The Eel Deal

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By Jane and Michael Stern

Originally Published 2003 Gourmet Magazine

The eel never had so staunch an admirer as Ray Turner. As a child, Turner would go with his father to catch eels on the Delaware River. “The codgers around here will tell you that their grandfathers used to do it,” he says. “It’s an old, old art. Native Americans who lived along this river did it, that’s for sure. Imagine a tribe facing a long winter realizing that there are tons of eels going downstream in the fall. What a great opportunity to enhance the larder. Do you know that scientists have carbon-dated an eel weir site that goes back fifty-eight hundred years? It may be the oldest man-made structure on this continent.”

The thought of a surviving prehistoric weir is mind-boggling because building a sturdy one is an eeler’s primary challenge. Each year, starting in June, Turner—who has been fishing for eels commercially on the Delaware for some 20 years—goes into the river to construct a stone conduit roughly 300 feet long, and he uses timber to erect a ramped trap that will funnel big parts of the migrating school into his eel rack. Although his full white beard and the backwoods setting of his smokehouse make him look like a western Catskills King Neptune, Turner was trained as a civil engineer. So it comes as no surprise when he begins talking enthusiastically about the joists, studs, and latticework that go into the wood structure, and about triangulating the pressure to get a rack that’s impervious to high-water torrents. “If you don’t have a good rack, you can blow it and lose everything,” he cautions. “That’s why I devote so much attention to building it right in the summer. Once they start coming, you must have confidence in your weir.”

Much as he delights in catching mature females on their way south, he disapproves of nabbing them earlier in their life cycle, as they float north with the currents. Eating the young ones, known to epicures as glass eels, is bad for the health of the species, he maintains. With avuncular affection for the tiny critters, he asks, “Do you know that when an eel is born, it looks like a willow leaf? It’s that fragile. The ancients believed that an eel grew from a single horsehair dropped in the water. So little is known about them, it’s a shame.”

Turner knows plenty about this mysterious fish. “Your anadromous species, like the salmon,” he explains, “they travel by rote back to where they were spawned. But the eel migrates to where the water tastes best. It has an acute olfactory system with two sets of nostrils, and it can smell a few parts per million, which helps it look for brackish water. The male likes hanging back along the coast farther south, but the female, she likes freshwater. She will stay here and grow for years—did you know you can read the age of an eel, just like a tree, by counting the rings on the stones in its head? After maybe twelve years she will reach sexual maturity, and when the drive hits to go down to the Sargasso Sea, look out, here she comes.”

When she comes, Turner is ready and waiting. “Once the weir is built in July, we’ll catch maybe one or two a day,” he says. “In August and September it will grow to double digits. Then one night in September, when the moon is full and there’s been a good rain, we’ll start to see the large black females. That means it’s about to happen.” As Turner describes it, the spotting of the first big females in the weir is as awesome as seeing a couple of longhorns in a bedded herd rise to their feet—the signal of an impending slithery stampede. In the first good night he will trap over 1,000 eels, which is about half of the whole season’s catch.

He kills them by dousing them with salt, then he scrubs away the slime by putting five or six dozen at a time in a cement mixer with No. 2 stone (about two inches in diameter). “They come out clean as you or I,” he says. “I wash them, I rinse them, then I gut them, slicing upwards with my spoon.” Turner shows us the tool he has made from an ordinary kitchen spoon to remove the blood groove with a single swoop. It is sharp on the sides and has stubby tines at the tip like a grapefruit spoon. “Then I weigh them, bag them, and freeze them.”

Before he started freezing his catch, Turner generally ran out by midwinter. Now he manages to hold on to some nearly all year. He also discovered that freezing the eels actually makes them less oily. “Freezing improves them,” he says. “That’s a strange thing to say about a fish, but this is one strange fish.”

After he thaws them, Turner soaks them in honeyed brine, hangs them by the tail so the oil can drain out, and smokes them over applewood. The result is meat that is easily scooped off the bone in soft hunks. It is dark and full flavored, gently haloed by the smoke. Eel is not the only thing Ray Turner sells—he also smokes whole turkeys, Cornish hens, bacon, and trout. But in his opinion, “Eel not only tastes the best, it is the highest-quality protein you can eat.”

Turner rails against people’s unfounded aversion to Anguilla rostrata. “It’;s a cross the eel must bear,” he says. “People think of it as a snake, which it is not. I guarantee you will find eel good to eat, if only you can get over the yuck factor.”

Delaware Delicacies Smoke House

420 Rhodes Rd

Hancock, New York

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