It always smelled like there was oil bubbling in the frying pan at the lake cabin. In the mornings, the smell of eggs and bacon mingled with a persistent odor of fried perch from the previous night. We’d wake early when the sun just began to illuminate the sky because that’s when the fish were biting. All of the women would stay behind tidying up, baking pecan pies, gossiping, and watching All My Children. I got to go out fishing with the men instead of having to scrub the breakfast dishes because my grandpa said I was a good fisherwoman. Sometimes I’d even win the quarter for catching the first walleye. I’d bait my own lure, pressing each of the three barbed hooks into a slippery earthworm, gripping tight as it wiggled between my fingers. If a speck of red or dirt oozed out of the punctures, I didn’t flinch. When it was time for dinner we’d troll through the water back to the dock and I’d watch fish flopping around in water-filled buckets. I’d run up the dock past the little fish house at the edge of the bank. Occasionally my dad or uncle would pose for a picture with a northern pike, smiling with their fingers in its jaw. After that, they’d head into the fish house with the buckets to clean the fish. The rank, muddy stench that wafted into the air when the door creaked open smelled the opposite of clean to me.
I was a good fisherwoman, but I wasn’t allowed in the fish house. My cousin punched me in the arm and said it wasn’t for girls. The summer I snuck and peeked in the single window of the dark little shack, I learned what they did in there was bloody. Bones and guts in buckets instead of swirling fish. After I won the quarter that year, I sprinted ahead before anyone could stop me and flung open the door to the fish house. Inside I watched as my grandpa stuck his knife into the belly of my fish, sliced it open, scraped out its innards, and finally used a larger knife to chop off its head. Afterward, I gave a nod and a wink at the discarded fish head on the way out. I was a good fisherwoman and I was going to be good at cleaning too.