much as taken a practice swing at the range, I gave her a two-minute lesson while we waiting on the first tee. Apparently wanting to flatter me as an instructor, she responded by landing five of her nine tee shots on the green. If she could putt a little better, we’d be divorced by now.

So I wasn’t surprised when she pulled a decent-sized fish from the river about thirty seconds after casting her first line. She held up the fish for the obligatory picture, then dropped it into a cooler filled with ice.

I spent the next three hours proving that if water-logged sticks provided complete protein, I could feed my family with nothing more than a fishing pole. I also caught several large rocks. Unable to reel in the rocks, I kept having to cut my line and start over. That’s how I discovered that fishing line is specially formulated to tangle itself into impossible knots no matter how carefully you try to unwind it. I also discovered that with the proper flick of the wrist, it’s surprisingly easy to toss a hook into the highest branches of a tree. (Since I was facing the river, the tree limbs I hooked were of course above and behind me.)

My six-year-old caught a fish that was too small to consider eating, so she threw it back. By the end of the expedition, my wife’s fish was the only one in the cooler.  But it was big enough for a meal, so we drove home feeling victorious. We came. We saw. We caught our own wild food.

After thumbing through some recipes for fish, my wife set the cooler on the kitchen counter and reached in to retrieve the main course. At that point, she turned to the rest of us with an excited expression and said, “BWAAAAAAHHH!!!” – which is this cute way she has of saying, “I know I’ve been expressing a lot of enthusiasm lately for getting back to nature and sourcing more of our food by raising chickens and goats on our own mini-farm someday and learning to fish in the local waters in the meantime, but up to this point in my life the only fish I’ve cooked came from grocery stores and fish markets where you know for a fact the fish are really and truly dead when you pick them up, and while I assumed putting a fish on ice for four hours was 100 percent fatal, it turns out this fish is still alive and kicking, which I must admit I found somewhat surprising.”

After dropping the wriggling fish back into the ice chest, she ran to her computer to read up on how to humanely kill it. Then she went to the toolbox to retrieve a flat-head screwdriver. I was beginning to wonder if she’d just learned how to disassemble the fish and remove the spark plugs, but then she grabbed it, set it on a cutting board, and jammed the screwdriver into its head behind the right eye.

“Uh, honey … are you sure you didn’t get your instructions from an online guide for mob enforcers?”

“That’s what you’re supposed to do with a fish. That’s where the brain is.”

Confident she’d dispatched the fish once and for all, she grabbed a knife and made an incision in the belly. Then she stopped cutting to remark, “BWAAAAAHHHH!!” – which is this cute way she has of saying, “It turns out I missed the brain and jammed the screwdriver into whatever you’d call the fish version of a neck, which you would think would be enough to kill a fish even if you do miss the brain, but it turns out they’re tough little creatures, and this one is still alive and kicking, which I must admit I find somewhat surprising.”

The fish — which by this point had been frozen, stabbed in the neck with a screwdriver and partially gutted with a knife — was looking at her with a fish-eyed expression I interpreted as “For the love of God, lady, just @#$%ing kill me already!” I suggested she might also want to water-board the fish for good measure, but she explained that fish don’t mind water-boarding and I should really shut the @#$% up now. Then she grabbed a cleaver and did a Marie Antoinette number on the thing.

To her credit, she calmly finished cleaning the fish and cooked up a tasty fish-and-tomato stew. When I asked later if this experience had dampened her enthusiasm for becoming a latter-day pioneer woman, raising and catching and killing her own food, she said no.

Good. I’m looking forward to the first time she goes after a live chicken.

27 Responses to “Gone Fishin’”
  1. john says:

    Those are all good shows–what about Man, Woman, Wild? Your wife is in good shape.

    I think they’ve seen that one too.

  2. Wow. Remind me not to piss Chareva off.

    TNBIM has whacked the heads off a few chickens. He admits to finding it somewhat disturbing, but he has soldiered on manfully.

    After seeing her deal with the fish, I’m careful not to piss her off either. I’m thinking she may deserve her own mob name, something like Chareva “The Screwdriver” Naughtini.

  3. Jay says:

    My grandfather taught me not only how to fish, but how to clean them as well. No screwdrivers involved, though, I’m afraid.

    Never had a tomato and fish soup before, always had fried fish. Still having fried fish now, but fried in coconut oil, and breaded with flax seed rather than canola oil and corn meal. I’ll have to look into this soup, I’m quite intrigued.

    Speaking of the sustainable farming, do you know any good resources of information on that? I’ve thought about hitting up the extension office, but now I’m a bit concerned that the data will be skewed due to the many ‘advancements’ in agriculture.

    I haven’t read up on sustainable farming, but my brother likes the books by Joel Salatin, who he mentioned in a guest post on the Fat Head blog:


  4. Bridget says:

    How hilarious! I also want to learn to raise or catch my own food. Luckily I’m marrying a boy scout who knows how to clean a fish!

    I don’t remember learning that in Boy Scouts. I do remember learning to transmit messages in semaphore code with flags. That has, of course, been very useful throughout life.

    • Ben says:

      I did not learn to clean a fish from Boy Scouts, but rather from my father. Boy Scouts taught me how to tie knots, though.

      I skipped the chapters on flag waving and smoke signals…

  5. Amy Dungan says:

    We love to go fishing! John does all the killing and cleaning though. I’ll bait my hook, take the fish off the hook, etc. But I draw the line finishing the job. LOL

    I suppose if we keep going fishing, I should take a turn cleaning what we catch … as long as it doesn’t lead to another one of my scream-like-a-girl episodes.

  6. Elenor says:

    So… yah sleepin’ on the couch now, are ye Tom?

    Fortunately, no. I explained to Chareva before we were married that as a comedian’s wife, one of her duties would be to provide me with material.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    LOL! Love the name! “Chareva the Screwdriver”.

    I also have to put in a vote for “Man, Woman, Wild” Awesome show!

    In highschool, I had a teacher bring a live chicken to school once and somehow managed to talk a student into helping him kill it. I missed the incident myself, but was told by that student that there was a point where teacher was holding a headless chicken by the legs and yet it was still attempting to fly away…. I could never be a butcher, but I am grateful for what they do!

    The teacher was fired incidentally.

    That does seem a bit over-the-top for a classroom.

  8. Brian says:

    My kids love those shows, too. If you haven’t seen Human Planet, check it out. It’s on discovery. We recorded the most recent episodes and they’ve watched them several times. Stealing meat from lions, harpooning whales, building houses high off the ground in the tops of trees…pretty amazing.

    They like that one too. I’m pleased to see how much they enjoy science and nature shows.

  9. I have heard that chickens can flop around even after the cleaver meets the neck. Good luck there! If I had to raise my guys on what we grew or killed, we would be skinny indeed.

    I’ve heard that about chickens. I guess I’ll get to witness the sight someday, although my mom remembers her grandmother just snapping their necks with her hands. She said nobody ever talked back to grandma after seeing that.

  10. Mat says:

    Tom – Your wife is officially Awesome! – People in my office are looking at me like I’ve gone mad as I’m pretty much crying with laughter at your blog!

    Tell them I apologize for the disturbance.

  11. fetsmart says:

    Thanks for the laugh, a good start to the day! 😀

  12. Maggie says:

    If I took my husband fishing I would definitely have to be the one to catch and kill the fish! He is a little bit squeamish when it comes to realizing that the meat we eat was actually alive at one point.

    I’ve found that the best way to kill a fish is to take the knife you’re going to gut it with and whack it over the head/neck (on top) with the handle of the knife (it helps if you have a cover for the blade so you’re not just grabbing the bare blade). Then cut off its head and proceed to gut/filet/whatever. My dad taught me how 🙂

    Anyway, I’m glad the stew turned out!

    After watching Chareva go after the fish with a screwdriver, I’m thinking she may try a hammer next … or an ice pick in the ear.

  13. Jonathan says:

    I’ve seen headless chickens get up and run across the yard. Normally they just do the Curly Shuffle.
    Been a long time since I cleaned a fish. Should just be reflexes after the screw driver. Next time she can try an ink pen Casino style.

    I saw her getting out some piano wire last night. I’m worried.

  14. Kari says:

    I read this about the time my coffee kicked in and laughed so hard my husband had to come in and check on me! I am not a morning person, so thanks for that.

    You might want to rethink the idea of moving to the country and being more self-sufficient. My sister is a lot like your wife, ready to try anything. She has her own mini farm now and not only is she perfectly happy to lop the heads off of the roosters in her flock, she also catches feral hogs to raise and she castrates them with her pocket knife. When she asks my husband to do her a favor, he says, “Yes, ma’am.”

    I learned long ago that even though Chareva is a sweet person, you don’t want to mess with her. Fortunately, I learned that by watching her deal with other people who confused being nice with being a pushover.

  15. Dianne says:

    My kids raised meat rabbits for 4-H. When our friends heard that my husband was dispatching rabbits, they brought him all their sick small animals to “put down”. He said he felt like the Dr. Kevorkian for the local animal population. I always managed to busy myself in the kitchen during those times.

    Geez, I better keep Chareva’s abilities quiet. People will be calling with requests to dispatch their annoying relatives next.

  16. smgj says:

    Hi! Thanks for the story – a good laugh. 😀
    You might want to know that fish flap around quite at time after beheading or severe blows to the head as well.
    My preferred way to kill a fish after landing it is to cut its throat (?) – just below the gills – proceed until the knife meets the back bone and severs the artery there. This way you also bleed the fish – which makes it easier to clean later on.
    See this picture: http://www.nojff.no/images/ørret%20435%20gr.jpg And you can easily break its neck for good measure.

    As for chickens… well, my old dad told that on the farm he grew up they beheaded a cockerel… which afterward flew, hit the roof AND got hold on the rooftop!!!

    Thanks for the tip. I guess if the fishing is good this summer, we’ll get to try all kinds of fish-killing methods.

  17. eric says:

    This story brought tears to my eyes…. tears of laughter of course.

    A long time ago when I lived in UK I was quite keen on fishing, and I had a similar experience with a pike… These fish are built like a Panzer, and it was almost impossible to kill the darn thing… Imagine me bringing a supposedly defunct fish, which is a 2 1/2 foot long and whose upper third part of the body is a huge mouth, full of sharp teeth, flapping and biting in the kithchen…

    Back to my Missouri time, I also recall that catfish are almost impossble to kill.

    By the way, in the UK if you go fishing you have to bring a priest with you. Said priest being a small metal truncheon used to knock the fish out for good..

    I may have to invest in a billy club so we can avoid repeating this scene.

  18. Re sustainable farming, may I recommend the work of my truly wonderful neighbors, Keith Johnson and Peter Bane, who publish the oldest and largest journal of permaculture in the world, and teach permaculture workshops? http://permacultureactivist.net . Their less-than-an-acre is a remarkably productive farm, and more so every year. All summer long, I wander next door long about dinner time and say, “So, Keith, what’s good today?” Got a lovely basket of lettuce this morning, plus a handful of sugar-snap peas that were like candy. Ate those right off.

    If you and Chareva and the kids come in August, Tom, I’d bet I could arrange a tour. Keith loves showing the place off; he’s justly proud of it, and passionate about sustainable farming.

    Less than an acre … wow. I’m hoping for maybe five acres, but if that’s more than we need, I’ll happily use the rest for Frisbee golf.

  19. wsb says:

    Until you get your minifarm, this u-pick or u-grow place sounds like fun – Stoney Creek Farm. They’ve put in some Bradley tomatoes this season:


    Nice! And it’s so close. Thanks for the link.

  20. Bill says:

    Hey, I bet it was hard to convince Chareva to hold that fish up with you shot a hole in it. That coulda been dangerous. I just bought your film, Fat Head, even though I can watch it free anytime on my Netflix account and Roku; just wanted to support you with whatever puny share Amazon sends you. Great film; it’s revolutionizing my household’s eating. Serious thanks and kudos.

    I appreciate the support for the film. Chareva has quick reflexes, so she didn’t mind holding up the target.

  21. John Hunter says:

    If you are getting hung up all the time and having to cut the line, try switching to spiderwire (or a similar product) It’s unbelievably strong. Most of the time you will straighten the hook pulling on it before it breaks. Strong stuff!

    Sounds like a good idea. I was more worried about snapping my pole, but I could probably reel it in fairly straight if I thought about it first.

  22. Gerard says:

    Everyone, come to Australia and shoot Kangaroos, rabbits and Camels.

    You don’t need farming here….. Edible protein just hops around growing in plague proportions. With more Omega-3 then salmon I understand.

    Those 3 (the former native) just go crazy here! Because we clear land for grain and cattle farming. Kangaroo tastes the best but its got the vegemite factor – you need to know how to cook it. The government literally has to do culling because they are everywhere.

    Personally I dont care for hunted rabbit (tried it, stewed it)…. and Camel was a novelty but was pretty much tasteless. But honestly Kangaroo is to die for and the jerky just rocks! We sell it the jerky as pet food here while the humans live off grains.

    I understand (after seeing Queer eye for the straight guy) you guys can purchase barramundi in the States, at least in New York. Highly recommend you give it a try.

  23. Lucy says:

    One thing I remember about fishing with my grandfather was the necessity for a sort of clipboard-esque thing that you clip the fishes’ tail into and then decapitate it under the gills with a big knife. Like this one – http://expedition.com/en/products/5/23/36/. The the fish is still locked in place while you can scale it and whatever else.

    Then you put it in the cooler sans head.

    I think 🙂

    That’s a good idea. Sorry about the slow reply; crazy couple of weeks.

  24. Valerye McGreevy says:

    Wow, your wife’s fish story sounds SOOOOO much like my own. The first fish I caught was a 20-inch long catfish from a friend’s pond. It was late, so we tossed it in a bucket and I headed home to behead and skin it (as per the all-too-brief instructions supplied by my friends). I would have thought that two hours in a dry bucket would have finished off the fish, but it was ready for round two and fought mightily for the next hour as I discovered that not one of my knives was up to the task of beheading the $(!*@!!# thing!

    Be honest … don’t you wish you had that episode on video? It would be worth a few laughs.

  25. Anna says:

    “I’m not secure enough to stand around in public waving a long pink stick”

    Um…nah, forget it.

    “If she could putt a little better, we’d be divorced by now.”

    I once beat a professional golfer at miniature golf twice on a first date. I didn’t mean to, but by the end of the date, I did.

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