nature Bulletin No. 149 April 3, 1948
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
William N. Erickson, President
Roberts Mann, Supt. of Conservation
The eel is a queer fish, both in looks and habits. Try to pick up one of
these long snake-like creatures with its slick slimy skin, and you will
appreciate the expressions: "slippery as an eel" and "squirms like an
eel". It is a startling experience to catch one on a hook when fishing,
especially at night.
They have a slender conical head with a large mouth lined with
hundreds of small sharp teeth. There is one pair of small fins just back
of the head, and a single long fin which, starting a few inches behind the
head, runs down the back, around the tail and half-way back on the
underside. The color is olive or brownish green above and lighter
below. The skin has a faint cross-hatched pattern due to rows of tiny
scales imbedded in it.
Eels eat almost any kind of animal food, either dead or alive, and will
even crawl out on land to feed, but they prefer fish. Their flesh is rich,
rather oily, and considered delicious by many people -- eaten fresh,
pickled or smoked.
Eels live in almost all our streams and lakes draining into the Gulf of
Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, except the Great Lakes. They should
not be confused with the lamprey, a smaller eel-like animal that is not a
true fish, which has invaded the Great Lakes. Apparently, only female
eels reach the headwaters of our streams. They grow to be 3 feet long
and weigh 3 or 4 pounds. Some grow much larger. The males are
smaller and usually remain in the lower courses of our rivers.
Eels reach full growth in 6 to 8 years and then a curious change occurs.
Their skins turn silvery, their eyes enlarge, their snouts become more
pointed, and they migrate downstream out to sea--never to return. We
now know that they, and the eels of Europe and North Africa, migrate
to a deep place in the ocean between Bermuda and the West Indies,
where they lay their eggs and die. The elongated transparent larvae
eventually become miniature eels scarcely 3 inches long, which appear
at the mouths of our rivers and swim upstream -- sometimes hundreds
the young of our American eels go back to American streams,
and those of European or African parents go back to Europe or Africa,
as the case may be, with no mothers to guide them.
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Update: June 2012