The Legendary Fish Cleaner

By Tom Cwynar | December 2, 1995
From Missouri Conservationist: Dec 1995

Let the Greeks have their Achilles, the English their Lancelot, the Romans their Aeneas.

Missouri anglers are blessed in having their own awe-inspiring hero, a man whose cunning, daring and tenacity have brought pride and nobility to generations of fishermen, a man who youngsters of all generations hope to emulate when they first pick up a baitcasting rod and fillet knife.

By now you must have guessed that I'm talking about Fred Carper.

Yes, Fred Carper, the fish cleanin' man.

Fish were not always in Fred's background. His father was a wealthy industrialist from Kansas City who owned several factories and railroads, and a few insurance companies, to boot.

Although the Carper family groomed Fred to take over as CEO of their major companies, his interests never led him in that direction.

Instead, Fred spent his youth trying to make sharp knives sharper with a whetstone he carried in the pocket of his drawers.

All his life, Fred's arms were hairless from testing the edges of the blades he had honed. One day, just as he was approaching the year of his majority, Fred took his future into his ownhands.

Sitting across from his father at the country club breakfast, he suddenly blurted, "Daddy, I gotta clean fish!"

His father exhaled eggs Benedict in relief, for he had long believed his knife-loving son was fated to become a notorious serial killer.

"Son," he said, "It's your life and I won't hold you back, but I won't support you, either. You're going to have to fillet your own way."

Well, Fred did exactly that. He started small, with panfish, of course, cleaning the catch of bankside anglers at local lakes. Deftly, precisely, swiftly, his hand and knife worked as a single unit, scooping out entrails, skimming meat from bone, slicing skin from meat, wasting not a precious gram of flesh.

Fred finished off each cleaning job by gouging out, in less time than it takes to flip a coin, substantive and tender scallops from the cheek hollows of each fish.

Fred's future wife, Amanda, who followed various fish cleaners during her teen-age years, used to say that this trademark trick would make her swoon each time she witnessed it and finally tipped the scales of her heart in favor of Fred.

It was a decision she never regretted. In 25 years of marriage, three meals a day, 365 days a year, she nor any of the young Carpers would ever have cause to complain about a fish bone stuck in their throat or teeth.

Even the leavings for the family cat, Miss Tisdale, were pared, skinned and delivered in pretty little chunks.

Fred worked hard at his profession; no job was too small, too large or too rank. With Amanda and his growing family in tow, he followed the peak runs of fish throughout the state.

Expertly, quickly, incisively, he chopped heads from walleye in Springfield, scratched scales from rock bass in St. Louis, deboned suckers in Hannibal, stripped skin from catfish in Columbia.

His slashing blade brought him great fame. Soon, restauranteers, fish market owners and lucky anglers were bidding for his talents. In those days, if you could clean fish, you could name your own price. Fred's dream had finally been realized. Fred Carper was a fish cleanin' man.

And then came the day the Automatic Fish Cleaning Machine was delivered to town.

The fish sellers immediately fell in love with it. It was an ungainly monster and plenty noisy, but all it ate was electricity, and it never considered joining a union.

Fred, sensing his occupation and his way of life threatened, proposed a contest: Himself versus the Automatic Fish Cleaning Machine. To the victor would go the spoils.

People from miles away got whiff of the competition and flocked to town via carts, buggies andjalopies to witness it firsthand. Banners flourished, bands trumpeted and emcees announced, as Fred and the machine toiled away.

Among the crowd, money, pride and reputations were staked. Some bet that Fred would be faster; others wagered the machine would clean the gills off Fred.

For hour after hour, the Automatic Fish Cleaning Machine chugged along with nary a belch, spitting out perfectly scaled and dressed fish one after another. But Fred had a big heart beating inside him and, despite a thumb raw from scratching bloodlines from the backbones of bluegills, he was ahead by four walleye, two pickerel and a sheepshead.

It looked good for human fish cleaners everywhere, but the gut pile finally dashed all Fred's chances. That growing mountain of heads, fins, entrails and backbones loomed larger and larger behind him as Fred boned, gilled and gutted thousands upon thousands of fish.

Soon the scraps he threw behind him were trickling down the pile and building up around his knees, his hips, his shoulders...

The last anyone saw of Fred Carper was the tip of his knife blade poking out of the pile, carving, incidentally, a perfect butterfly fillet out of a small striper. No doubt, Fred is pulling Y bones from northern pike in heaven now, but his legend lives on to inspire us all. For Fred Carper was truly a fish cleanin' man

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Paul Childress
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer