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Chapter 13. OBSERVATIONS OF THE EEL, AND OTHER FISH THAT WANT SCALES, AND HOW TO FISH FOR THEM
PISCATOR. It is agreed by most men, that the Eel is a most dainty fish: the Romans have esteemed her the Helena of their feasts, and some the queen of palate-pleasure. But most men differ about their breeding: some say they breed by generation as other fish do; and others, that they breed, as some worms do, of mud; as rats and mice, and many other living creatures, are bred in Egypt by the sun's heat when it shines upon the overflowing of the river Nilus; or out of the putrefaction of the earth, and divers other ways. Those that deny them to breed by generation as other fish do, ask, If any man ever saw an Eel to have a spawn or melt? And they are answered, that they may be as certain of their breeding as if they had seen them spawn: for they say, that they are certain that Eels have all parts fit for generation, like other fish, but so small as not to be easily discerned, by reason of their fatness, but that discerned they may be, and that the he and the she Eel may be distinguished by their fins. And Rondeletius says, he has seen Eels cling together like dew-worms.
And others say, that Eels, growing old, breed other Eels out of the corruption of their own age, which, Sir Francis Bacon says, exceeds not ten years. And others say, that as pearls are made of glutinous dew-drops, which are condensed by the sun's heat in those countries, so Eels are bred of a particular dew, falling in the months of May or June on the banks of some particular ponds or rivers, apted by nature for that end; which in a few days are by the sun's heat turned into Eels: and some of the ancients have called the Eels that are thus bred the offspring of Jove. I have seen in the beginning of July, in a river not far from Canterbury, some part of it covered over with young Eels, about the thickness of a straw; and these Eels did lie on the top of that water, as thick as motes are said to be in the sun: and I have heard the like of other rivers, as namely in Severn, where they are called Yelvers; and in a pond or mere near unto Staffordshire, where, about a set time in summer, such small Eels abound so much, that many of the poorer sort of people, that inhabit near to it, take such Eels out of this mere with sieves or sheets, and make a kind of Eel-cake of them, and eat it like as bread. And Gesner quotes Venerable Bede to say, that in England there is an island called Ely, by reason of the innumerable number of Eels that breed in it. But that Eels may be bred as some worms, and some kind of bees and wasps are, either of dew, or out of the corruption of the earth, seems to be made probable by the barnacles and young goslings bred by the sun's heat and the rotten planks of an old ship, and hatched of trees; both which are related for truth by Du Bartas and Lobel, and also by our learned Camden, and laborious Gerard in his Herbal.
It is said by Rondeletius, that those Eels that are bred in rivers that relate to or be nearer to the sea, never return to the fresh waters, as the Salmon does always desire to do, when they have once tasted the salt-water; and I do the more easily believe this, because I am certain that powdered beef is a most excellent bait to catch an Eel. And though Sir Francis Bacon will allow the Eel's life to be but ten years, yet he, in his "History of Life and Death," mentions a Lamprey belonging to the Roman Emperor to be made tame, and so kept for almost threescore years: and that such useful and pleasant observations were made of this Lamprey, that Crassus the orator, who kept her, lamented her death. And we read in Doctor Hakewill, that Hortensius was seen to weep at the death of a Lamprey that he had kept long, and loved exceedingly.
It is granted by all, or most men, that Eels, for about six months, that is to say, the six cold months of the year, stir not up and down, neither in the rivers, nor in the pools in which they usually are, but get into the soft earth or mud; and there many of them together bed themselves, and live without feeding upon anything, as I have told you some swallows have been observed to do in hollow trees for those cold six months: and this the Eel and swallow do, as not being able to endure winter weather; for Gesner quotes Albertus to say, that in the year 1125, that year's winter being more cold than usually, Eels did by nature's instinct get out of the water into a stack of hay in a meadow upon dry ground, and there bedded themselves; but yet at last a frost killed them. And our Camden relates, that in Lancashire fishes were digged out of the earth with spades, where no water was near to the place. I shall say little more of the Eel, but that, as it is observed he is impatient of cold, so it hath been observed that, in warm weather, an Eel has been known to live five days out of the water.
And lastly, let me tell you that some curious searchers into the natures of fish observe that there be several sorts or kinds of Eels: as the Silver Eel, the Green or greenish Eel, with which the river of Thames abounds, and those are called Grigs; and a blackish Eel, whose head is more flat and bigger than ordinary Eels; and also an Eel whose fins are reddish, and but seldom taken in this nation, and yet taken sometimes. These several kinds of Eels are, say some, diversely bred; as namely, out of the corruption of the earth, and some by dew, and other ways, as I have said to you: and yet it is affirmed by some for a certain, that the Silver Eel is bred by generation; but not by spawning as other fish do, but that her brood come alive from her, being then little live Eels no bigger nor longer than a pin: and I have had too many testimonies of this to doubt the truth of it myself; and if I thought it needful I might prove it, but I think it is needless.
And this Eel, of which I have said so much to you, may be caught with divers kinds of baits: as namely, with powdered beef; with a lob or garden worm; with a minnow; or gut of a hen, chicken, or the guts of any fish; or with almost anything, for he is a greedy fish. But the Eel may be caught, especially, with a little, a very little Lamprey, which some call a Pride, and may in the hot months be found many of them in the river Thames, and in many mud-heaps in other rivers; yea, almost as usually as one finds worms in a dunghill.
Next note, that the Eel seldom stirs in the day, but then hides himself; and therefore he is usually caught by night, with one of these baits of which I have spoken, and may be then caught by laying hooks, which you are to fasten to the bank, or twigs of a tree; or by throwing a string cross the stream with many hooks at it, and those baited with the aforesaid baits; and a clod, or plummet, or stone, thrown into the river with this line, that so you may in the morning find it near to some fixed place, and then take it up with a drag-hook or otherwise. But these things are, indeed, too common to be spoken of, and an hour's fishing with any Angler will teach you better both for these and many other common things in the practical part of Angling, than a week's discourse. I shall therefore conclude this direction for taking the Eel, by telling you that, in a warm day in summer, I have taken many a good Eel by snigling, and have been much pleased with that sport.
And because you that are but a young Angler know not what snigling is, I will now teach it to you. You remember I told you that Eels do not usually stir in the daytime, for then they hide themselves under some covert, or under boards or planks about flood-gates, or weirs, or mills, or in holes in the river-banks: so that you, observing your time in a warm day, when the water is lowest, may take a strong, small hook, tied to a strong line, or to a string about a yard long; and then into one of these holes, or between any boards about a mill, or under any great stone or plank, or any place where you think an Eel may hide or shelter herself, you may, and with the help of a short stick, put in your bait, but leisurely, and as far as you may conveniently: and it is scarce to be doubted but that, if there be an Eel within the sight of it, the Eel will bite instantly, and as certainly gorge it: and you need not doubt to have him, if you pull him not out of the hole too quickly, but pull him out by degrees; for he, lying folded double in his hole, will, with the help of his tail, break all, unless you give him time to be wearied with pulling, and so get him out by degrees, not pulling too hard. And to commute for your patient hearing this long direction, I shall next tell you how to make this Eel a most excellent dish of meat.
First, wash him in water and salt; then pull off his skin below his vent or navel, and not much further: having done that, take out his guts as clean as you can, but wash him not: then give him three or four scotches with a knife; and then put into his belly and those scotches sweet herbs, an anchovy, and a little nutmeg grated or cut very small; and your herbs and anchovies must also be cut very small, and mixed with good butter and salt: having done this, then pull his skin over him all but his head, which you are to cut off, to the end you may tie his skin about that part where his head grew, and it must be so tied as to keep all his moisture within his skin: and having done this, tie him with tape or packthread to a spit, and roast him leisurely, and baste him with water and salt till his skin breaks, and then with butter: and having roasted him enough, let what was put into his belly, and what he drips, be his sauce. [S. F.]
When I go to dress an Eel thus, I wish he were as long and big as that which was caught in Peterborough River in the year 1667, which was a yard and three quarters long. If you will not believe me, then go and see at one of the coffee-houses in King Street in Westminster.
But now let me tell you, that though the Eel thus dressed be not only excellent good, but more harmless than any other way, yet it is certain that physicians account the Eel dangerous meat; I will advise you therefore, as Solomon says of honey (Prov. xxv. 16), "Hast thou found it, eat no more than is sufficient, lest thou surfeit, for it is not good to eat much honey," And let me add this, that the uncharitable Italian bids us "give Eels, and no wine, to our enemies."
And I will beg a little more of your attention to tell you, that Aldrovandus and divers physicians commend the Eel very much for medicine, though not for meat. But let me tell you one observation; that the Eel is never out of season, as Trouts and most fish are at set times; at least most Eels are not.
I might here speak of many other fish whose shape and nature are much like the Eel, and frequent both the sea and fresh rivers; as namely, the Lamprel, the Lamprey, and the Lamperne; as also of the mighty Conger, taken often in Severn about Gloucester: and might also tell in what high esteem many of them are for the curiosity of their taste, But these are not so proper to be talked of by me, because they make us Anglers no sport; therefore I will let them alone, as the Jews do, to whom they are forbidden by their law.
And Scholar, there is also a Flounder, a sea-fish, which will wander very far into fresh rivers, and there lose himself, and dwell, and thrive to a hand's breath, and almost twice so long, — a fish without scales, and most excellent meat, — and a fish that affords much sport to the Angler, with any small worm, but especially a little bluish worm, gotten out of marsh-ground or meadows, which should be well scoured. But this, though it be most excellent meat, yet it wants scales, and is, as I told you, therefore an abomination to the Jews.
But, Scholar, there is a fish that they in Lancashire boast very much of, called a Char, taken there, and I think there only, in a mere called Winander-Mere; a mere, says Camden, that is the largest in this nation, being ten miles in length, and, some say, as smooth in the bottom as if it were paved with polished marble. This fish never exceeds fifteen or sixteen inches in length, and 'tis spotted like a Trout, and has scarce a bone but on the back. But this, though I do not know whether it make the Angler sport, yet I would have you take notice of it, because it is a rarity, and of so high esteem with persons of great note.
Nor would I have you ignorant of a rare fish called a GUINIAD, of which I shall tell you what Camden and others speak. The river Dee, which runs by Chester, springs in Merionethshire; and, as it runs toward Chester, it runs through Pemble-Mere, which is a large water: and it is observed that, though the river Dee abounds with Salmon, and Pemble-Mere with the Guiniad, yet there is never any Salmon caught in the mere, nor a Guiniad in the river. And now my next observation shall be of the Barbel.