For many people, eels are fish to avoid. Some recreational fishermen would rather cut their line than handle a hooked eel. But for others, eels are a prized catch.
This is the time of year to catch Eels.
"We go eeling up this river here, says Pat Lee. Come spring, she and her husband David go fishing for eels in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. "The fish go to the heads of the rivers and the tributaries to spawn in the spring, and the eels are pretty close behind them, because they like to feed on their spawn - eggs, fish roe."
The Lees set out on their boat each morning before dawn. They bring narrow, meter-long traps, specially designed to catch eels. "These are cylinder-type pots that are maybe 12 inches across and they're about 3 feet long. And they have two funnels in 'em that are made out of cloth material," she says. "For bait, we use razor clams or horseshoe crabs. You put the bait in the pot, and the funnel traps the eels. They go through the first 2 funnels and they can't get back out anymore."
Mrs. Lee says there is no market for eels in this area, so she sells them to a middleman. Barry Kratchman, who runs the Delaware Valley Fish Company, sends trucks to collect eels from fishermen up and down the Atlantic coast, from Canada to Florida. The eels are brought back to his warehouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, where hundreds of thousands of them are kept alive in huge fish tanks.
The eels weigh from 30 grams to more than 2 kilograms. The smallest is about a long as a pencil, the largest, just over a meter. "These are large eels. This is number 18 tank," says Mr. Kratchman. "The reason why there's so few eels in this tank is because a small percentage of eels we get are over one pound. The one pound eels and up go to a certain market. Some of our market is domestic - Chinatowns in Boston, New York, Philadelphia. The Chinese restaurants - for the Chinese housewife. We do have markets for large eels in Europe as well - markets in Germany, markets in Italy that will prefer a one pound eel and up."
Next to the 500 gram eels are tanks filled with smaller eels… thousands of them. "This tank is number 17 and it has all small eels from one to two ounce eels. Could be as much as 15,000 eels. They're 10 to 14 inches long. They're graceful, and as you can see most are just sitting on the ground of the tank, not moving which is a very good sign. They're healthy, they're comfortable," he says.
But they're not attractive… even though Pat Lee points out they don't bite and won't hurt anyone. "They look just like a snake and a lot of people don't want anything to do with them," she says. "They're very slimy. It's hard to pick one up with your hand."
Most of the eels in Mr. Kratchman's tanks will end up on dining tables in Europe and Asia, where they are considered a delicacy. While most Americans don't eat eel, Mr. Kratchman does… and so do the Lee's. "My husband takes the skin off and we cut them in pieces anywhere from one inch to 3 inches long and just put them in hot grease and fry them in a frying pan. And the only thing you can't eat is the backbone," says Pat Lee. "They're very delicious. They smell kind of like fried chicken but they don't taste like fried chicken. They're very mild tasting fish."
While American eels are still being exported, Barry Kratchman says he's losing market share to eels being farm raised abroad. So he hopes that more Americans will soon discover the appeal of eel.