Full disclosure: I don’t like the taste of eel. Frankly, I’m not big on salmon, either. When it gets right down to it, I’m a cold-blooded East Coast transplant who won’t even clean her own crab.
But while I may not like eel, it ranks high with local foodies for a good reason: Its meaty taste is both filling and exquisitely fishy. And no matter how your taste buds may vote, just seeing eel roasting on a stake should count as a treat, because eel means more than its meat.
From its life cycle, to the way it’s hooked, to the way it’s roasted, eel serves as a connecting link between local people and a local food tradition that goes back to the beginning of time. Eel means powerful ocean; eel means manhood and respect for the river; eel means life renewed.
On the other hand, “eel” doesn’t mean eel at all. What we call eel in Del Norte County is actually lamprey. Zoologically speaking, real eel taxonomy is quite different from that of the lamprey; lamprey don’t even count as a fish. For one thing, they don’t have bones. Like sharks and rays, lamprey hold themselves together with cartilage. That’s one of the reasons our “eels” are so hard to hook — they writhe and twist with more flexibility than a Circ del Solei acrobat.
It’s eeling time now on the Klamath River. Hooking eels requires a great deal of athleticism, cooperation, and respect for the river. Eelers wait near the mouth of the Klamath for a surge of the sleek, white creatures making their way upstream. Lamprey, like salmon, return to fresh water to spawn and die, so eeling takes place at predictable times during the year.