Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/June 1886/Eels and their Young


EELS are among the mysteries of this world. In spite of the way in which Dame Science has persistently poked her nose into most things, and has harried them and laid them bare, she has succeeded in finding out but little about eels and their mode of life. However, it would be rash to go as far in our confession of ignorance as a contemporary recently did, and declare that "we know next to nothing of eels beyond the periods of their migration." If we knew nothing more than that, we should indeed know but little, as in many places eels never migrate at all, but grow fat and flourish from year to year in the pond or lake where they were born, without ever leaving it to seek the brackish water of estuaries which some authorities deem necessary to their existence. The same writer who made the above remark asserts that the distinction between "shovel-nosed" and "pointed-nosed" eels is purely "fanciful," and accounts for the difference by saying that "most fish develop a shovel-nose when they are working up-stream." If this were the case, an eel would have a shovel-nose in the spring and a sharp nose in the autumn! Such a capability of altering his features would be certainly open to envy; but, unfortunately for this theory, the structure of the two fish is materially different, and the single fact that the shovel or broad-nosed eel has one hundred and fifteen vertebræ, while his sharp-nosed relative only possesses one hundred and thirteen is sufficient to prove the fallacy of the idea that the two fish are identical.

Of fresh-water eels as apart from their mighty cousin the conger, there are three distinct kinds—the sharp-nosed eel, the broad-nosed or frog-mouthed eel, and the snig. Of these three, the sharp-nosed eel is both the largest fish and the best eating, though some prefer the snig-eel as having a superior flavor. The snig, however, in spite of its excellence, has not the same value as the sharp-nosed eel; for it seldom, if ever, attains more than half a pound in weight. The sharp-nosed eel, on the contrary, attains an enormous size. One on record that was taken in the Medway, not far from Rochester, weighed thirty-four pounds, measured six feet in length, and had a girth of twenty-five inches. Another eel, taken in Kent, weighed forty pounds and measured five feet nine inches. Yarrell speaks of having seen at Cambridge the preserved skins of two which had weighed together fifty pounds; the heaviest twenty-seven pounds, the other twenty-three pounds. But these instances, though not to be regarded as apocryphal, are still very exceptional; and a very fair average weight for sharp-nosed eels is six pounds. Eels of even ten pounds weight are not common, and Mr. Frank Buckland speaks of one of that size as being the largest he had ever seen. From time immemorial eels have always been much esteemed by epicures, more perhaps in ancient days than they are now. Aristotle and Aristophanes both mention eels in terms of high praise; indeed, the former may be considered to have known more about eels than the contemporary we have already referred to, for he recognized at least two distinct species of eels. By the Egyptians eels were regarded with great abhorrence, as the embodiment of an evil demon; but other nations did not share the prejudice, for the Bœotians, who were celebrated for their eels, used them as sacred offerings. Misson, in his "Travels," tells of a vow made by the inhabitants of Terracina, a seaport of Italy, when besieged by the Turks. They vowed to offer twenty thousand eels a year to St. Benedict if he would deliver them from their peril. Whether a fond memory of stewed eels touched the saint we do not know, but the siege was raised, and the Benedictine monks got their eels every year from the virtuous and grateful inhabitants. The Venerable Bede mentions the eel-fisheries of Britain in his "History of the Anglo-Saxon Church," and an instance is quoted of the magnificence of the famous Archbishop Thomas à Becket that, when he traveled in France, "he expended the large sum of a hundred shillings in a dish of eels." Anyone who could now sit down to cope with a dish of eels of the value of five pounds would indeed have gastronomic capabilities likely to make an alderman die of envy. But, in the eating of eels, excellent as they are, it is well to remember the advice given in the ancient medical book entitled "Regimen Sanitatis Salerniæ":

"Who knows not physic should be nice and choice
In eating eels, because they hurt the voice.
Both eels and cheese, without good store of wine
Well drunk with them, offend at any time."

For a long time the most extraordinary theories were accepted regarding the birth of young eels. Aristotle believed they sprang from the mud (wherein he was not far wrong, as eels deposit their spawn in mud and sand); Pliny maintained that young eels developed from fragments separated from the parents' bodies by rubbing against rocks; others supposed that they proceeded from the carcasses of animals; Helmont declared that they came from May-dew, and gave the following receipt for obtaining them: "Cut up two turfs covered with May-dew, and lay one upon the other, the grassy side inward, and then expose them to the heat of the sun; in a few hours there will spring from them an infinite quantity of eels." Of that ancient superstition of one's childhood that horse-hairs cut up and deposited in water would turn into eels it is hardly necessary to speak, for who can not remember those unpleasant little bottles, erst used for medicine, which garnished one's nursery, in which the propagation of eels from horse-hair was carried on with the profound faith of childhood? Eels generally shed their spawn in April, and, when not hindered, they almost invariably choose an estuary, where they scatter the spawn loosely in the sand or soil. But that an annual visit to the sea is by no means necessary to their existence is proved by the fact that many eels who inhabit inland ponds and lakes never visit the sea at all. A gentleman digging in the month of October in the gravel-banks of the river Stour found the place "alive with young eels, some of them scarcely hatched, at the depth of from five to fifteen inches"; and at one of the meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science a member stated that he had seen a considerable number of young eels rise up through a small opening in the sand at the bottom of a small stream, the Ravensbourne. The greater number of eels, however, do visit the sea, and the "passing up" a river of the young eels is one of the most curious sights of natural history. This passage of young eels is called eelfare on the banks of the Thames; and it has been thought by some that the term elver, which on the banks of the Severn is used indiscriminately for all young eels, is a corruption of the word eelfare. In the Thames this eelfare takes place in the spring, in other rivers in the summer; and some idea of the numbers of these young eels, each about three inches long, may be gathered from the record of Dr. William Roots, who lived at Kingston in 1832. He calculated that from sixteen to eighteen hundred passed a given point in the space of one minute of time. These baby-eels travel only by day and rest by night. In large and deep rivers, where they probably find the current strong, they form themselves into a closely compacted company, "a narrow but long-extended column," as it has been described; but in less formidable streams they abandon this arrangement and travel, each one more or less at his own sweet will, near the bank. The perseverance of these little creatures in overcoming the obstructions they may encounter is quite extraordinary. The large flood-gates, sometimes twenty feet high, that are to be met with on the Thames would be sufficient, one would imagine, to bar the progress of a fish the size of a darning-needle. But young eels have a wholesome idea that nothing can stop them, consequently nothing does. As one writer says, speaking of the way in which they ascend flood-gates and such like barriers, "Those which die stick to the posts; others which get a little higher meet with the same fate, until at last a sufficient layer of them is formed to enable the rest to overcome the difficulty of the passage." The mortality resulting from such "forlorn hopes" greatly helps to account for the difference of number between the upward migration of young eels and the return of comparatively few down-stream in the autumn. In some places these baby-eels are much sought after, and are formed into cakes which are eaten fried. On one occasion at Exeter two cart-loads of these little fish, not larger than darning-needles, were sold, each cart-load weighing four hundredweight. They were sold for four-pence per pound. The term elver, which, as we have said, is in some places indiscriminately used to denote all young eels, in reality only belongs to the "transparent" eels which are occasionally found among their more opaque brethren. These elvers are so transparent that most of the internal organs and the action of the heart and blood-vessels can easily be seen. Little is known of them. They are not supposed to form a distinct species, for they have been found with the characteristics of both sharp-nosed and broad-nosed eels. They have been met with in the rivers in January as well as in June, and, even when caught and confined in a tank, they in no way grow out of their peculiar transparency; so they have remained one of the many mysteries of the eel family till now. They are doubly interesting to study on account of this transparency. One of the greatest peculiarities possessed by eels is that they have a second heart situated in the extremity of their tails; of course, in the transparent elvers the action of this heart can be more easily noted than in the ordinary eels. In all, however, its action is plainly manifest, especially if the fish has been out of water any time or exhausted, a fact known to the street venders of live eels, who therefore are careful to cover their eels with sand to hide the caudal pulsations. Dr. Marshall Hall, who in 1831 discovered this secondary heart of the eel, says of it that "the action of this caudal heart is entirely independent of the pulmonic heart; while the latter beats sixty the former beats one hundred and sixty times in a minute. It continues for a very long time after the influence of the pulmonic heart is entirely removed." It is probably owing to this caudal heart that the eel's tail is so highly sensitive and so strong. Eels can almost use their tails like hands; as, for instance, if confined to a tank or bucket, they will grasp the edge with this hand-like tail, and by its help lift themselves bodily over. Eels are very clean feeders; if possible, they like their food alive, and in all cases it is most essential that it should be fresh. Even the slightest taint is too much for their keen sense of smell and taste. They are sometimes seen cropping the leaves of water-cresses, and other aquatic plants, as they float about in the water; but as a rule their food is altogether animal. They are immense devourers of spawn of all kinds of fish. There are certain well-known spawning-grounds in the Norfolk Broads, where the roach and bream collect in vast numbers to spawn in the spring. To these grounds the eels follow in hundreds. Mr. Davies, in his pleasant book on "Norfolk Broads and Rivers," speaks of this habit of the eels, and adds: "You can hear the eels sucking away at the spawn in the weeds; and they gorge themselves to such an extent that they will lie motionless on their backs on the gravel, with distended stomachs; and when caught by the bab they will frequently die during the night, instead of living for days, as an eel will otherwise do in a boat."

There are a good many ways of catching eels; the commonest, of course, being by the eel-bucks which are so often to be met with on the Thames. Eel-bucks that are intended to catch the sharp-nosed or frog-mouthed eels are set against the stream, and are set at night, as those two descriptions of eels feed and run only at night. The snig-eel, which is chiefly found in Hampshire, feeds by day; and fishermen have found by experience that snigs are only taken in the eel-bucks if they are set with the stream, instead of against it. In Norfolk, where immense quantities of eels are caught every year, the capture is mostly effected by eel-sets, which are nets set across the stream, and in which the sharp-nosed eel is the one almost invariably taken. Besides these eel-sets, however, the Norfolk Broadmen also fish for eels with "babs," which can hardly be called sport in any sense of the term. The "bab," or "clod," as it is sometimes called, is a number of lob-worms threaded on pieces of worsted, and all tied up in a bunch not unlike a small mop. The bab is then tied on to the end of a cord attached to a stout pole. The eel's teeth get entangled in the worsted as soon as he attempts to take the bab, and he can then be lifted out of the water either into the boat if the angler be in one, or else allowed to drop off the line into a pail, which the angler should place on the bank at a convenient distance from his standing-place. Norfolk "babbers" frequently catch four stone weight of eels to a boat per night, especially in the spawning-grounds. Night-lines are also much used for eels. These are long lines, weighted heavily at each end and in the middle, and garnished with baited hooks one yard apart. "Sniggling," immortalized by Mr. Burnand in his "Happy Thoughts," is one of the most favorite ways of catching eels, and "stichering," a Hampshire method, is perhaps one of the most amusing, though the sticherer probably catches fewer eels than any other eel-hunter. The only apparatus used is an old sickle, worn short and chipped so as to present something of a saw-like edge; this is tied firmly on to a light pole about twelve feet long. Armed with these the sticherers betake themselves to the water-meadows. In the wide, deep drains used for irrigation eels abound, and the object of the sticherer is to thrust the sickle under the eel's body, and, with a sudden hoist, to land him on the bank, from which he is transferred to the bag. That there is every chance, when on a stichering party, of having your eye poked out, or your ear sawn off, of course only adds the necessary amount of danger and pleasurable excitement, without which all sport is tame. Of all forms of eel-capture, however, there is none to compare to spearing, of which there are two methods. The Norfolkmen mostly use "picks" formed of four broad blades, spread out like a fan, between which the eels get wedged. These are mounted on long, slender poles, to enable them to be thrust into the mud, where the "picker" notices the tell-tale bubbles rise which denote the presence of "Anguilla." Eel-spearing of this kind takes place chiefly in winter, but there is another form of this sport called "sun-spearing," which is much sought after in the Irish loughs during the months of June and July. In the early sunny mornings at that time of the year, when the water seems to be principally composed of sunbeams, with a little hydrogen and oxygen added, the sun-spearer sallies forth in any little boat he can lay his hands on. Standing up in the bows, and, if alone, using his spear to propel the boat gently along, he steals over the crystal waters of the lough. Presently he sees the gleam of the "silver" eel as he lies quietly at length on the sandy bottom. The spearer takes aim; there is a sudden "splitting of the atmosphere," as Mark Twain would say, a splash, and either Anguilla comes up writhing on the twelve close-set teeth of the sun-spear, or the spearer has taken a header into ten feet of water. If the latter is a tyro at the apparently simple art of sun-spearing, it may safely be prognosticated that, if he makes acquaintance with the eel he is after, the meeting will be more likely to take place under water than above it.

Eels have the immense merit in the eyes of all careful people that they more than repay any cultivation bestowed upon them. There is always a demand for eels, and they never seem to be out of season. The London market is chiefly supplied from Holland, the eels being brought over alive in welled vessels. Queen Elizabeth gave a free mooring to these Dutch skoots, and this privilege has been taken advantage of up to the present time. The Dutch eels, however, are very much inferior in flavor to the English, and it seems, therefore, somewhat of a pity that they should have almost a monopoly of the London market. The Norfolk eels, that are caught in such huge quantities, are nearly all sent to Birmingham and the Black Country. In Scotland eels are looked upon with abhorrence, consequently eel-fisheries may be said not to exist there. In Ireland, however, the eel-fisheries are enormously valuable; the eel-weirs on the Erne are said to bring in five or six thousand pounds sterling a year. At Ballisodare the eel-fisheries were found to greatly increase in value by hanging loosely plaited ropes of straw or hay over any obstructions which would be likely to bar the course of the elvers up-stream. These ropes act as ladders, up which the elvers climb, and the immense annual destruction we have already spoken of is averted. Eels cost but little to cultivate, never fail to find a good market, and are one of the richest and most nutritious forms of food possible to find; surely, therefore, in all questions of cheap food-supply they should receive the highest attention. The late Mr. Frank Buckland showed his usual good sense when he declared that the English eel-fisheries were not half developed, and that they deserved considerably more attention than they had hitherto got. That they should soon get this attention must be the hope of all those who do not like to see the good gifts of Nature contemptuously thrown aside and disregarded.—Saturday Review.