When the September run is good, Turner can take up to 2,500 eels. "Every year I let the biggest girl back in the river," he said. (Assuming the eel is a female and that she makes it out to sea to spawn, she will lay up to 30 million eggs.) Turner hot smokes his eels and sells them to passersby, as well as to restaurants and retailers, earning him up to $20,000 a year. "I consider the eels to be the best quality protein in my line—a very unique flavor of fish, applewood smoke, and a momentary lingering of dark, fall honey. All the fish I smoke, trout and salmon, are farm raised, except the eels. The eels are wild. They're like free-range."
Back at the smokehouse, Turner showed me the two concrete-block chambers where the eels—dressed and brined in salt, brown sugar, and local honey—are hung on rods. Behind each chamber is a 55-gallon-drum stove with a door on the front and a chimney hole with two pipes in the back. Once the fire is going in the stove, Turner directs the heat and smoke into the chamber, and the eels are cooked at 160 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit for a minimum of four hours.
He ushered me through the back door, past neat stacks of hand-split applewood, to a wooden tank, like a giant wine cask cut in half, covered in moss and dripping water through its swollen slats. I peered over the chicken wire around the rim into a clear pool. Turner stirred the water with a net, agitating some 500 silvery eels, most about as big around as a dollar coin and up to three feet long. They were lithe and sensuous—just magical.
Freshwater eels, of the genus Anguilla, are ancient fishes. They began evolving more than 50 million years ago, branching into 16 species and three subspecies. Most migratory fish, such as salmon and shad, are anadromous, spawning in fresh water and living as adults in salt water. The freshwater eel is one of the few fishes that do the opposite, spawning in the ocean and spending their adulthood in lakes, rivers, and estuaries—a life history known as catadromy. In general, female eels are found upstream in river systems, while males stay in the estuaries. Eels may spend decades in rivers before returning to the ocean to spawn, after which they die. No one has ever been able to witness freshwater eels spawning, and for eel biologists, solving this eel-reproduction mystery remains a kind of holy grail.