Mother Nature, Her Eels

Under streetlight, the line comes reeling in. It’s Friday night on the Seekonk River, and a Dominican immigrant has an American eel, Anguilla rostrata, on the hook. This is a “yellow eel,” slightly more than a foot long, thrashing in the shallows. More accurately, its color is green. It is the mature—but not yet sexually mature—stage of eel metamorphosis, one of many in the eel life cycle. This creature is likely three or four years old, and it’s probably a male. Females are larger, heavy with fecundity. Typically they are found higher upstream.

It is apparent that this probable male isn’t going to make it. Ronny—a Guatemalan—comes to the aid of his Dominican friend, who is disinclined to deal with this thing, esta anguilla, wiggling maniacally. He grapples with it in the mud, locking a hand around the line, sliding it down over the slimy body. The body wraps around Ronny’s forearm and licks frightful circles, turning like a corkscrew.

This eel, while rooting around in the benthic muck of this broad stretch of river, just swam upon a clam worm, una lumbriz, threaded with a hook. The worm was a heavy one, expensive too—twelve for nine dollars at a local bait shop on Branch Avenue. These fishermen pull them from a tangle of weeds in a white cardboard box, the kind that normally pops open to reveal pastries, but these pastries elongate as they are lifted, shaping themselves with round muscles, while nubby appendages finger down the sides of their bodies.

Ronny had shown me in gestures how in Guatemala they take a machete and cut up the earth for similar long, legged worms. Now he grabs a rock with his right hand and takes it to the eel he has pinned between two stones. Blow after blow, he blasts it in the head. It is sudden and brutal, and I cringe. Yet the eel wriggles on—uncontrollably —seemingly unfazed by a broken skull. Ronny holds the body against his boot and takes his fingers to the snout, feeling for the remains of the lumbriz somewhere inside. The eel’s gape looks like an open wound; the creature looks like a snake sliced in half.