There’s nothing like bagging a good-sized deer in the fall and thinking about all the great meals you will enjoy from the venison. For some hunters, the process entails skinning and butchering the deer themselves. However, for many other hunters, the final stop between a downed deer and their table is dropping the animal off at the processor or butcher. While many hunters, myself included, advocate for home butchering as a vital part of the process, it is socially acceptable to use a processor in most hunting circles. But, when it comes to processing fish it is unheard of to imagine dropping one off at a butcher to be filleted. We take it for granted that a fisherman will quickly filet his catch.
Why is that? On the one hand, some people have hunted for years that would never dream of butchering their deer. The same hunter would quickly prepare a fish for dinner. One could certainly argue the amount of work involved in the task is the reason for avoiding processing. Processing a deer takes considerably more time than filleting a fish, but I think there is more to it than that. Butchering a deer is a messy job. It requires us to spend a couple of hours with the carcass. The head must be removed, the legs and arms must be broken and cut off at the joint. Before any of this, there is the act of skinning the deer itself. A deer hide does not just fall off the animal. I routinely use my elbow/forearm while pushing down with the weight of my body to get the skin to peel back from the muscle underneath. It is a very personal process with an animal that weighs roughly the same as a person and shares the same set of vital organs.
Filleting a fish on the other hand is a task we can perform quickly. A bonk on the head to dispatch the fish, a couple cuts in the gills to bleed it out. Then, it’s just a matter of slicing through the muscle, peeling off the filets, and scaling it if desired. The task is quick and impersonal. Fish live in a different world than mammals. They spend their lives underwater breathing in an environment that would kill us in a matter of minutes. They don’t have hair, their skin is made of slimy scales, and they look like strange alien creatures. Also, many of the fish we keep are not what could be described as cute. Take a good look at a bass, walleye, or pike and try to tell me with a straight face that they are adorable.
We don’t anthropomorphize fish the same way as we do mammals. Our culture routinely eats fish eggs. Imagine the idea of someone eating a newborn fawn—it’s not culturally acceptable. Then there’s the great debate that rages on of whether fish even feel pain. For hundreds of years, our culture has decided that they do not. It allows us to treat them differently than the mammals we harvest. A routine practice of commercial fishing outfits is to throw their catch into ice-cold water livewells until the fish essentially freeze to death. Now though, the latest research is beginning to show that fish do feel pain. Whether it is in the same way that humans do is something we may never know, but they have nerve receptors that respond to negative stimuli in the same manner that the nerves of mammals do. Their brains can even produce painkiller opioids like a human brain does.
Now, I don’t want you to think I’m advocating for assigning personhood to fish and animals. I think the idea of animal personhood is a ludicrous product of our 21st-century minds. What I am saying, is that maybe you should quickly kill your fish and filet them instead of leaving them to suffer. Perhaps too, you should consider butchering your large game animals. What we are participating in is the circle of life. Humans are predators first and foremost. We have two front-facing eyes for a reason. No matter how many “enlightened” people decide to forego their instincts as carnivores and live off of plant-based diets, our very design is that of a predator. That is unlikely to ever change in our lifetime. Embrace it. Treat the fish and mammals we hunt with respect by dispatching them ethically and as quickly as is possible. Break down the protein and prepare it for storage and consumption. We hunt and fish to reconnect with our animal nature. By seeing the process through to the table I promise you will develop a deeper appreciation for the resource you harvest.