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Eels and more eels!

Judy Van Put, Columnist
Posted 8/17/21

It sure is a relief to see temperatures in the 70s again after those mid-90-degree days we had last week!

Fishing last week was challenging, with temperatures in the Beaverkill heading towards 80 …

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Eels and more eels!


It sure is a relief to see temperatures in the 70s again after those mid-90-degree days we had last week!

Fishing last week was challenging, with temperatures in the Beaverkill heading towards 80 degrees; many trout fishers sought out the cooler tailwater fisheries of the East and West Branches of the Delaware, the Neversink and the Esopus; or the main Delaware, which has remained around 70 degrees thanks to coldwater releases.

Discussing another trip to the Delaware brought to mind an experience some years ago while fishing that river. We were wading waist-deep; the trout were rising, and it had been a successful trip.

Wishing to add another trout to the tally, I took a step closer to the nearest ‘target’ that had been rising steadily, only to realize I had waded much deeper than anticipated when something underfoot caused me to stumble - and all of a sudden, a lamprey eel shot out of the water just two feet in front of me, with its toothy mouth gaping wide open!

I had unwittingly stepped into the lamprey’s nest and was standing on its tail - shocked and horrified, I let out a yell, causing Ed to come charging downstream to the rescue; I took a bit of a dunking in the process.

Having an open-mouthed lamprey eel “up close and personal” was not a pleasant experience to add to my list of fishing memories; nevertheless, it caused me to do some research to find out more about these creatures.

Lamprey eels (sea lamprey) are anadromous, which means that they spend most of their lives at sea and migrate to fresh waters to reproduce, similar to Atlantic and Pacific salmon. Adult lampreys spend 1-1/2 to 2 years in the ocean, where they grow to maturity, after which they return to their native rivers to spawn.

The fertilized eggs hatch after just 10 to 13 days; the larval lampreys then remain in the nest for another 4-5 days, while they develop gills, coloration and the “hood” on the sides of their cheeks. Next they drift downstream where they burrow into the silty stream bottom and remain for 4-8 years, feeding on plankton (microscopic organisms) by filtering the water.

Eventually they emerge from their burrows and transform into their adult stage; their mouths becoming sucker-like with round rows of teeth which they use to briefly attach to and feed upon other fish species. These newly transformed lamprey spend only a few months in fresh water before beginning their long journey to the ocean. The adult lamprey live in the ocean for 1.5-2 years, where they will grow to maturity, then return to freshwater rivers to spawn.

Interestingly, our Catskill waters are also inhabited by another type of eel – the American eel, for which eel racks, or weirs were used in the Delaware River and its East and West branches for more than a century –Ray Turner, of Hancock, still employs this method and is well known for his delectable smoked eels, sold locally at his establishment, Delaware Delicacies Smoke House.

However, these eels are completely different from Lampreys, being the only catadromous fish in North America - they reside in fresh waters but migrate to the ocean to spawn.

The life story of the American eel is pretty amazing; these creatures begin their lives as eggs in the Sargasso Sea (located in the North Atlantic between the West Indies and the Azores.) The eggs float to the water’s surface where they hatch into small transparent larvae called “glass eels,” which drift with the Gulf Stream on a journey that lasts about a year, covering more than 3,700 miles before reaching the Atlantic coast; they can be found from Venezuela to Greenland and Iceland.

During this stage they grow into the shape they will become as adults. Next they slowly develop into “yellow eels,” during their immature adult stage; remaining in freshwater from 10 – 25 years before they mature! American eels can absorb oxygen through their skin, which makes it possible for them to travel over land in wet grass or mud; they can also climb up over wet rocks.

Another metamorphosis takes place in the life story of these eels, which transforms them from shallow water residents to ocean dwellers. They store up reserves of fat to nourish themselves on their long migration, during which time their eyes will double in size with a change in their sensitivity to the color blue, which enhances their vision in deep water.  Their swim bladders adapt to allow an increase in the deposition of gas, which is critically important for buoyancy. During this phase of their lives, their color changes again to having dark colored backs with silver undersides; the “silver eels” migrate more than 1,000 miles back to the Sargasso Sea where they will spawn; females releasing up to 4 million eggs which the males fertilize, before they die.

The DEC has been conducting an ongoing research project on migrating juvenile American eels for the past 14 years, as American eels have been on the decline for 3 decades due to dams, hydropower, pollution, loss of habitat, and being sold illegally as food fish.

Judy Van Put is a long-time member of the NYS Outdoor Writers Association, and is the recipient of the New York State Council of Trout Unlimited’s Professional Communications Award.


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