Everybody knows about eels. Our degrading similes—as slippery as, as slimy as—have made most of us knowledgeable eel haters. But eels do have their fanciers, even their devotees, although these do not seem to loom very large in the population. This is a pity.
The fanciers know that eels are delicious to eat. The devotees know that, besides being tasty, an eel will give any fisherman a very good fight—twice. The first battle is in the water, the second in the boat. And if you go out for conger, a marine branch of the eel family that lives in European and Asiatic seas—you can even charter a special boat to fish for them off County Galway, Ireland—you are apt to find yourself with a lively boatful of sea monster. One venturesome fisherman not long ago, name of O'Brien, hooked a seven-foot conger in the Bristol Channel, and finally boated it with the aid of an oar and his struggling partner. The beast bit a chunk out of the oar and sent the fishing partner spinning into the bilges. Then it knocked O'Brien overboard. Compare that with the polite protests of your channel bass or your wahoo, weakfish, or porbeagle shark. Yet neither the freshwater eel, nor even the mighty conger, is listed in any records of the International Game Fish Association.
Why, then, is the eel neglected? There is more than a single reason for it. For one thing, it is shy. The common freshwater eel of the eastern U.S., like its brothers and sisters everywhere, lies in the mud of either fresh or tidal waters, sensibly minding its own business. It is quiet during the day, feeding mostly from dusk to dawn. Even the toothy moray—another marine cousin, characterized by some as the criminal element of eel society—usually will bite people only as the result of unprovoked, if sometimes unwitting, attack.
A further reason for distrust is that the eel is a bottom feeder and an eater of carrion. (It will eat anything—even milk from a baby bottle, as Pennsylvania state hatcherymen have trained some of their eels to do. But it normally finds plenty of carrion on the bottom.) Some people think this is a nasty habit, though they do not much remark upon it or hold it against the flounder, oyster, clam or blue crab.
The eel is a true fish, not a reptile. It is not a primitive fish, either, but highly adapted to the life it leads. Its paired fins (except for the pectorals) are long since lost, and the dorsal, anal and caudal fins have grown into a long swim-fringe reaching from the last third of its back to its belly, activated by some 500 little ray bones. As for the slime, marine biologists think it is a coating that helps the eel move from ocean to fresh or fresh to ocean water without any known preparation.
Eels are ubiquitous in the eastern half of the United States and abound in the waters of Europe, Japan and Australia. They are in streams of Connecticut, backwaters of Maryland and Virginia, creeks and wells of Kentucky, ponds of Indiana, rivers of Mississippi and dewy meadows of Ohio (that's right, meadows; because if they hit a dam or a waterfall on their way up or downstream, they get out and walk).
Despite this prevalence, the eel has for centuries been cloaked in mystery as black as ignorance itself. Aristotle pondered where eels might come from, but the secret was not out until a few decades ago. Even now, puzzles remain. The eel—the freshwater eel—has three great oceanic basins in which it spawns and out of which the young swim to land in all directions. Well known to us in this country and to Europeans is the Sargasso Sea, actually not a sea at all but a 2,000-mile-wide Atlantic float of seaweed calmly lying between the U.S. and the Azores and shared as a cradle by both the American and the European eel. Off the coast of Japan in west Pacific waters there is another ocean nursery for eels. The third is also in the Pacific, off northeastern Australia. In addition to these three major beds, there are minor Pacific and Indian Ocean beds for a hatful of species of tropical eels.
The tiny-headed eel larvae look like nothing so much as willow leaves made of glass, set with two mother-of-pearl eyes. They swim and they drift wide with the ocean currents that carry them like leaves loose in a giant whirlpool of air. The 103- to 110-vertebrae American eel larva swims northwest to reach U.S. shores after a year of effort. The 110- to 119-vertebrae, but smaller, European eel larva turns right at some invisible traffic signal and makes its way eastward to the waters of Europe, a journey taking three years and thousands of miles. At long last, myriad little three-inch glassine packages wash up into the tidewaters of both continents. By now many are becoming elvers, or tiny adults, and resemble the adults in miniature.
Here in the tidewaters some of the males lurk behind, often for good, and take up a lazy life around the salt basins and flats. But the more industrious young females swim upstream as close to the headwaters of their particular river or creek as they can get. Some say it was her mother's river or stream, or pond or well, that the elver finds again. Here she lives for some five to 20 years and grows to three or four feet, until it is time for her to return to the Sargasso Sea, presumably picking up the company of her dilatory mate-to-be as she travels out to the depths. Eels are driven to the seas by the same instinct that brought them inshore, and this time they find and follow the deep current running below and against the Gulf Stream.
Not all go. Just as some larvae apparently never choose to leave the sea and many males never get farther than the tidelands, some females never leave the freshwaters where they have reached maturity as yellow eels. Most, however, return for the last journey of their lives, turning as they go into silver eels marked by nearly black and somewhat bronzed backs and flanks and silvery-white bellies, and finally developing those strange, overlarge eyes that one associates with nocturnal creatures. The mother-eel-to-be, having reached her weedy ocean rendezvous, drops, sometimes as much as 1,600 feet, to the black, astonishing depths until she finds the temperature layer she likes. Her appetite, voracious closer to shore, disappears. She lays perhaps 5 to 10 million eggs. She takes no more food, becomes emaciated, swims listlessly about to no purpose and dies. The male, who never reached a size more than half of hers, drops his sperm and follows suit.