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  • Eels for Winter
  • Bernard L. Herman (bio)

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When the cages are lifted onto the dock, the first task is to sort the eels, saving the fattest ones for cooking and setting the lesser eels at liberty (or what I imagine as a kind parole). Given the general lack of purchase an eel affords, this is a struggle where the eels to be set free continuously wrest themselves from the grasp of my knobbly-fingered oystering gloves, slithering deeper into a moving knot in the sorting bucket and creating chaos where only antic confusion previously reigned. All photographs courtesy of the author.

part i

Eels rolled in crushed black pepper and chopped parsley cook in the smoker. Four more culled from the twenty or more in my eel pots chill on ice awaiting the same culinary fate. It’s September and winter holidays start early around here, and smoked eel is a part of the celebration. I always worry about finding eels sufficiently fat for the smoker and have begun to take the quest into my own hands. Our friend H. M. Arnold provided me with four fat ones from his catch box, but [End Page 132] you can’t always rely on the largesse of friends when it comes to eels. So, last spring I wandered over to Eddie Watts and purchased two eel pots made somewhere near Townsend, where the Eastern Shore of Virginia narrows to the confluence of ocean and bay. Eels, H. M. told me, prefer crushed crabs for their supper, moonless nights, and the cooling waters of late September and October. I waited until the proper time and set my pots—except that I thought if I threw in a piece of chicken back and some tuna hide saved in the freezer my chances would improve. I need to learn to listen. I set the pots and caught two small eels the first day. The second I did worse. So, I called H. M. “Capt’n,” he stated, “they don’t care for meat. Come over to Bayford, and I’ll get you some crabs from Andrew.” The next day I was there, received proper instruction, collected my crabs, and headed out with renewed optimism.

The best place to fish for eels is under the dock of a soft shell crab shedding house. Not all crabs survive the molting stage that renders them exhausted and vulnerable. The stills, those that die in the process, along with the sheds are returned to the creek where other creatures, in particular eels and terrapins, feast on the remains. The steady food supply flowing from the shedding houses encourages eels to set up housekeeping under the dock. “You look under there,” one soft-shell crab producer noted, “and it’s all shadows moving. It’s scary looking.” If you want to catch eels in a hurry, visit a soft-shell crab shedding operation. The territory I wanted to fish, however, is the creek that flows outside our kitchen window.

Step one: take the crabs and crush them, including their claws. This is an awful way to butcher a creature, but with a twelve-pound sledge dropped from a height of nine inches it’s quick. The crabs translated into another noun—bait—found their way into a bucket, and the bucket found its way into my canoe. Step two: paddling against a cold front under a sky bruised black and blue, I made my way to the first pot, retrieved and baited it and threw it back over. H. M. was particular in his instructions that you have to move your pots, because eels won’t be caught in the same place twice. Taking this to heart (even though I had yet to catch anything in this location), I moved my pot fifty yards down the creek. Working against the wind scudding across the black-green water, I made my way to the next pot, hauled it up, and proceeded to bait and move it to another location. The last pot was a different model. It had the common two-room arrangement of parlor (the entry chamber) and kitchen (the bait compartment), but...