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The Eels in Eel Bay

Last summer I read Captain Henry Johnston’s 1937 book, The Thousand Islands of the St Lawrence River with Descriptions of the Scenery, and Historical Quotations of Events, and Reminiscences, with which they are associated. It was an account of a tour boat’s trip through the islands describing sights along the way.

The book was interesting as it gave an excellent description of the Thousand Islands’ area during the thirties. Halfway through the book, Johnston wrote “We are now in Eel Bay.” He described the bay in detail mentioning that the water’s depth varied between three and ten feet with a muddy bottom. Native Americans [must be politically correct] speared eels there during the months of June and September when eels “swarmed” the bay. The eels were then cured much in the same manner as venison was cured and saved to be eaten later in the winter. Interesting, but Johnston was not yet finished. All kinds of game fish are native to The River and I just assumed the same was true with eels. Not so! Johnston wrote that the eel is a foreigner to The River.

Johnston had my interest! He went on to say that eels were born in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Spain in the vicinity of the Azores Islands. From there they migrate to our fresh water streams and rivers where they spend the rest of their lives until the call of nature stir them to return to the place where they were born. There they would spawn the next generation of eels. It was the first time I had heard such a tale.

It was hard to believe that eels would travel thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, swim up the St. Lawrence River to live in Eel Bay. Why Eel Bay? Apparently it’s a combination of factors. The water’s depth is about right and eels like to burrow in the muddy bottom with just their heads showing so they can grab an occasional morsel of food as it swims by. They particularly like The River’s young game fish. Suspecting this might be a fish story, I decide to do some more research.

Since I had access to the book; State of New York Forest, Fish and Game Report of 1907, I started there. The book claimed eels sometimes exceeded four feet in length although two feet was the norm and female eels were larger than male eels. The book related how millions of young eels were known to ascend streams and rivers during the spring but small eels were seldom seen in the fall. Eels were described as voracious, powerful swimmers committing havoc at night by attacking whatever lives in their habitat. The article admitted that their breeding habits were still a mystery. Since the book was written over one hundred years ago, more current information was needed, so it was on to the Internet.

I learned that eels do not breed in fresh water; ever! Exactly where the female eel goes to spawn is not known as ripe [pregnant] females are rarely, if ever, seen. Eels drop completely out of sight once they leave the shore and enter the Atlantic Ocean. After the female eel deposits her millions of eggs, the eggs float in the upper levels of the ocean until they hatch. The resulting larva’s appearance is completely different from the look of an adult eel as they are ribbon like and perfectly transparent. Eventually the larva yields small eels who find their way to fresh water streams and rivers along the east coast. Like the Pacific salmon, eels usually find their way past obstacles such as dams, locks and waterfalls to reach their new home.

While eels have been studied for centuries, their life history still remains an enigma. Remember the earlier passage describing young eels ascending waterfalls in the spring but not seen in the fall? That now makes sense as only adult eels are seen headed to the ocean. Young eels that ascended The River in the spring are enjoying life; growing up in Eel Bay [and elsewhere] waiting for nature to give them the sign to return to the ocean to procreate. That wait could be as long as twenty years.

An additional mystery is that while both female and male eels appear in equal numbers at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in the spring, only the females are found in the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. What happens to the male eels is unknown. No wonder eels only spawn in salt water.

The American eel is on the verge of becoming an endangered species. Last year [2013] roughly 40,000 eels migrated up the St. Lawrence River compared to about 1,000,000 some ten years earlier. Thankfully studies are being conducted by both Americans and Canadians to address the problem.

My research essentially confirmed Captain Johnston’s account of eels in Eel Bay. I was impressed. If you’re fortunate enough to find a copy of his book, it’s a worthwhile read, not just the paragraph or two on eels, but for Johnston’s knowledge of Thousand Island history.

Note: The author, Captain Henry T. Johnston, was born 1863 in Clayton. At the age of twenty he earned his pilot’s license and began life on The River. He sailed the steam yacht “Sirius” for five seasons; the “Alert” for two seasons and later served as Captain aboard the steamer “Nightingale” ferrying passengers between Clayton and Thousand Island Park.

Some readers may be curious about the Johnston House in Clayton on Riverside Drive. It was Captain Henry Johnston’s father, Captain Simon Johnston, who owned the house. The father had the house built in the early 1880s and lived there until his death some ten years later.

Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


David E Scott
Comment by: David E Scott
Left at: 11:19 PM Sunday, February 15, 2015
When fishing for perch in Eel Bay, we would occasionally hook an eel. They would curl around the line much like a snake. Removing them from the hook and line was very difficult.
Susie Wood
Comment by: Susie Wood
Left at: 7:19 AM Monday, February 16, 2015
One of the speakers at save The River's 2015 Winter Conference was Matt Windle, a research scientist at the St. Lawrence River Institute in Cornwall. He spoke about the American Eel. Fascinating critter! A contributing factor in their decline are the power dams at Massena. Many don't make it through the turbines in their migrations.
Comment by: Fish
Left at: 9:15 AM Monday, February 16, 2015
We used to catch these almost every night in Ogdensburg. As a young kid, I would keep one in my kiddie pool to play with. They were so slippery and powerful. I would marvel at them, as I would let them go on land and witness them find their way back to the water, slithering through the grass. This was also their method of going around obstructions as they migrate up the St. Lawrence River. Such fascinating creatures, I miss catching them during the summer.
John Hart
Comment by: John Hart
Left at: 9:40 AM Monday, February 16, 2015
I attended a talk by John Farrell of TIBS and SUNY ESF. The title was "Native fish of the St. Lawrence"-or something close to that. He gave it at a location on Honeoye lake south of Rochester, NY. I remember that he said that the Eel spawned in the Sargasso Sea and migrated up the Gulf of St. Lawrence on currents before swimming up river. He finished the talk with a picture of the Greenland Shark and mentioned to me that we do not need to worry that it will get as far as Chippewa Point.
Martha Grimes
Comment by: Martha Grimes
Left at: 8:24 PM Sunday, March 1, 2015
Robert Matthews, you never cease to amaze me on the resources of your library and your insatiable quest for knowledge of the The River. Read on, lead on good friend.
Mary Alice Snetsinger
Comment by: Mary Alice Snetsinger
Left at: 3:52 PM Thursday, March 12, 2015
Thanks for an interesting article. Just wanted to say, however, that you were right, and Captain Johnston was wrong. American Eels *are* native to the River. Spawning does take place in the Sargasso Sea, then young eels make their way through the oceans to eastern North America. They spend most of their lives here, eventually returning to the tropical Atlantic Ocean to spawn and die. Sadly, Ontario populations have declined 99% since the 1970s, and they are ranked as an Endangered species in Ontario.