<p>Year-old "glass" eels hole up in Maine's Pemaquid River.</p>

Year-old "glass" eels hole up in Maine's Pemaquid River.

Mystery Travelers

They spend decades in rivers and lakes, then cross oceans and spawn in secret.

As a kid, I encountered eels more often in crossword puzzles or Scrabble (a good way to unload e's) than in the wilds near my Connecticut home. But in the flesh, when my friends and I caught them by mistake on fishing outings, they were alien and weird, unnameable things—snakes, maybe, or what?—and we were afraid to retrieve our hooks from their mouths.

One day an old man casting nearby told us they were fish. I knew that if this was true, eels were fish like no others.

For much of my life I had little occasion to pay attention to eels. Then 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 overlooking the East Branch of the Delaware River. A man with a pointy white beard and a ponytail, who resembled a wood imp, hopped from behind the plywood door of the smokehouse. His name was Ray Turner.

Read This Next

The stories I learned walking the Burma Road in China
How COVID-19 harms the heart
How to keep the red wolf from going extinct for a second time

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet