“You’re in my knife zone,” Vella Sorensen warns as an angler noses in on his halibut. He backs off, people chuckle, and Vella smiles, making precise cuts with a Dexter fillet knife that seems to lift every millimeter of precious white flesh.
“Thank you,” the man says. “You’re damn good. How about a beer?”
“I’d love one,” Vella nods, happy to accept a drink during a long session at her busy fish-cleaning station in Newport, Oregon. “To your fish,” she toasts.
A powerful woman with long dark hair tied behind a star-spangled headband, Vella dons black Grundéns bibs, white cotton gloves and a blue meat cutter’s gauntlet that brings to mind Wonder Woman’s deflecting bracelets. Vella may clean 1,000 fish in a single day — rockfish, lingcod, halibut, salmon and tuna from the rich waters of the North Pacific. “I’ve seen her fillet from 8 in the morning until 10 at night and never miss a cut,” her friend Kristen says. “She’s the fillet queen.”
Vella’s peerage extends to Wrangell, Alaska, where her father, a native Tlingit fisherman, drowned just 12 days after she was born. Her mother moved the family to Oregon, eventually settling outside the tribal town of Siletz. “I identify strongly with the native community here,” Vella says. Every spring, wearing her Tlingit regalia, she smudges sage over Miss Raven, the charter boat she owns with her husband of 26 years, Capt. Mike Sorensen. “And any other boat that needs it,” she says.
The Sorensens have a reputation for assisting fellow anglers and boaters. “They are just good people,” her friend Shannon says. “Everybody loves Vella.”
Folks gather around the fillet tables to chat with Vella, tell tales, and ask for advice on cutting and cooking fish. Vella’s knowledge of fish anatomy is directly related to her culinary skills. Deftly removing the dense cheeks from a 20-pound lingcod, she suggests “poor man’s lobster,” a method of quickly boiling the flesh in salted, sweetened water. Her favorite dishes are teriyaki bacon-wrapped tuna grilled on the barbecue and “Indian tacos,” which are fry bread stuffed with flaky rockfish.
Vella is a true gourmand, and her tastes sometimes run to the exotic. “OK, who’s up for an eyeball?” She hands me the marble-sized spherical lens of a rockfish. It’s chewy and briny, but not bad. Another customer declines the offer, and she slips a whole eyeball into his bag of fillets. “I got my eye on you,” she winks.
Watching Vella fillet is like following a fiddle player. Her knife, a flexible bow that plays the fish in staccato cuts and rhythmic slices, sweeps and saws, reaching a cadenza of glowing, boneless flesh. “I love filleting lingcod and salmon,” she says. “Just the way my knife runs on those fish.” She sips her beer and points to a tuna boat coming in to dock. “Albacore is the hardest, but the money’s good.”
In her early 20s, Vella took a minimum wage job at the Oregon Coast Seafoods processing plant. “I had never done any serious fish cleaning,” she recalls. In six weeks, she was at the top of the pay scale and considered an expert. “It just came natural,” she shrugs. “But I much prefer being here, being my own boss, and visiting with people.” The tips aren’t bad. An angler thanks her, holds out his cash and says, “Keep the change.”
“Right there in the cart,” she says, directing the payment to a can inside a weathered shopping cart stuffed with knives, freezer bags, gloves, scrub brushes, cleanser, crab crackers, dog biscuits — her big black Lab, Man Dog, sleeps in the shade — and a big bottle of Crown Royal Regal Apple.
“I work until I’m tired,” Vella says. “I just have to say sorry and tell them to ice the fish ’til tomorrow morning.”
During her decades of fish cutting, Vella has injured herself twice. She once punctured her forearm and asked if anyone had some alcohol. “This woman came up and poured Seagram’s on my arm. I said ‘Whaddya doing? I wanna drink it.’ ”
Vella takes a break and greets her son, Sean, who just got off work at the local paper mill. She pours a round of whiskey shots for him and a friend. After five hours of filleting and a couple of drinks, Vella doesn’t miss a beat. “It’s all about the balance,” she says. “It’s no fun if you overdo it.”