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"Life doesn't have to be perfect to be wonderful."
- Unknown

"That which does not kill you, makes you stronger."
- Handed down through the ages.

"Life's tough. It's even tougher when you're stupid."
- John Wayne

Roe, Roe, Roe Yer . . .

It's official!  I am now a highly-skilled, highly-trained roe picker.  (Ha.)  Although, it would sound much more luxurious if we called it what it really is:  caviar.  (So, here's a question for you:  at what point does it stop being roe and become caviar?  Once it's salted & packed?)

It's easy work, mentally, but it takes a toll on a person physically.  We got all the roe washed and picked and hung to dry on Monday in 5 hours.  At this time of year, we're picking between 1,000 and 2,000 lbs. a day.  In a couple of weeks, when we're in full-swing, it will be between . . . are you ready? . . . 10,000 and 30,000 pounds a day!!!!!  Obviously, we'll have more people and be working long days, 7 days a week.

The boss had just 4 people come in yesterday to salt and pack what we'd picked on Monday.  The shift was a short one and not long enough to warrant people driving in who live a ways out of town (like me).  Unless we hear different, she doesn't want us all back until Friday when the fish processing house will have a lot ready for us in the Roe House to process.  I imagine we'll work a long day then. 

So, how does it all work?  Well, here's what I know (and so feel free to skip this entire post if you don't care about fish and/or roe/caviar processing!):

What we're processing (i.e., what's running in the big lake) is herring.  It's hauled to us (in addition to what the boss lady's husband catches each day), fresh out of the lake, from up and down our North Shore (including Canada) and, eventually, the South Shore of Lake Superior (Wisconsin).  So far, the run is only local . . . which is why we're not working at full-steam.  The fish arrives in the yard packed in fish crates which used to be wood - now they're plastic.  I haven't had the chance to heft one yet, but I'm assuming they probably weigh about 50 lbs. each.  The fish are whole then - plucked from the nets and packed into the boxes.  Were I working in the Fish House, I'd assumed I'd be wielding a knife and processing the fish by hand.  I should have known better, of course, that when the catch is so large, the processing is done, in part, with nifty machines.

I swiped this photo of herring of the Internet so you'd have some idea of what they look like.  They're NOT a big fish, as you can plainly see!
We were taken over to that warehouse by the boss, just to see the process.  Each fish is hand-fed into two vertical belts which hold the fish in place, belly-down, and pass it over a circular blade which slits the belly.  The fish then flops down onto a processing table where people sort the males & females.  The guts are pulled from the males and they are passed on to the next step in the process.  The guts - but also the roe - are pulled from the females before they are passed on.  The roe, in its casing, is dropped into pails for transfer to us in the Roe House.  Then, the fish go through a de-header (my word) where their heads are lopped off.  Finally (with a lot more detail than what I'm expressing here, I'm sure), the fish comes out the last end of all the contraptions in fillets, skin-on.

When the boss had asked me where I wanted to work (when I applied), I told her to put me wherever she thought my skills would be best used.  This is why, I'm pretty sure, she put me in the Roe House instead of the Fish House.  A) It's a little more comfortable in the Roe House since we aren't open to the outdoor cold as the Fish House is with its massive garage door always being up, and B) we Roe Pickers are the last line of inspection before the roe is salted and packed and its name changed to caviar!  Any impurities in the roe/caviar have to be spotted by us / me!  So, it's a little nerve-wracking, that.  As I worked, I was imagining some high-browed woman at some posh event in . . . wherever this caviar is shipped . . . finding an impurity in her caviar and ME (well, this small company) being to blame!  Blech!

But, back to what I do in the Roe House . . . which, incidentally, doesn't smell any more than the retail fish shop / restaurant upstairs does.  Now, were I working in the messy Fish House, I'm sure I WOULD end up a lot stinkier than I do!  As it happened, neither the dogs nor cats paid any more attention to my clothes at the end of the day than usual!

So, arriving in layers of warm clothes and rubber boots, I add on my processing gear:  a hair net (though I discovered that, if my hair is fully contained in some kind of head covering, I don't have to do that, although I don't really care), a yellow rubber apron, yellow rubber sleeves, and surgical gloves.  The guy manning the roe washing machine will be there ahead of us and have some roe draining and waiting.  The roe washing machine reminds me a bit of a huge, old-fashioned cream separator.  It's a cylinder about 3-4' wide and about 4-5' tall.  After the buckets of roe go through an initial machine, which looks like it's gently breaking up the roe casings, it goes into the top of this cylinder which has many different layers of screening (again, not having operated one of these, I'm only guessing based on what I saw).  Combined with water, the thing shakes and shakes, and the now individual roe come out a shoot on the side into another bucket.  That bucket of roe goes into 55 gallon white plastic drums where it is washed in a final (or two or three) bath.  Then, it is poured, dripping wet, onto screened metal trays, about 3' square.  Now's where I / the roe pickers come in.

We take these trays which hold, I'd say, about 30-40 lbs. of roe, and transfer them to our stainless steels work tables where they rest on plastic trays . . . allowing the water to continue to drain from the roe.  (There's a drain in the floor running the length of the room which is where all the water used for cleaning the roe goes . . . which necessitates the need for rubber boots.  Water, water, everywhere!)

With one person on either side of the trays of roe (two per tray unless there's a tray on the end of the table, in which case three people can work a tray at once), we pick up our spatulas.  Just ordinary, rubber spatulas.  With which you will become intimately familiar and soon have a "favorite" one.  Now, we were shown different ways to pick the roe - everyone has their own style.  And, by the end of the day, we newbies (only one guy plus myself though there will be many more to come!) had our own style down pat.  The trays of clean roe, seen from as little as five feet away, look like they each hold a big pile of peachy-pink cake frosting!  And, indeed, you use a kind of frosting-a-cake motion with your spatula while picking!

Without being able to physically demonstrate, it's hard to illustrate how we smear & pick through the roe.  But, after rolling and patting the pile of roe a bit firmer (gently compressing out more water) via your screening, you "cut" a section (maybe a cupcake size blob) of roe off with your spatula.  Then you pull it to a clean area of the screening, and gently smear it to as thin as possible without smooshing / breaking each roe or fish egg.  This was my problem at first.  I didn't realize how easily they broke under the pressure of the spatula, and I was getting a LOT of fatty deposits out of my roe.  (I had NO idea there was so much fat in roe . . . but I'm betting it's the "good" kind of fat.)  Eventually and after listening to the returning workers' suggestions, I realized I was pressing too hard.  The idea is to NOT break each tiny little egg.

So, with heads bent at 45 degree angles (yep, that's the part of your body where you feel it first), we'd "chop" or "slice", then gently smear.  After looking at the smear closely (matter of fact, I think I'm going to wear my glasses on Friday!), you "cut" and pull portions of the smear (all with your plastic spatula) onto your finished pile (still all on this large tray) with a final, gentle "smear" of the roe along the widest part of your finished pile . . . still looking for possible impurities.  And remembering, all the while, that you are the FINAL check.  After this, it's salted and packaged and sent hither and thither to discerning palettes!

Here's a partial container of caviar (the very same I'm processing) that I had in freezer.  I just took this picture with the pencil for size reference:  if you look closely, you'll see that each roe is smaller than the tip of the pencil!  Yep, eye strain is the name of the game!
Generally speaking, the impurities you're looking for are much smaller in size than a grain of pepper!  And, herring roe is small (although it will get larger as the season continues, which will help) - about the size, or just smaller than, the head of a pin.  So, your eyes are under constant strain.  When you find an impurity, you either pick it out with a corner of your spatula or with the tip of a surgical-gloved finger.  Then, you wash the impurity off either your finger or spatula in the container of hot water at your elbow.  The idea, of course, is to pick as few pieces of roe out with the impurity.  As you know, caviar is expensive, and waste is NOT a good thing!  Stories were going around about how the boss lady, when a tray was finished but a picker's container of hot water was half filled (!) with useable roe, would dump the container onto the tray and say, "Now pick that!"  So, I kept a careful eye on others' water containers, happy that mine was not nearly the fullest (of roe)!

Now, remember, too, the surgical gloves.  Which, of course, must be kept sanitary and clean.  So, if you have to blow your nose or go outside or scratch an itch . . . you have to remove and replace them with new ones each time!  Your cold hands are one of the most uncomfortable parts of the job because, of course, surgical gloves are not exactly resistant to the icy temperature of the roe!  (I said that the Roe House is more comfortable, in temperature, than the open-to-the-outdoors Fish House.  But, to give you an idea of its "warmth", a room of it is a walk-in freezer, and the only door that freezer requires is a hanging, sectioned-plastic one!  So, the point is, "warm", it ain't!)

What are the impurities we're looking for, you ask?  Well, I'm not going to tell you about them all because you wouldn't eat caviar, or maybe even fish, again!  That said, I have NOT been turned off of caviar but am all the more made diligent to pick WELL and completely!  The two things I will tell you that we find and pick are grains of sand (that the fish have ingested) and the occasional scale . . . which is like trying to find 1/4 of a contact lens in a huge pile of fish eggs!

After the team of two people have finished their tray of roe, they'll roll their now two clean piles back into one pile in the center, using the fine screens to do so.  Then, working together, they'll pull all the corners of the pliable screening together up above the center of the pile.  The stronger of the two (now holding the corners together) will then wait for the other to grab a hook and pull the final screening, a strong, mesh square with grommets on each corner, to the middle, threading the hook through each of the corners as they go.  Then, heavily laden sack in hand (again, about 30-40 lbs. at this point), the stronger of the two will carry it to the dripping area and hang it, by its hook, about 7' in the air.  There, the picked roe will drip and dry overnight.  In the morning, it's salted and packed, ready for immediate sale in the shop upstairs or shipped out.

Voila!  The life of a roe picker!

Here's another image swiped online which shows the color of our caviar pretty well.  Unless this shrimp is SUPER tiny, though, this is pretty large caviar.
I was in SO much pain by the end of my paltry 5-hour shift on Monday that I KNEW I had to toughen up if I want to pull any 10-hour days!  As I rested my aching back on a heating pad that night, I categorized all the pain in my body . . . thinking about this post.  The only thing that didn't hurt was my left arm.  ;)  My legs, my feet, my back, my right arm, my neck, and my eyes were all strained from essentially standing in one place in the cold all day while staring at tiny pink specks trying to seek out even tinier dark specks.  And invisible things (scales).  It wasn't the kind of I've-put-in-a-good-hard-day aches and pains, it was the ugh-I-don't-feel-very-good pain.  FORTUNATELY, a good night's sleep cured what ailed me, and I was left with only those "good" aches yesterday.  So, I know it's doable!  ;)  And, each day I do it will make me stronger!


  1. How many people you know can add "roe picker" to their resumes? I wouldn't think it would ever be possible to design a machine that would pick out the impurities from the roe. See how important you are in the world of caviar??

  2. I picked a great day to catch up! Great post, and I'm stoked for your newfound line of employment, this is one of those things you will look back on fondly and who knows, when the aches and pains subside maybe you can really enjoy yourself in one of the last remaining northern industries that doesn't involve depending on the droves of tourists... GO GIRL!! Can't wait to see more :)

  3. I didn't even KNOW there was such a thing as a roe picker! Cool! I will never view caviar the same way. Talk about attention to detail! They would have kicked me out in 5 minutes.


  5. Prayin' for protection for that body of yours, and that by the end of this stint you'll only be happy that you've been turned into one buff Chicken Mama! :)

    Thanks for the very interesting post.

  6. Thanks for sharing your new job with us! I'm sure it's hard (at least harder than us sloths sitting at the computer reading about the roe house), but I still find things like this very interesting. Next time I have sushi (salmon with roe on top, my favoriet!) I'll be thinking about you! :)

  7. Congrats on the job but I hope you hold up OK. It sounds draining (pun intended). I had never even thought of the roe needing picked. Hmm, you learn something new every day. Thanks for the lesson.

  8. I will have new respect for caviar if ever I eat any. Who knew such industry was happening in your picturesque town!

  9. I found some interesting facts about your herring-they fart-they use flatulence to communicate to alert other fish and fish and form "protective shouls" at night-so much for one species of anti-social behavior is quite the opposite for another.


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