OREGON INLET, N.C — Kory Reeves sliced one steak after another from a 200-pound mako shark caught off the Outer Banks.
“This is kind of like the fish version of a T-bone,” said Reeves, in his sixth year cutting fish for anglers at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.
Reeves is one of seven men who work the fish house. In this peak season of offshore fishing, they go at it every day, slicing, cutting, skinning and filleting 10,000 pounds or more of the day’s catch from 43 charter boats.
The men cover themselves in long rubber aprons, boots and gloves before picking their favorite from an array of extremely sharp knives. The fishy smell that permeates the place doesn’t register with these guys.
They slice to the cuts of classic rock blasting from a local radio station.
In a whirl of flashing knives, they reduce in minutes whoppers of tuna and mahi mahi into grill-ready bags of fillets.
“Once you get it mastered, muscle memory sets in,” Reeves said Tuesday.
He rapidly swiped his cutting knife back and forth against the back of another blade. Keeps the edge polished.
An hourly wage augmented by per-pound commissions leaves no desire for slack time. The workday can last from mid-afternoon to mid-evening and sometimes stretch to midnight. On a good day, cutters earn about $120. In a season that lasts from April through November, May and June typically are the busiest months. As of Tuesday, the crew had worked 24 straight days, just like the boat crews.
“We all eat from the same table,” said fish-house supervisor Allen Melton.
Charter boats return to the basin around 3:30 p.m. and hoist a yellow flag to say they have fish that need cutting. Crowds gather at the docks, where captains lay out the catch for viewing.
“It’s free entertainment,” said Minta Meekins, longtime general manager of the fishing center. “They go home and talk about it.”
A fish-house worker places the catches into plastic barrels and loads them into a pickup truck to go to the fish house just 30 yards from the boat basin.
The fish are weighed on the front porch. Anglers who choose to have their prizes cleaned in the fish house – and almost all of them do – fork out 35 cents per pound for fish of 3 pounds or more – and 45 cents for those weighing less than 3 pounds.
People often ask Melton how long will it take.
“I tell them, ‘Not as long as it took you catch it,’ ” he said.
John and Melody Gouzd of Fairmont, W.Va., turned their catch over to the experts one day last week.
“It would take me 45 minutes,” John Gouzd said. “They can do it five.”
The mako shark, the largest Reeves had ever cut, took much longer than usual. He spent 40 minutes carving it into some three dozen steaks.
“I’ve never caught a shark that large before,” said Kevin Eller, of Unionville, Va., who battled for 30 minutes before landing the shark.
He peeked through a dirty window into the cleaning room to watch Reeves work.
The shark’s head sat upright on the metal table, with its toothy mouth open. Saving the head was no extra charge. Eller planned to make a trophy of the jaw.
Reeves held the shark’s head up and waved it in front of MacKenzie Middleton, who works on the headboat Miss Oregon Inlet. She was there with an order.
“Here, this will chase away bad boyfriends,” Reeves told her.
She laughed as she walked out the door.
Oregon Inlet Fishing Center Inc. has managed the site for the National Park Service since 1973. Local boat captains serve on its board. The park owns the boat basin, the slips, the large store where customers book charters and buy supplies – and the attached fish house.
The cleaning crew has a varied background. Melton, 58, left his metal recycling business in Columbia, N.C., when the economy sagged seven years ago. A friend asked him to help and he stayed. Reeves, 31, left a landscaping job. Paul Casino is a retired soldier.
It takes about six months to learn the trade well, Melton said. They don’t complain about the long hours.
“I’m proud of how hard these guys work,” he said. “The main thing is to have a sharp knife.”