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A Morning of Eeling

By Alta Campbell
October 1995

A thousand squirming eels writhed in the holding tank by the time we were finished — layer upon layer of constant motion. They slithered around each other, leaping up and sometimes out of the tank onto the floor of the boat in their search for oxygen. Being new to eeling, I watched them with a mixture of fascination and horror, intrigued by their slimy beauty and amazed that the North East River held so many of them.

Joe Weller, owner of North East Seafood and local waterman, told me that actually it was a slow day for eeling. Spring and fall are best. “The eels go to deeper water as it warms up,” he explained. “Most people quit this time of year and start again in the fall.  There’s too much natural bait around for them now, fish roe and clams. They stop taking horseshoes. Now we catch them only for bait. Sport fishermen will pay through the nose for little eels.

“In the spring and fall we catch bigger eels, mostly for food. A four-pound eel can be cut up into 40 one-inch chunks or two filets. A sushi bar will sell them for $4.75 per piece. Smoked eels sell for $5 a pound, $35 a pound in Holland. Eels are valued more in other places. We sell to tank trucks, who ship them live overseas.” I hadn’t realized that eels could be so valuable.

We had headed out at 5:30 a.m. that clear, cool summer morning in Joe’s boat to go eeling. I was researching life along the North East River, and when I had called Joe for an interview, he suggested I go out with them on the boat and interview him there, both because he was so busy and so I could see for myself what life on the river was all about. That sounded great to me, and I was particularly interested in going eeling, because I didn’t even know there was such an activity. I had never given much thought to eels and none at all to how people caught them. In fact, my only experience with eels was a vague memory of watching one swim in the race behind our house in North East when I was about ten.

Joe’s boat, the Katy Jo, a Chesapeake Bay dead rise commercial fishing boat, was full of watermen paraphernalia — large trash cans, nets, ropes. It was open in the back and had steering wheels in three different locations — at the front, center and rear of the boat — so it could be maneuvered from each area. It looked sturdy and functional. The rising sun turned it gold as we pulled out of the harbor.

The water was glass calm, a green-brown mirror broken only by occasional jumping fish. I thought it would be a good morning for water skiing. Only the roar of the boat motor and the calls of shore birds broke the silence. “We go out early because there’s less traffic from other boats, no breeze yet,” explained crew member J.R. Northrup.

It was a nice moment for reverie, but there was no time for that, since eeling, I learned, is a fast, energetic business. Work began the minute the men reached the boat. First, crew members J.R. Northrup, in orange wet gear, and J.R. Miller, in a long, once-white plastic apron, cut the bait for the eel pots. Joe said I might want to keep my distance from this procedure, since it was rather messy. The men stood at the back of the boat chopping horseshoe crabs into pieces on a cutting board, their practiced hands moving rapidly, pieces of crab flying around, as Joe drove to the eel pots.

When we reached our destination off Chesapeake Isles, the pace quickened. Joe steered from the middle of the boat as he wound each square, wire-basket pot up from the bottom of the river with a motorized winder. J.R. Northrup leaned over the side of the boat and grabbed the pot, unhooked it from the string, coiled the string into a large trash can, dumped the eels into a holding tank, and handed the pot to J.R. Miller, who re-baited it with a chunk of crab and stacked it on the boat, ready to go back in the river. Water and mud dripped everywhere. I watched, impressed with their skill and speed, as this assembly-line operation continued, unbroken, for 100 pots.

Each pot will hold 30–40 pounds of eels, they told me, loaded. Some pots came in full, and I could see the eels writhing around the wire pots, trying to get out, sometimes trapping themselves in too-tight spaces between the wires. They looked uncomfortable, suspended half in and half out of the pot. The men released them.

I stood at the edge of the holding tank and stared down at the eels as J.R. dumped them in. There was something mesmerizing about their constant movement. The tank, a clever device, was a large cylindrical-shaped container full of water, with a cull pan at the top with holes. The eels swim down through the holes into the tank but any fish — perch and smelt, for example — that are caught in the pots do not, so they are thrown back in the river.

Between re-baiting the pots, J.R. Miller continually removed water from the holding tank with a bucket and added fresh water pumped from the river to keep the eels from jumping out of the tank. “The water gets so thick with slime, so nasty, they can’t breathe. When they run low on oxygen, they will start coming to the top. They use the oxygen up, so we need to put new water in,” he explained.

In spite of his best efforts, several eels jumped out and lay squirming on the floor of the boat, green-brown against the muddy white floor, snakelike except for the fin along their backs. I pointed to them, concerned, yelling over the roar of the boat and pump engines that some had escaped, but the men told me not to worry — they couldn’t go anywhere. J. R. Northrup, when he got a chance, reached down with heavy gloves to pick them up, apparently not an easy process. Eels are very slimy, he explained, and hard to grab, even with gloves. They kept slipping out of his grasp. Eventually he succeeded and threw them back into the tank.

Joe said, “Sometimes we use all the trash cans and tanks too. Then we can’t get enough air to them, so they’re constantly jumping out all over the place onto the floor. They are escape artists.” I was just as glad, personally, that it was a slow day.

After all the pots had been emptied of eels, the men immediately began the process of putting the pots back out on the line into the river. They worked from the back of the boat. Joe steered, and Northrup and Miller hooked a re-baited pot on each loop of the string that was coiled in the trash can and fed it back out into the river. They repeated this process over and over — 100 times.

When they were finished, we headed back to the dock, the holding tank full of eels, the pots all baited and back out in the water, river mud and grasses speckling the floor of the boat. The men washed it down with a power hose. The river was still quiet and lovely. Few boats were out. An osprey sat in his nest on the buoy. Herons flew by.

I gazed at the still-smooth water and thoughts of skiing returned, but it no longer seemed so appealing. My perspective had been broadened — I knew then that the bottom of the river is home to thousands of slimy eels. There was a picture in my mind of them swimming around down there in the murky green water, curious about the pair of bare feet suspended above them. Perhaps if I keep myself curled up and never touch the bottom? Though Joe says eels don’t bite, the thought of them down there is still disconcerting.

Back at the dock another holding tank was submerged in the river. J.R. Northrup explained, “Here they’re getting oxygen from the water. They’ll last in this holding tank a good while. We call it sputnik because it looks like a space ship.” And indeed it did.

The men began moving the eels with nets into the river holding tank. “This is when they really start croaking,” Joe said. “They make a lot of noise when you first dip them up.” I hadn’t realized that they made any sound at all. “They’ll change colors by tomorrow morning, into a real dark green,” Joe continued. “When they first come into the Bay, they’re silver.” The eels began making a strange, croaking noise. Perhaps they were aware that something was amiss in their world.

On a good day, Joe said, they’ll have 400-500 pounds, a couple of trash cans full. We had about half a trash can, around 1,000 eels, not many he said. It still looked like a lot of eels to me.

By 9:30 a.m. we were finished. I was exhausted, ready to return to bed, and all I had done was watch and take notes. Joe told me he would go back to the store, work for awhile there, go out again that afternoon — crabbing this time — then get up early tomorrow and start again. I have always admired watermen: there is something pure and natural about their work, and the setting is so appealing. But I suspect I have tended to romanticize their lives, not fully understanding how hard they work. I will be less likely to do that now — after a morning of eeling.

The Mariner, October 20, 1995