The American Eel: An Arkansas Aquatic Phantom (Part III)


Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a three-part essay on eel fishing in Arkansas from a work by Mark Spitzer titled: NATURE OF THE AMERICAN EEL: AN AQUATIC PHANTOM IN ARKANSAS.

Part I is available here.

Part II is available here.

By Mark Spitzer

I bought a ten-dollar trotline at Walmart along with a pack of 1/0 swivel hooks and sat down to rig it up. The hooks had barbs and were small enough for a foot-long eel to get its mouth around, but I also added a few smaller hooks meant for pint-size sunnies. Those hooks were so dinky that I couldn’t thread the strings through them, so instead, I used fifty-pound braided line.

It was a few days after the Caddo River, and the plan was to run the trotline beneath Remmel Dam on the Ouachita River, where Casey had caught a hundred eels two weeks ago. Those eels were bigger than the Caddo eels, some of them longer than three feet.

I took Robin along, and we got off at the Malvern exit and met my assistant Scotty, who works with me on the Toad Suck Review. A grad student in creative writing and avid fisherman, he was staying with his mother in Hot Springs, so only had to drive a few miles.

We found a spot downstream from the dam with tons of toaster- to microwave-sized boulders in knee-deep water. Following me upstream as I unwound the trotline and Scotty followed, baiting it with small chunks of night crawlers. The line was 125 feet long and had twenty-five hooks dangling from it, plus a pop bottle float on each end.

I’d been trotlining hardcore for over a year, a method I found to be a massive improvement over the yo-yos I employed for five, living on the shores of Lake Conway. Yo-yos, or “auto-fishers,” are these spring-loaded things you hang from trees. When a fish takes the bait, the spring sets the hook. I used to check my yo-yos twice a day out in the cypresses, and I frequently caught big fish. But when fish are suspended, waiting for me to wake up or come home from work, they can die pretty easily. Especially in warm weather when turtles are prone to strip fish of their flesh, leaving nothing but a skeleton. Trotlines, however, keep fish under water, where they can swish around and avoid turtles.

I’d had a lot of luck with my trotline, which is strung across a spot where a creek used to be before the reservoir was flooded. Catfish still travel there, and other fish too. Since I’d been running that line, I’d caught a twenty-eight-pound flathead, and another that must’ve weighed sixty. I’d also caught crappie the size of flattened footballs, plus drum, gar, bass, bowfin, and the occasional unfortunate water bird.

My point being, since I’d had some practice, I felt pretty confident that I could get them with my custom-made small-game trotline. If they were in there, that is.

So as the sun went down, we settled into our lawn chairs and threw out some lines. A few minutes later, we couldn’t see our bobbers in the dark, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the trotline. And our pre-mixed gin and tonics.

Upstream, we kept seeing people catching bass. A few times Robin mentioned that maybe we should fish over there, but being more of a hermit, I was enjoying the privacy of not catching anything where we were.

An hour later, the trotline floats were bopping up and down, so Scotty and I decided to check them. Now that it was darker out, we couldn’t see the rocks beneath the surface, so we stumbled around like drunken clowns, removing sunfish from every other hook. If there wasn’t a bluegill or rock bass on that line being piddly, the hook was usually bare.

“These dang bream are taking all our bait,” I complained to Scotty, then slipped off a rock, went flailing around, and ended up falling into the river. Scotty laughed, we re-baited the line, then sloshed back to shore where we made a small fire so I could dry out.

After an hour of standing in the smoke, we figured we’d give it a final try.

“Hope you get an eel,” Robin said.

Those were my exact thoughts, but at this point in the evening, I didn’t have much faith we’d get one. The trotline floats were going nuts, as they had earlier, meaning the sunfish had been raiding the buffet again.

Scotty led, taking off any bait that remained and throwing back the small sunnies. I followed, winding up the line and securing the hooks. When we neared the end, I gave up entirely.

“Holy crap,” Scotty said, “it’s an eel.”

I splashed over, and there it was, writhing and squirming and snapping at me with its razor-sharp turtly beak. It got me once and drew blood, but I managed to unclip the hook-line and carry it back.

Meanwhile, the monster was thrashing like a spastic demon and flashing with a golden glint, tangling itself even more. It was climbing the double line and weaving in and out of it and lunging for more finger-meat. Then it began knotting itself and gnashing on the metal clip and hissing like a crazed viper.

I dropped it in my bucket, then headed back to assist Scotty. We got that trotline out of there, then went back to the eel, which was now way more knotted up than it was before. That fifty-pound test was wrapped around it multiple times, practically slicing into it. We had to get a knife and perform some highly surgical cuts, which was not an easy procedure. The line was actually strangling that eel, and it just kept twisting the tourniquet. I was struggling to keep my grip on it, Scotty was trying not to get chomped, and it was roaring at us like a rabid dragon. In the depths of its hellacious throat, I could see one of the smaller hooks.

It took fifteen minutes to remove the line, and I was worried about the bruises it left, now ringing its neck with stripes. Then weasling the hook out through its gills, we beheld the behemoth sparkling with slime.

Since this was the first I’d caught by myself, it meant a lot more to me than Fire Hydrant did. This leviathan was also way more freakish than the one Casey had shocked on the Caddo, no doubt due to the burbling blood spurting from its gaping maw, pumping up its creepy factor.

“Too bad it’s so puny,” Robin laughed.

It was only nine inches long.

In the morning, like usual, Fire Hydrant was nowhere to be seen. Malvern, on the other hand (that’s what we named her), was lying on her side in the tank, gasping like she was suffering from organ failure—and she probably was. Getting all wound up like that had done enough damage to do her in.

I’d thrown Malvern in with Fire Hydrant, since they were both the same size, and maybe even from the same spawn. Since a female eel can produce three to forty million eggs, and since the Caddo is a tributary of the Ouachita, the possibility that they could be sisters wasn’t that ridiculous.

Anyway, I tossed Malvern into Lake Conway, where the turtles were on the prowl. I took her picture, left her there, and an hour later she was gone—another casualty for my list, wasted because I decided to play God. Or biologist. Or fish writer—who believes he has to capture a creature in order to know it better, consequences be damned!

That’s why, the next day, I drove Fire Hydrant to the Arkansas River and let her go. She was a crummy pet anyhow, very unsocial and never around. Observing her was like trying to keep a phantom locked up.

But I hesitate to employ this experience as a metaphor, because that’s too obvious. Malvern was an isolated case. Still, when something like this happens, it’s in our nature to try to place it into perspective. It’s also in our nature to moralize—which is what I’m trying to avoid right now. So let’s look at the facts instead:

In 2004, the US Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition to protect the American eel under the Endangered Species Act. But after three years of research and debate, it was decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that extinction was an imminent threat.

This assessment, however, was taken to task in 2011 when the USFW responded to another petition, in light of the fact that the 2007 status review hadn’t thoroughly assessed population structure, the impact of the parasitic nematode Anguillicola crassus, declining long-term glass eel recruitment numbers, and the effects of global warming.

So that’s what’s going on now. Essentially, we’re still hashing out the details of the 2007 ruling. And since hashing out details requires data, that’s where Casey andamerican eel part iii others comes in—in regions where virtually nothing is known about eel movement patterns, distribution, or how to make an effective ladder.

Of course, there’s a lot more historical data on American eels from the East than there is from the West, which is understandable. We’ve been watching eels longer and more closely in the East, where they’re more established as part of the overall fishery culture. Hence, it’s the research from the East, I suspect, that will determine the status of the American eel.

I also suspect that because this fish’s disposition has already been evaluated in excruciating detail, it’s doubtful that the Nature Feds will generously fund any new studies that aren’t absolutely essential. This attitude echoes the tendency in human nature to not treat a wound until it’s infected, when prevention, in the first place, would’ve been the more pragmatic choice.

That’s easy to say, though, sitting in my shed, typing on my laptop, staring out at the world in the way I perceive it. I know I’m idealistic, I know eels are gradually going down, and I know it’s ridiculous to claim we should’ve thought more about the effects of global warming before allowing the petrochemical industries and their lackies to confuse scientific fact with strategic disinformation and denial.

Nope, it’s too late for that. It’s also too late for the European eel, which has experienced a ninety-nine percent population loss due to industry, development, pollution, dams, the whole enchilada. An enchilada we are eating now, the range of the American eel being down to seventy-five percent of what it once was in the US watershed

But if there’s one saving grace for the American eel, it’s that they’re able to endure a wide range of environmental conditions. According to that 2007 US Fish and Wildlife report, they “have the broadest diversity of habitats of any fish species in the world.” Meaning they’re capable of surviving here if eliminated there, since they’re all one population anyway, spawning in the same spot. Additionally, eels are able to withstand all sorts of temperature and salinity levels, which accounts for how they survived several ice ages.

My highly biased conclusion being: this baffling and bizarre fish will continue its slippery legacy as long as there’s a Sargasso Sea. And even if this species crashes, they’ll persevere in our imaginations (assuming we can outlast them), as they’ve done for millennia.

Still, imaginary fish are a poor substitute for the real thing.

* * *

Mark Spitzer is the author of twenty books and an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, where he is the Editor in Chief of the award-winning Toad Suck Review ( His essay collection Season of the Gar (U of Arkansas Press, 2010) will soon be followed by a sequel entitled Return of the Gar (U of North Texas Press), and he is also working on a book called Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West for the University of Nebraska Press. He can be seen on the alligator gar episode of Animal Planet’s River Monsters series, or paddling through the tornado-littered sandtar soup of Lake Conway. For more info, go to

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