The Eastern Canadian and Northern New England Native people were said to believe in a mythical hero, the Glooscap. When an aggressive eel drove all of the river’s fish down into a bay, the Glooscap stepped in. It directed lobsters to attack the invader. But the ensuing battle raised so much mud and silt that “the once clear bay water was forever muddied.”
At one time, Iroquois considered the eel as a sacred being. But for many of the tribes, American eels were simply an important food source. The slippery creatures with their rich oily flesh, were well suited for smoking. Longhouse people depended on the smoked product as a winter food supply.
St. Lawrence River tribes frequently speared these nocturnal feeders after dark. Boarding their canoes, Micmac tribesmen, (natives of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Maine) attracted eels with their torches. When spotted, the fish were captured with the thrust of a three-pronged spear. During the winter, the men created a hole in the ice where the eels tended to hibernate. They then prodded the mud bottom using their spears. The Micmacs roasted and smoked their catch on thick sugar maple branches, adding flavor to the fish.
In December of 1620, when the Pilgrims disembarked the Mayflower at Plymouth, many of them were still recovering from their Atlantic crossing. The Patuxet tribe, who had recently all but one perished from a plague, left behind old cornfields. In the spring of 1621, Squanto, the last known member of the tribe, approached the colonialist and showed them how his people had planted corn, doing so by burying dead fish with each planted seed. He also introduced them to American eels. Over that summer, the Pilgrims were able to produce enough food for the upcoming winter. As part of a harvest celebration (the first Thanksgiving), the colonists invited members of the neighboring tribe to their feast. The menu is believed to have featured American eel.
The eels’ lives begin in the Sargasso Sea, a 2-million square mile body of water (near Bermuda) whose surface is largely covered with floating seaweed called Sargassum. Once they have arrived at the site, females manage to spawn some ten to twenty million eggs. Life then is believed to end for these breeding males and females.
The eels’ fertilized eggs float at the surface, hatching into tiny leaf-resembling larvae called leptocephali. Carried by ocean currents, the larvae drift for about 1 year before arriving on the Atlantic coast. By the time the larvae have reached the shoreline, they’ve transformed into 2 to 3-inch transparent eels, equipped with fins. Known as glass eels, the creatures begin migrating up into fresh water rivers and creeks while some are known to remain in brackish or marine water. With the move, they grow to about 4-inches and develop gray to green-brown pigmentation. They are then called elvers. These two stages of developing American eels make their appearance on the shores of Long Island Sound from February to May.
Over the next 3 to 40 or more years, the snake-resembling fish, change color to yellow or olive-brown. Then called yellow eel, they, in time, mature into a male or female. Individuals living in marine or brackish water, are said to mature more rapidly than those inhabiting a fresh water environment. Females can reach a length of 5 feet; males grow to about 3 feet. They absorb oxygen through their skin and gills. This allows them to emerge from water and slide a short distance across wet mud or grass when confronted by some type of barrier in a stream.
Silver eels are the final stage of development. The eyes double in size and the skin on their backs change in color to a metallic, bronze sheen; their underside tends to be silver to white. They apparently stop eating as they begin their migration back to the Sargassum Sea. Canadian scientists tracked a tagged Nova Scotia female as she headed for the spawning grounds. She managed to travel up to 30 miles per day. Under the light of day, she sometimes dove to depths greater than 2,000-feet, apparently to avoid predators. Though she may have lost her tag or was consumed by a predator before reaching her final destination, the experiment was hailed as “advancing the state of knowledge of silver eel migration at sea.”
American eels have seen a decline in their population. The US Fish and Wildlife Service however, determined in 2007 and 2015 that their designation as an Endangered Species was not warranted. On the Atlantic coast, commercial fishery for eels peaked in the late 1970s. One of the largest remaining impacts to their numbers has been barriers to migration into fresh water. Dams and other waterway obstructions not only prevent the normal passage of eels but they also block at least a dozen other important species that include alewife, blue-back herring, shad (3 different species) and Atlantic salmon. Access to the fresh and ocean water habitats play an important part in their life cycles.
The elimination of migratory barriers can be initiated by removing the offending a structure (not a common solution), designing a bypass channel or building fish ladders with rock ramps that consist of the increasing height of succeeding pools to get across the obstruction(s). Other types of fish ladders are also used. Connecticut set a 2035 target for amount of river miles that must be altered to allow fish passage in and out of Long Island Sound. As of 2017, about 39 percent of the goal had been attained.
Eels are bottom feeders. Night crawlers, minnows, small crabs, crayfish, dead fish or even chicken livers are said to work well as bait for them. Experienced eel fishermen often recommend using long-shank hooks, #6 to #2, with 10 -pound monofilament line and a couple of split shots attached about 10 to 15 inches from the hook. It is generally best to fish for them at night, equipped with a flashlight or head-lamp.
A line is preferably cast into a river’s quiet pool, near or under submerged trees and boulders. They frequently hide there in the mud to avoid predators. As the bait settles to the bottom, you may feel a slight tug. Wait for a second try and set the hook by pulling up sharply on the pole. You could then be in for a good fight was you land your eel.