The river is a constant gift-giver: sand that we use for building, fish that we fry for happiness, mud that makes land to grow food on… But sometimes it hits a generous streak that can leave you stunned. It has powers to harbor gifts that you didn’t know it could possess – like someone who once traveled to an exotic country and has waited many years to give you something unimaginable.
Yesterday, as he sat on a milk crate on Island 63 landing, Ellis Coleman was given one of those mystifying gifts. He and Mr. Melvin brought a few fishing poles with them to enjoy this mild July by the river as they waited for a group of 10 paddlers to shuttle back to Clarksdale. They sat under the mulberries and willows that arch above the boat ramp. When one nodded off, the other watched his lines. “Wake up and fish!” Ellis yelled at Melvin when he dozed off and almost let one get away.
Ellis felt this fish bite with force. Later, he told us, “he took it like a cat.” But what he pulled in was much more exotic than any catfish in that river.
Eel, Anguilla anguilla
The eel has an elongated snake-like body, tapering almost to a point at the tail. Although the eel is very slimy and appears to be scaleless, scales are deeply embedded in some parts of the skin. There is a pair of pectoral fins just behind the small head, and there is a small gill opening just in front of each fin. The back fin and the anal fin are very long and merge with the tail fin to form a continuous soft-rayed fin fringe. The eel in fresh water varies in colour from dark brown or olive green to black on the back, and yellowish white to golden yellow on the belly. The yellow gradually changes to silvery white as the eel reaches maturity and prepares to migrate to the sea. Eels are also sometimes described as broadnosed or sharpnosed; the broadnosed eel is one that has excessively developed jaw muscles as a result of voracious feeding, and is almost always a female.
Male eels longer than 0·5m are rarely found; females up to 1m long are common and occasionally they may reach lengths of 1·5m and weights of up to 4kg. Exceptionally large specimens have been recorded weighing up to 8kg. Eels generally range from 0·4 to 0·8m and 0·25 to 1kg in weight.
The mature eel spawns at great depths in the Sargasso Sea, midway between Bermuda and Puerto Rico. The eggs, lying near the bottom, hatch into small, transparent, leaf-shaped larvae called leptocephali; at the end of the first summer, when they are about 25mm long, the larvae rise to the surface and are carried by ocean currents on their long migration to the coasts of North America and Europe.
Larvae are carried northwards and eastwards by the Gulf Stream until, about three years after hatching, they reach the coasts of Europe as elvers; at this stage they are about 75mm long and eel-shaped, but with big eyes and an almost transparent body. They move into bays and estuaries and, in late spring, great numbers of them begin the journey upstream; the males are thought to stay mostly in the lower reaches while the females travel much greater distances upstream, moving mainly by night.
Eels remain and grow in fresh water for very long periods, males for about 6-8 years and females 10-13 years; occasionally females have been known to live in fresh water for 25 years or more, probably in land-locked locations from which they cannot escape. Eels in fresh water, known as yellow or brown eels, feed voraciously in summer on worms, small fish, dead fish, molluscs, and other bottom-living animals, and in winter become less active, often lying dormant and half-buried in the muddy bottoms of the waters they frequent.
A female may reach a length of about 0·5m after 7 years in fresh water, but size will depend very much on whether food has been plentiful or not. When the eels approach maturity, they stop feeding and the belly changes colour from yellow to the silver breeding dress, before they start on the long journey back to the Sargasso Sea.
Silver eels move down river in late summer and autumn, mainly by night, and the whole journey to the spawning grounds is thought to take up to a year or more; in winter the eels may hibernate on the seabed in great concentrations en route. It is thought that the eel does not attain full sexual maturity until it reaches the Atlantic a few months before spawning. The female can produce as many as ten million eggs during spawning; it is probable that shortly after spawning, usually early in the year, the eels die. It is thought by some experts that none of the European eels manages to reach the spawning grounds at all, and that the fishery is maintained solely by the return of adult eels from the Americas.