One undeniable feature of rural life is that everyone makes it their business to know your business. Gossip on PEI is legendary, once described to me by a life-long resident as a ‘blood sport.’ Historian David Weale quotes a UPEI professor as once telling a class “It is the God-given right of every Islander to know the business of every other Islander.”
Knowing that men who fish stop for supplies at the Village Store in Bedeque, I mentioned to store owner Susan that I wanted to find out about eel. Word spread fast and the very next day she handed me a slip of paper with a name and phone number. The Eel Whisperer. He was expecting my call.
The Eel Whisperer
Islanders are unfailingly generous with their time and knowledge. Brian MacLeod has been fishing for eel all his life and was happy to ‘talk eel’ with a newcomer. Eel is a winter recreational fishery, allowed on PEI in December and January. The eel hibernate in river mud in about 5 feet of water. The successful fisherman has to know where on a river eels are likely to be sleeping, where mud of the right texture is located and the water depth is just right. The weather has to cooperate as well—ice thick enough to walk on, not too thick to cut through, wind and snow at bay for a few hours.
Brian advised that due to warm temperatures the ice was dangerously thin, but colder weather was moving in. He agreed to take me along on the next trip. True to his word, I got a call 2 weeks later.
Off To Find Eel
My fishing guides Brian, Randy and Danny are comfortable with each other and seem to have an unspoken routine. Brian knows where to go and leads the way. Randy wields the chainsaw and cuts holes in the ice. Danny tends the equipment. We are on the Grand River and the ice is so thick Randy can barely open up any holes. While Brian and Danny waste no time getting spears into the first hole, Randy is cutting two more. Good thing, too—no eel in the first hole.
Eel fishing is ‘blind’ fishing—methodically pushing and pulling a 12 foot long spear in and out of the mud. It is done on a slant as the fisherman slowly circles the ice hole, trying to probe every inch of the mud. They say that bumping into an eel feels like pushing a stick into a pile of wet clothes. Quickly the spear is hauled out of the water. IF the wet laundry is really an eel and not just a stick, and IF the technique of threading the spear back out of the ice hole is just right, you are rewarded with a wriggling, clearly pissed-off eel. The eel are flicked off the spear onto the ice. Fishing continues–where there is one sleeping eel there are probably more.
After spending more than an hour working the first three holes and only spearing two eel, the men decide to go further up river. The wind has picked up and it is cold on the ice, but the day is bright and we spot eagles soaring overhead. The next few holes are better. We have been fishing for over 2 hours and have 18 eel. Time to head home.
Cleaning the Catch
Cleaning eel is a job that requires both technique and specialized equipment: a sharp knife, a pair of pliers and an 18-pack of beer for every 3 men in the shed. The skin of an eel is unbelievably tough. It’s removed by making cutting through the flesh behind the gills with the sharp knife then pulling the skin down and off in one piece with the pliers. The beer is required to help the stories flow.
The men remember rivers full of eel, not like today. As a boy Danny would take an axe in an empty feed sack and his spear to the Dunk River and within an hour he had more eels than he could drag home. Those his family didn’t keep for supper he sold door-to-door for fifty cents and made enough money to skate at the rink. Someone’s dad would clean and dry the eel skin, cut it into strips and use them for boot laces. (“The eel laces would last forever as long as you didn’t let the cat into the house. The cat would eat the laces at night.”) That story was more about Islander’s esteem for frugality than about poverty, although I suppose there were elements of both. I was surprised to hear each of the men describe their favorite way of cooking eel, and it was clear that when it came to eel, they did the cooking themselves. Parboiled first then dipped in flour and baked on a drip tray, or grilled on the bar-b-que or fried on the stovetop in a dry skillet. One remembered his mother’s eel pie, another liked eel stew.
A Fine Day Spent in Good Company
Our eel fishing experience was a real treat, and a glimpse into a way of life fast disappearing on Prince Edward Island. We’re putting an eel appetizer on the supper menu for the month of February and I am experimenting with several of the eel recipes mentioned in the shed. I’ll share the best recipes once I finish fiddling with the ingredients and cooking method.
Jim is already talking about getting his own eel spear for next year.