Catching the Slippery eel
Story by: Zane Mirfin - Photo by:
OPINION: Let's face it, eels are not sexy beasts.
With their slimy, serpent-like appearance they are never going to win a beauty contest.
Despite their looks and reputation as a scavenger of the fishy world, they are remarkably well-adapted to their watery environment, fulfilling an important ecological niche and being an important indicator of water quality. They taste good too and "tuna", as they are known to Maori, have always been a major dietary component of tribal life, allowing inland habitation far away from the fertile coastal zone.
In recent decades they have also become an important commercial fishery managed by the Ministry of Fisheries under the Quota Management System. Forest and Bird is scathing in its condemnation of commercial eel fishing, claiming that longfin eels are now an endangered species.
Almost every small child in New Zealand has a tale of going eeling and my childhood memories are rich with tales of chasing the humble eel. Whether by net, hook, hand, spear or gaff, chasing eels became all consuming and the local eels were in grave danger during school holidays. The best time to catch eels was always the months with an "r" in them. During the cold winter months of May, June, July and August most eels go into a dormant phase and fishing is generally a waste of time. As kids we would pour rotten eggs, blood, meat scraps and fish berley into the water to attract eels to the hook or spear, and later, when allowed to go out after dark with torches, we became even more successful.
One small stream that flowed in a drain down Richmond's Beach Rd was a favourite daytime haunt and we would spend hours turning over rocks and spearing the small eels underneath. One friend used a carving fork as a spear but got more than he bargained for one day when he spied a large tail poking out from under a bank. Down went the spear and the angry eel wrapped all the way up his arm trying to bite his face. The screams were priceless and we eventually managed to prise the eel free while also learning a valuable lesson that eels should always be speared behind the head.
Although it sounds barbaric now, catching eels was a lot of fun and we learnt a lot about life in the process. My kids are now interested in eeling too and it's been great helping them learn about water and what lives within. We've even become more ecologically friendly, letting most eels go unharmed.
In New Zealand, we have two species of eel, the short-finned eel (Anguilla australis) that occurs throughout New Zealand, Australia and much of the South Pacific, and the longfin (Anguilla dieffenbachia) which is unique to New Zealand.
Longfin eels can grow to large sizes with the females typically twice as long as males, with an exceptional specimen growing to two metres in length and weighing up to 50kg.
Longfin eels are the dominant South Island species and make up 40 per cent of the total allowable catch nationwide. Both species are diadromous, living at sea for the early stage of their life and returning to freshwater as juveniles until maturity and spawning back in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of kilometres from New Zealand.
Short-fin eels breed in the ocean near the Coral Sea and New Caledonia while longfins breed in the deep Tonga trench. Breeding is an intense affair with an orgy of eels intertwining together by the hundreds to squeeze the last eggs and sperm from their bodies before dying. The larvae float on ocean currents for as long as 15 months before reaching New Zealand and transforming into "glass" eels that ascend fresh waters and make their way upstream as elvers. Wild and boisterous waters are easily navigated and the young eels can even travel considerable distances over moist ground. Once the eels mature they head to sea to complete the circle of life.
The story of the eels of Nelson Lakes National Park is particularly fascinating with many believed to be the oldest living eels in the world. Being some of the most inland lakes in New Zealand and being cold, deep, glacial waters, eel growth is slow. According to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research's Don Jellyman, who assisted me with my masters thesis on trout back in 1990, the female lake eels grow at about 9mm per year with the average migratory adult eel being 93 years old.
With the Nelson Lakes offering 17 per cent of the total area of New Zealand lakes unaffected by hydroelectricity development and no commercial or recreational eel fishing, they are an important genetic reservoir for the longfin eel.
Over the years I've encountered lots of eels on hunting and fishing trips. Night fishing for big brown trout in Canterbury's Lake Ellesmere and Rakaia Lagoon has been frightening at times when surrounded by hordes of eels while standing in the deep water and mud. My advice when you feel light tapping on your waders is to not turn your headlight on and look down.
Our last family eeling trip at Easter was a lot of fun. With an approaching front, we only had an hour or two to coax an eel or two from under a big willow tree on Marlborough's Wairau River. With rotten eggs and a dead rabbit for bait and a couple of handlines, the seven kids had a ball. Before the rain hit, we managed three nice eels that excited the kids and gave them some great stories to tell their mates when they get back to school. Maybe when they learn about the birds and the bees, they might appreciate eels even more.
This story was previously published under in the Wildside column of The Nelson Mail under the title 'Chasing the not so-humble eel'