Where Have All the Eels Gone?
“A fisherman,” according to an old Russian proverb, “can spot another fisherman from far away.” This is true. And within the fishing clan there is a set of private yet shared moments that bond fishermen together in an almost spiritual communion. The explosion of spray and color when a big fish charges a topwater lure. The devastating ping of snapped line after that same fish makes a last desperate surge and claims its freedom.
But there is one shared experience that my fellow anglers surely know and yet seldom discuss: the moment when a hard-fighting fish finally comes to net and reveals itself to be not some gorgeous bass or trout but an eel. This can happen in a clear Maine lake, a tepid Georgia river, the salty blue-green depths off Montauk Point, or in any other body of fresh or salt water around the globe inhabited by one of the many species of the genus Anguilla. And while to the Western eye eels lack the charisma we like to assign to glamorous marine megafauna like, say, striped bass (for which eels are often used as bait), their mysterious life cycle and tendency to turn up on the end of the line just about everywhere make them excellent game for an angling writer who is prepared to go deeper, so to speak.
It’s not just eels, but river-to-ocean connections more generally, that are disappearing — the very flow of organic wealth between land and sea as embodied by migratory fish. We are in fact witnessing the death of the “circulatory system,” of nature itself.
And so we have “Eels,” by James Prosek. Prosek has made his reputation as a kind of underwater Audubon. His trout watercolors, collected in a book when he was still an undergraduate at Yale, bear those particular, exciting hues that still-living fish possess — a quality that fish-catchers cherish and everyday fish-eaters couldn’t care less about. As “Eels” demonstrates, Prosek is every bit as good a writer as a painter. Perhaps this is because both his art and writing draw their inspiration from a similar challenge: to express the ineffable, fading aspect of the natural world in the…