THE ART OF THE EEL

TO MOST AN­GLERS, EELS ARE BAIT. TO OTH­ERS, THEY’RE A DAMN GOOD FIGHT­ING FISH AND PRIME TA­BLE FARE

Outdoor Life - - FISHING - BY NICK HONACHEFSK­Y

Eels aren’t glam­orous. In fact, among fish­er­men, eels gen­er­ally fall un­der the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of un­de­sir­able—un­less you’re us­ing them to catch stripers and co­bia, but that’s an en­tirely dif­fer­ent story. But here’s a quick story about eels—at least, one of my ear­li­est re­mem­brances of them—that may make you ap­pre­ci­ate their virtues.

It was a swel­ter­ing sum­mer week­end in Hun­ter­don County, N.J. I was just out of high school, and af­ter cut­ting the grass for Mrs. Scheier, our for­mer high school health teacher, Chris “River Rat” Lido and I had big plans. We “bor­rowed” a half-empty bot­tle of Jame­son whiskey from the Scheier’s liquor cab­i­net and set up tent stakes on the muddy banks of the South

Branch of the Rar­i­tan River for an overnighte­r. There, we rigged up and cast out nightcrawl­ers, gen­tly lay­ing our rods down on V-sticks bro­ken from the near­est oak tree. It didn’t take long for the ex­cite­ment to be­gin. Al­most im­me­di­ately, Lido reeled in a 2-foot­long slimy, slip­pery, snake­like crea­ture. Ex­cite­ment turned to pure ela­tion a short time later, when the thick chunks of eel meat hit the ba­con grease in our cast-iron skil­let. We ea­gerly picked the meat off the thin bones, added a whiskey top­per, and feasted like kings. It was a right­eous meal.

THE EEL DEAL

The range of the American eel prob­a­bly spans a wider group of lat­i­tudes than any other species in North Amer­ica. They are cur­rently found in 36 U.S. states—mainly east of the Rock­ies—but are most prom­i­nent in fresh­wa­ter streams and lakes along the Eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida, the Gulf States, and the Mississipp­i River basin.

But why, you might ask, would any­one pur­pose­fully fish for eels? For one, they fight like mad. For an­other, some­times you just have a yearn­ing to fish for any­thing that pulls.

“Eels are op­por­tunis­tic feed­ers,” says Lido, who is now me­dia co­or­di­na­tor for the New Jersey Out­door Al­liance. “American eels feed by scent, and catch­ing them re­quires a stinkbait—whole, juicy nightcrawl­ers, her­ring or shiner chunks, or even non­tra­di­tional of­fer­ings like chunks of firepit hot dogs.”

The eel­ing rig is sim­ple: 10-pound-test main line, a No. 4 to No. 2 baitholder or Carlisle hook, and a cou­ple of split shots.

“The big­gest of eels are most ef­fec­tively tar­geted in the deep­est fallen-tree, snag­in­fested holes off river­banks and in coves of lakes and reser­voirs,” says Lido. “The best day­time con­di­tions are high, muddy-wa­ter pe­ri­ods. But if you re­ally want to tan­gle with an ana­conda-size slimer, fo­cus your ef­forts on hot, hu­mid sum­mer nights when they feed un­der the cover of dark­ness.

“Cast a stinkbait into a slow-mov­ing part of a river and let the rig set­tle on the bot­tom,” says Lido. “Aim a flash­light beam at the rod tip and be alert for sub­tle tap­ping bites.

They will poke at the bait first be­fore they abruptly de­vour it.”

THE NEW KID IN TOWN

Two-foot-long American eels are fun to mess with on a hot sum­mer’s night (check lo­cal reg­u­la­tions be­fore tar­get­ing eels), but the slime does not end there. In the ocean, among the off­shore ship­wrecks and deep-wa­ter sub­ma­rine chan­nels from New Eng­land and to the Jersey Shore, swim eels that at first glance ap­pear to be true mu­tants. Here, the con­ger eel is king and grows up to 7 feet long and 25 pounds.

Cap­tain Butch Egerter of the head­boat Daunt­less out of Point Pleas­ant, N.J., sees con­ger eels come up from the crags and crevasses of the wrecks on nearly ev­ery 10- to 20-mile off­shore trip through­out the spring.

“Put a chunk of her­ring, bergall, or salted clam down on a bot­tom rig with a 50-pound monofil­a­ment leader, a size 4/0 oc­to­pus hook, and an 8- to 10-ounce bank sinker, and you’ll get knocked by a con­ger,” says Egerter. “They’ll fight like no other fish, usu­ally snap­ping lines or giv­ing an­glers a good up-and-down bat­tle. If the fish­er­man man­ages to get the eel to the sur­face, we gaff it. Most guys love to eat the eel’s ten­der white meat.” Egerter cuts the eel into chunks and sug­gests boil­ing it down, to soften the meat, and then pre­par­ing it in a stew.

Eels, fresh­wa­ter or salt­wa­ter, aren’t for every­one. But if you know how to fish for them and, more im­por­tant, skin and cook them, you’ll be sur­prised what your gut says af­ter you down a ten­der, suc­cu­lent piece of eel meat. It’s best with a whiskey chaser.

Con­ger eels (left and be­low) about to hit the deck aboard the party boat Daunt­less off the coast of New Jersey.

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