Fishmail: Really eely

Some time on a warm June evening sometime in the early 1980s, I wandered along a tiny lane near the village of Leckford in Hampshire to have my first really close look at the legendary River Test. As Damascene experiences go, this one was right up there; hitherto unimagined beauty and clarity of water, a mayfly hatch straight out of the textbooks and even a twittish bloke catching a trout on a Royal Wulff just upstream of the bridge I stood on. But the thing that really stands out for me from that evening is the first thing I saw as I gazed into the pool under the bridge; an eel, perhaps two feet long, lazily working its way out of a gap between two stones and obviously thinking about exactly where to have dinner.

I've always associated trout and eels since that day, even though I have caught the vast majority of my thousands of eels to date in water much too toxic to hold anything other than the most horribly genetically modified trout. I've caught them in estuaries, tidal rivers, estate lakes, tiny ponds in gardens and on farms, canals, giant high-country lakes, chalk streams and reservoirs; and that's just in the British Isles. The first fish I caught in Australia was a freshwater eel; a different species from those at home, but in almost every way an exact replica of their slimy, muscular northern cousins. They are, almost literally, everywhere - a tribute to their extraordinary hardiness, navigational abilities, amphibian characteristics and plain downright bloody-mindedness.

I doubt there's an animal I admire more anywhere on the planet. And I probably don't really need to tell you just how amazing the freshwater eel's lifecycle is. If people know anything at all about eels, it's that they breed in the Sargasso Sea, a couple of million fairly anonymous square miles of the central north Atlantic ocean, and that the larvae (leptocephali to you, squire) then somehow find their way back to the rivers that their parents came from. In the case of British eels, that means a journey of something close to 4,000 miles - not bad for something that starts its journey as a tiny creature barely a centimetre long.

We know this. We're taught about this bizarrely inverted version of the salmon's lifecycle at school as if it were fact, but even this limited information is based purely on inference and supposition, largely as the result of a stunningly dedicated Viking called Johannes Schmidt. This excellent man spent over a decade before the First World War wandering around the north Atlantic gathering leptocephali in plankton nets and exhaustively cataloguing his findings, even to the point of counting the individual vertebrae in each specimen. And yet nobody, not even him, has ever seen adult eels mating in the Sargasso. For that matter, nobody has ever even seen a live adult eel in the Sargasso at all, let alone one engaging in any of the fishy perversions that might give rise to a new generation.

People have been speculating about the origin of eels for thousands of years; not least Aristotle, usually good for a reliable theory or two, who thought that they came from "the entrails of the earth", a mere byproduct of the decay of everything else. Izaak Walton was similarly lyrical but clueless about exactly where they came from. Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and the man responsible for classifying unimaginable numbers of animal and plant species, thought that the parasitic worms he found inside eels were in fact developing larvae, a view shared by the father of microscopy; and elsewhere, everything from horse's hair to small beetles have been implicated as the origin of adult eels. Pretty dumb, you might think - but the fact is that we really don't know much more about them even now.

All this is rendered even more staggering when you consider just how widespread eels are. From the moment they start to run up rivers - which all sixteen species of freshwater eel worldwide do at some point, whether they came from the Sargasso or the South Pacific or Madagascar or wherever it is that Japanese eels breed - they infiltrate every conceivable body of water. However elusive they are in their mating grounds, they're not exactly hard to catch when they're growing up in fresh water - just one reason why they have been popular as food for centuries, all over the world.

You only have to say the word 'unagi' to me and I start drooling in a distinctly Pavlovian manner. Jellied eels are still eaten with much relish by London's East Enders; the French make delicious pies and stews from them; Iroquois Indians spit-roast them over open fires; and the Mayflower colonists practically built a whole cuisine around them. In northern Europe alone, we still eat around 25 million pounds of eels every year; not bad going for something that we've been eating for over a thousand years.

Many thousands of pounds of these still come from Lough Neagh, in northern Ireland. Neagh eels are reputed to have a particularly delicious flavour, largely thanks to their diet of mayfly larvae; which brings me neatly back to the link with trout that I started with. Sure, I could talk about how it's possible to catch eels on a fly, or how one friend of mine soaks his woolly buggers in tuna oil to make them especially eel-tastic; but instead I'll close by simply concluding that anything that shares its diet with a trout really ought to be treated with the same reverence. If you want to know more about eels - and believe me, you really do - you should run, not walk, to this excellent book - and when you've finished, read this article too. Between them they say more about eels than I ever can in my limited space here. Next week: hats. Or something

 
Sean Geer (sean@fishmail.co.uk) is a freelance writer, journalist and fish pervert. He recently won the coveted Sexyloops Least Competent Fly-Tier award for the third year in a row, following a horrible accident with some deer hair and a bottle of red wine. In his spare time, Sean fails to write novels, makes barely credible origami fish and invents exciting new uses for tinsel.

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