Eels still slithering through my mind in central Pennsylvania

Olympus Digital Camera
(U.S. Forest Service)

From a bluff overlooking the Juniata somewhere in Huntingdon County, not far from Route 522, we paused, looking down at a long, shallow pool. The river was running lazy, low and clear after a dry spell.

I think it was August, and I was just a tired, sweaty kid, around 1970. We had put canoes in the water at dawn just below Mount Union and floated for miles fishing for smallmouths. It was late afternoon.

When we climbed up the hill to get the truck to go home, the old river rat who had been kind enough to take his factory buddy’s kid “bass fishin’” paused to teach him one last thing. I’ll never forget it.

“See the letter V the rocks make there, with the point downstream?” he said gesturing at a broken formation in the middle of the river that I could just barely make out. “That’s an old eel trap, and it was built by Indians hundreds of years ago.”

I was fascinated. Even more so a few years later when we caught two eels about 36 inches long while fishing for stocked trout by lantern light in Huntingdon County’s Standing Stone Creek. That happened near Jackson’s Corner during a fishing trip with my Boy Scouts troop. Never before had I seen an eel.

To me then, eels were both terrifying and intriguing – toothy, slimy, strong and slithering. I’m ashamed to say I wouldn’t even touch the first one. I wish I could remember what we did with them. Perhaps we released them. I know we didn’t eat them, although some claimed that they were a delicacy.

Back then, there were still more than a few eels left in steams in the Susquehanna River watershed, and the Scout leaders didn’t make a big deal out of catching them. I guess they didn’t know the strange creatures would disappear from central Pennsylvania streams. Perhaps they wouldn’t have cared.

Later, I recall seeing what remained of two other eel traps in the Juniata, built, I assumed, by Native Americans centuries before. Amazing that they lasted so long. Over the years I became so intrigued by how important eels were in central Pennsylvania’s history that I wrote a paper in college about it.

But I concentrated on the Juniata – the largest tributary to the Susquehanna River – because the stream’s headwaters were near my home in Altoona, and that’s the stream I fished often for bass, catfish, carp and rock bass.

These eel memories came flooding back to me when I read Ad Crable’s excellent piece at the bottom of Page 1, “Dozens of native eel weirs discovered in river: Some Susquehanna fishing devices are thought to be 6,000 years old.” You can read it here.

It would be hard to exaggerate how many eels there were and the historical role they played. Estimates of historical abundance suggest that eels made up 25% of all fish biomass in the Susquehanna River basin.

The snakelike fish were once a primary source of food for indigenous people living along the Susquehanna. Native Americans used to smoke and dry eel meat to be used all winter. It was the most important source of protein and calories for local people for several thousand years.

The eels are long gone here now, of course – they mostly can’t get past the dams on the lower Susquehanna – but their influence persists. For example, names of streams and towns such as Swatara and Shamokin are reportedly Delaware Indian dialect words referring to eel importance and culture.

Categories: Pennsylvania – Jeff Mulhollem

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