One day an old man casting nearby told us they were fish. I knew that if this was true, eels were fish like no others.
For much of my life I had little occasion to pay attention to eels. Then six years ago, while heading down Route 17 in the Catskills of New York State on a cold November day, I decided to follow a sign that said, "Delaware Delicacies, Smokehouse." Past the Cobleskill quarry, down a sinuous dirt road through a shadowy hemlock forest, I came to a small tar-paper shack with a silver smokestack, perched on a high bank overlooking the East Branch of the Delaware River. A man with a pointy white beard and a ponytail, who resembled a wood imp, hopped from behind the plywood door of the smokehouse. His name was Ray Turner.
Every summer when the river is low, Turner—slippery, resilient, and a bit mysterious himself—refurbishes the V-shaped stone walls of a weir that funnels water through a wooden rack designed to trap fish. It takes him the better part of four months to finish the work, in preparation for the eel run that occurs during just two nights in September, around the dark time of the new moon, when maturing eels swim downstream toward the ocean. The run often corresponds with floods brought on by storms during hurricane season, when the sky is at its blackest and the river at its highest. As Rachel Carson observed, the eel is "a lover of darkness."
We paddled in a canoe upstream from Turner's house toward the weir. "There's Baldy," he said, pointing to a bald eagle circling low, keeping an eye on the rack, looking to snag any fish before Turner did. In this broad valley, reminiscent of a Hudson River school painting, the weir made an impressive piece of land art. Turner spoke of it in metaphorical terms. "This is the womb," he said, as we perched on the rack. "Those are the legs." He gestured toward the stone breakwaters stretching diagonally on either side of the river. "You see? It's a woman. All the river's life comes here."