National Geographic : 2010 Sep
• One day an old man casting nearby told us they were sh. I knew that if this was true, eels were sh like no others. For much of my life I had little occasion to pay attention to eels. en 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 over- looking the East Branch of the Delaware River. A man with a pointy white beard and a ponytail, who resembled a wood imp, hopped from be- hind 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 sh. It takes him the better part of four months to nish the work, in preparation for the eel run that occurs during just two nights in Sep- tember, around the dark time of the new moon, when maturing eels swim downstream toward the ocean. e run o en corresponds with oods 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. " ere's Baldy," he said, pointing to a bald eagle circling low, keeping an eye on the rack, looking to snag any sh 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. " is is the womb," he said, as we perched on the rack. " ose are the legs." He gestured toward the stone break- waters stretching diagonally on either side of the river. "You see? It's a woman. All the river's life comes here." 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 a- vor of sh, applewood smoke, and a momentary lingering of dark, fall honey. All the sh I smoke, trout and salmon, are farm raised, except the eels. e eels are wild. ey'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 re is going in the stove, Turner directs the heat and smoke into the cham- ber, 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 Ray Turner stirred the water, agitating as a kid, I encountered eels more o en in crossword puzzles or Scrabble (a good way to unload e's) than in the wilds near my Connecticut home. But in the esh, when my friends and I caught them by mistake on shing outings, they were alien and weird, unnameable things---snakes, maybe, or what?---and we were afraid to retrieve our hooks from their mouths.