American Eel Are Rockfish ‘Candy’
By Dennis Doyle
We were drifting silently across the cold, winter waters in our 40-foot charter along the Atlantic coast, a misty fog rose as the sun’s morning rays danced across the surface. Floats marking the baits of eel swimming slowly deep below in our wake were mesmerizing, and the only sounds heard on board were a few of us rubbing our gloved hands together or stamping our feet on the deck trying to get some feeling back in them.
Then one of the floats jerked and went under and everyone was suddenly warm and alert. The lucky angler closest to the now-arcing rod struggled to get it out of the holder as the drag screamed bloody murder. A big wintering rockfish, ignoring the resistance of the reel, made its way rapidly toward the horizon and the battle was on.
It took a brutal 20 minutes of struggle with numb fingers and aching joints to get that 30-pounder netted and into the boat but it was definitely worth it. There’s no better bait for big rockfish during the winter months than a big eel.
The American eel is often referred to as rockfish candy, and few striped bass can resist snacking on the undulating, snakelike devils.
The word enigmatic indicates something that’s puzzling or mysterious and there are few marine species on earth that are more enigmatic than the eel. They are found throughout Tidewater but not many people are aware of this creature’s amazing life cycle, not only because it was just recently deciphered, but it is also difficult to comprehend.
All eels in the Western Hemisphere spawn in the distant Sargasso Sea, the only sea on the planet not partially bordered by land. The Sargasso is well offshore, southwest of Bermuda, at the confluence of several currents in the Atlantic. It is bound on the west by the Gulf Stream, on the north by the North Atlantic Current, on the east by the Canary Current, and on the south by the North Atlantic Equatorial Current.
Named for the mass of floating weeds that flourish in this Atlantic Ocean gyre, sargassum seaweed, the area is renowned for its past, more mystical reputation. During the age of sail the area was called the Graveyard of Ships because of the many unlucky sailboats becoming fatally becalmed and trapped by the whirling currents, the copious surface weeds, and the area’s lack of consistent wind.
The drifting eggs released by the eels in the Sargasso hatch within a few days and assume an initial toothed larval stage. These, carried by the myriad ocean currents in the sea, feed on tiny marine life until they morph eventually into a thin, translucent elver of about 2 inches. Finally able to move on their own they continue to develop. The subsequent journey to their distant home waters will take years.
Growing into their next phase as a translucent glass eel of 3 to 4 inches and relentlessly moving westward toward the Americas, they finally arrive and settle into their fresher water tributaries. The eels continue living in these environs into their yellow eel stage, the males growing to 2 feet, the females reaching twice that size. American eels are found in waters from Venezuela in South America through Central and North America and Greenland and Iceland.
American eels, which reach final sexual maturity after 25 years, then navigate thousands of miles back to their birthplace in the Sargasso, spawn and expire. The females, markedly larger than the males, will each exude up to 20 million eggs.
At one time the American species was so numerous, it constituted over a quarter of the total fish found in Atlantic coastal streams. Over the subsequent years excessive commercial harvest for Asian and European markets plus pollution from agriculture, industry and development have seriously reduced their numbers. It’s time, obviously, to start imposing serious protection for their remaining populations. Pass the word.
The yellow perch run has begun. The first fish of the year is moving up into the tributaries to spawn and, though they are off-limits in freshwater spawning grounds, they are legal in all of the tributaries. The yellows, often called neds, are golden yellow with olive backs and horizontal rings, which also give them the alias of ring perch. Excellent on the table, the minimum size is 9 inches, possession limit is 15. Favorite baits are grass shrimp, blood worms, trout worms, earth worms and small minnows. The first runs are the best; dress warm and fish often for best success and remember to renew your fishing license.