Boy, If These Knives Could Talk!
For over 24 years, Tom Franz has walked through the doors of Mott’s Channel Seafood in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina to start his workday. I met him right about that time when I began my charter fishing days. I would tie up at the dock, come in to get ice for my trip, and sometimes live shrimp or mud minnows to avoid having to catch bait myself. Each time I walked in the big back door there was Tom, standing there in rubber boots, a smile on his face and one of his many Dexter Russell knives in his hand cleaning the catch of the day. It’s a routine that was repeated day after day for the years I ran fishing trips for those visiting our beaches. As time went by, Tom and I would often talk about our families, especially our little boys. Many times I would come back to Mott’s Channel Seafood for more ice or bait for the afternoon trip and find Tom’s young son fishing off the dock. It was a welcomed sight.
After leaving charter fishing in 2001, I only saw Tom sporadically when I would come in for seafood. Nearly every time, there would be Tom in those rubber boots with a big smile on his face and a Dexter Russell knife in his hand going to town on what always seemed to be a massive fish. We would always ask each other about our families. Then over time, we ceased to talk about our little boys only to change the topic to what is now our grown sons. A change that forced us to realized we were aging and the world around us was changing as well.
I recently stopped by Mott’s Channel Seafood to see Tom. When I walked in, I noticed some changes. The market had been updated. Now present was many gourmet items as well as a gift section. Looking through the glass doors to the fish preparation area was Tom, hard at work filleting fish with one of his many Dexter Russell knives. When he recognized me standing there, that same great smile came across his face as he waved me in. The first order of business was to catch up on our sons, then the conversation moved on to the fishing business and the many changes we had seen since we first met. We talked about how a growing number of fish species had risen in popularity at the dinner table. Fish like Black Drum as well as Sheepshead and Trigger Fish and Black Sea Bass. In the early 1980s, Chef Paul Prudhomme of Louisiana made his dish of Cajun-style blackened Redfish (Red Drum) popular. His seasoning was then sold commercially and the dish became so popular that Redfish were overfished to the point of near extinction. As the Redfish became more popular on restaurant menus along the Gulf and Atlantic coast, this trend made a popular species for recreational and commercial fishermen also became one of the more popular fish Tom has cleaned each week for many years.
Tom is an artist when it comes to preparing a fish for the kitchen as a matter of fact. For over 24 years he and his Dexter Russell knives have cleaned countless fish from Flounder to Wahoo and everything in between. He takes pride in his job which has shown for as long as I’ve known him and seen him slip one of his white-handled, razor-sharp knives along the rib bone of a fish, then flipping it over and doing it again. It’s an effortless process that only a true professional like Tom can perform. The table he works from is spotless and cleaned every couple of minutes. The prep area has the many knives neatly placed. They come in all sizes and blades types. From fillet knives to serrated blades. Nearly all with the familiar white handles of the Dexter Russell. For over 200 years, Dexter Russell has been the go-to knife maker for the fishing industry. Like many seafood industry professionals, Tom Franz depends every day on their sharpness, durability, and the ability to re-edge his knives when needed.
While many things in the industry have seen big changes like the consumer’s choices when it comes to seafood, Tom and his knives have changed little. Both are as sharp as the first day I met him and so is his smile. We’ve both slowed down a bit, but we keep at it and love what we do. So if you’re ever in the Wrightsville Beach, NC area stop by and pick up some local Mahi or Shrimp and say hello to Tom if he’s not too business. He’ll be the guy with a big grin on his face, filleting a fish at light speed with his Dexter Russell knife. Boy, if those knives could only talk!