by Lee Tolliver
His brown rubber apron is covered with a healthy coat of slime, scales and blood. His gloves too. The whole place stinks of dead fish. But any notion of that being a bad thing is lost on Jim Lyons.
“Fish smell like money,” he says, laughing.
Lyons cleans fish at Hatteras Harbor Marina. Any self-respecting fishing community has someone like him. Fish cleaners typically work afternoons, when the fleet arrives with the day’s catch.
He pushes his wheelbarrow up to the vessels, shopping his services. It’s a lot of work. “Most people don’t want to bother or don’t know how,” he says. “They’re just interested in having a beer and talking about the day.”
Fish cleaning has changed over the years since his high school days, when he was a wharf rat on Norfolk’s Willoughby Spit. After college he moved to Hatteras, where he taught reading, writing and ’rithmetic in elementary school. Cleaning fish was a perfect side hustle. Boats usually didn’t return until after classes let out. He had time to put down the essays he was grading and pick up his knives.
Lyons, now 67, hasn’t taught in years, but he’s a regular on the dock when the fishing is good. It’s nice extra money and he loves the social aspect of an afternoon taking care of people’s catches.
He learned the trade from some of the best, guys like Steve Bailey, who’s now retired. And over the years he’s learned to clean a variety of fish, one that’s widened as anglers targeted more bottom dwellers and other species that weren’t, in the past, brought to the docks.
Some fish are more difficult than others – sheepshead and triggerfish need a specific kind of knife, sea bass and other smaller fish take more time, sharks dull knives as quick as if you’d tried to cut cinderblock.
“We watch videos to see how people are cleaning certain fish,” he says. “It’s amazing to see how people in other countries clean fish. Some of it is downright scary, makes me wince when I see it. You create a system that works.
“But give me a 15-pound dolphin or a king mackerel any time. They’re the ones I find easiest to clean.”
While some things change, others remain constant. “Sharp knives are a must,” he says. “You’ve got to have good sharpening equipment and good knives. And 25 years ago I started wearing a Kevlarglove on my left hand to help with cuts.”
Because the business comes with plenty of them – mostly from fish spines and gill flaps – and lots of that wonderful smell.
“Been doing it for 40 years,” Lyons says proudly.