GENERAL ARTICLES

Slippery Business

Bermuda-bound on a honeymoon, the Richelieu River eels caught by Jean Thuot end their trip on NY tables

PLACIDE LABELLE July 15 1947
GENERAL ARTICLES

Slippery Business

Bermuda-bound on a honeymoon, the Richelieu River eels caught by Jean Thuot end their trip on NY tables

PLACIDE LABELLE July 15 1947

Slippery Business

Bermuda-bound on a honeymoon, the Richelieu River eels caught by Jean Thuot end their trip on NY tables

PLACIDE LABELLE

SOME YEARS ago a sewer in the town of Iberville, Que., became blocked about 700 feet from its outfall in the Richelieu River.

“Let’s get Jean Thuot,” said the Sewers Department foreman. “He knows what to do about this.” One hour later the sewer had been cleared and the water was flowing smoothly. Thuot had used no special tool. He had not even lowered himself into the manhole. In fact, he had done hardly anything. An eel had cleared the conduit—a common eel, a fish.

“There was nothing to it,” recalls Jean Thuot. “When the foreman came for help I went to my eel traps and grabbed a four-foot fellow. I hooked a length of strong twine through his mouth and dropped him into the manhole. An eelwill invariably swim downstream. It’ll jump over, crawl under or wriggle through any obstacle, as long as there’s enough moisture for its gills and no danger of suffocating.

“I let this fellow fight his way toward the river, giving him all the rope he needed. When he emerged at the mouth of the sewer someone set him free. Then I tied a bigger rope, chains and other heavy stuff on the length of twine. At the river end of the sewer they started to pull and the conduit was cleared in no time, what with the chains and other objects dragging through the sediment that was choking it.”

That is one of the yarns 81-year-young Jean Thuot likes to spin about, his pet fish, the eel. Jean and his stories are well known in Iberville. At 81 he still has a brisk gait and erect bearing, manages his business—-which consists mainly in operating an eel-canning plant—and plans for future expansion. He never wears glasses and neither does his wife, who is 83. “I suppose we’ll have to when we start gettin’ old,” he says.

By all standards Jean Thuot should have been in the grave years ago, for he has transgressed all the known health “don’ts” in his full and energetic life. Like his father before him he prospected for gold in California but never struck it rich.

“I came back to dad’s eel-trapping business,” he says. “There’s good steady money in it for the man who doesn’t mind the hardships.”

And hardships there are. Every spring the traps, which look like big boxes, are assembled on the shore. Then men wade Continued, on page 41

Continued from page 19

into the swift icy stream, shoulder-deep and secure the four traps on the river bed. These traps, of about 350 cubic feet, can hold as many as 500 eels each, but the daily catch never quite reaches that number.

The underwater boxes are placed at the tapering end of wooden gullets which fence in the eels as they swim downstream toward the St. Lawrence. The boxes are divided into two unequal compartments. The eel follows the rushing water into the smaller compartment through a hole about one foot in diameter and, once inside, slides through a smaller opening into the other compartment where the water is still. That second compartment is the trap proper.

To fish the eels out of the trap the Thuots raise its top and dip them into a rowboat with a large spoon net. Eels can live out of the water for hours. After making the rounds of all four traps the Thuots row back to the shore where they count the captives and throw them, still fighting fit, into storage pools. By the first days of November the season’s catch is dumped into a water-filled tanker that carries it to New York, via Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson. The eels are still wriggling with life when they reach New York, whose Italians are America’s greatest eel addicts. For many of them the Christmas turkey is an eel strongly seasoned and swimming in a wine sauce.

Peak years have brought over 125,000 pounds of eel into Thuot’s traps, selling at anywhere from eight to 15 cents a pound. Last year’s haul was considerably smaller but the price was at its maximum of 15 cents.

Thuot’s eel traps are the only ones in Canada outside the St. Lawrence River and they are believed to be the oldest in America. The business started around 1860 when Jean’s father went into partnership with a man named Goyette who had learned the trick of trapping the slippery, snakelike fish from the Indians. The company still goes under the name of Thuot and Goyette, but it’s the Thuots who run the show.

According to Jean Thuot the Indian contraption was pretty rudimentary: stone fences leading to a hole in the river bed. Still, it showed that the Indians knew the habits of the eel, a fish which clings to the bottom on its way downstream toward the sea, whatever the depth.

Where Eels Come From

That’s not the only odd thing about the eel: all in all it’s a queer fish. Even those who practically live with it, like the Thuots, refuse to accept the textbook theory of its origin. They are prepared to swear that the females spawn somewhere upstream. But science says: No. Eels are spawned in a deep depression of the Sargasso Sea, southwest of Bermuda, whence they swim shoreward and inland.

“All I know,” says Jean Thuot, “is that never has an eel been caught with her eggs. Doesn’t that prove that the spawning takes place upstream from my traps? Furthermore, all eels swim downstream. That alone should answer the laboratory fishermen who claim they come from the sea!”

Over the ages, there has been lively guesswork about how the eel multiplied. Authors have written that eels simply oozed out of the earth; that they divided into more eels when they died; that they were bom spontaneously from dew; that they were water-transformed

horsehairs or miniature sea serpents. Our Indians seem to have been closer to the truth, for they believed the eel was hatched in Lake Ontario swamps, like certain species of freshwater fish.

Still, science is satisfied that the ancient enigma of the eel has been solved once and for all, due to the 18-year study of the great Danish naturalist, Dr. Johannes Schmidt, who died in 1933.

The first clue that eels came from the sea was discovered by two Italian scientists, Grassi and Calandruccio, as late as 1897. They showed that the leptocephalae (meaning: tiny heads), minute and almost invisible fish floating on or near the surface in the Straits of Messina, were actually baby eels. They went on to claim, erroneously, that the hatching also took place in the Straits of Messina.

This was disproved by Dr. Schmidt, who found leptocephalae of exactly the same size off the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic.

Schmidt concluded that the little fish of the Faroes and those of the Mediterranean both came from the same hatching area then still to be discovered. After years of exploring and research he located the place of origin of the European eel in the Sargasso sea, southwest of Bermuda. Later he found the hatching hole of the American eel (Thuot’s) farther southwest, closer to Florida.

In the lukewarm abyss of the Sargasso sea each female ejects from three to 10 million eggs and dies almost immediately. So does the male, after impregnating the female spawn. This death and birth occurs about midwinter.

The egg is presently hatched under water and the larva, a tiny, transparent blade of jelly with two eyes, floats to the surface. After months of travelling millions of larvae reach the American continent, preparing to invade it via rivers, lagoons, streams and seaside swamps.

Never a Dull Moment

By this time the baby eels have undergone a major change and they look like pink worms. They wait for a cloudy night and some of them start their invasion toward fresh water. It is believed that the males stay at the mouths of the rivers in salt water. Those going in will stay in fresh water an average of eight years and grow to their full size while they are inland. Their maximum length is about six feet, but most of those caught in the Richelieu average 3}/¿ feet and tip the scales at 12 pounds.

The American eel is found everywhere from Labrador to Brazil, in almost any body of fresh water to which the young can ascend. But none has been seen on the Pacific seaboard of North or South America.

Trapping is the only method of catching eels in large quantity. Fly casting seldom works against a fish which feeds on the surface only at night. During the day the eel sticks to the bottom. There are exceptions, of course, as fish have their individual whims and idiosyncrasies, and if an eel, against all tribal rules, decides to go hunting during the day, she may well find herself gasping between two rubber boots in a rowboat.

During her eight years, more or less, of fresh-water life the female has a career which, compared to that of other fish, is replete with adventure. Never a dull moment with this nomad, this amphibious plunderer. She will climb up and down wet rocks or undulate across rain-soaked fields after a leaping frog; cross over from a stream to a roadside ditch, or from a river to a

canal, as long as there Ls enough dampness on the ground for her gills. In the water she will devour other fish, overturn stones to get at crayfish or other river-bed delicacies.

Lucien Thuot, a nephew of old Jean’s, claims he once saw an eel cross the main highway on a rainy day in a Gaspe village and leap into the sea.

Vianney Legendre, University of Montreal biologist attached to the Quebec Fisheries Department, can tell an even better eel story. At the mouth of the Ri verin River, on the North Shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he saw a multitude of four-inch eels climbing a four-foot vertical rock face to get past a falls.

The eel Ls classed among the brainiest of fish. Its instinct has baffled many an observer. Wherever the female may happen to be when mating time has arrived, nothing short of some Niagara falling backward will prevent her from reaching the ocean, where the male is waiting to escort her to Bermuda and points south.

That long last voyage usually starts in the fall of the year. From swamps, ponds, lakes, brooks and other bodies of clear or muddy water, a whole generation of females converges on the main drag to the sea. In Canada, it’s the St. Lawrence.

Of course the trip from faraway back alleys to Main Street can start much earlier in the year, because tons of eels are trapped all through the summer, but the rush is on in the fall. At any rate,

the joyous reunion at the mouth of the St. Lawrence occurs about the time we start counting shopping days till Christmas.

According to Claude Mélançon, the Montreal naturalist who has done more than anyone else to popularize knowledge and love of animals in French Canada, the reunion of male and female eels is featured by boisterous festivities.

“They tie themselves in knots,” he says, “and they go into a frantic, whirling dance. Then they all head south, always clinging to the bed of the ocean, males and females travelling together at top speed.”

The Supernavigator

By the time she starts on her voyage to the ocean, the eel has become a fast swimmer and her sleek body is well stocked with fat. As she’ll have to travel in a hurry and do without meals most of the way, this fat will stand her in good stead. She had come from her deep-sea nursery a helpless little jellylike creature floating on the water; now, after years of voracious hunting and killing, she flees stealthily and with speed, hugging the bottom all the way, and never diverging from the beam that guides her mysteriously to love and death.

A comparison with migratory birds seems unfair to the eel. Migratory birds, after all, are accompanied by their parents when they first flee

south from the cold; they are old enough to fly and fend for themselves; they stop often on the way; they have innumerable landmarks to guide them, and they make the trip twice a year.

Not so the eel. When she leaves the Sargasso sea as a larva, she is on her own. Her parents have died and there is no one to help her in her quest for food. Landmarks in the infinite expanse of the ocean are out of the question,except possibly on the bottom, but larvae stay on the surface, and they make the trip only once. When they come back to the Sargasso as adults they see the floor landmarks for the first time. How they find their way to their birthplace is one of the baffling mysteries of Nature.

Considering Nature’s law of the survival of the fittest, the eel is a fortunate kind. Among the fresh-water species she is considered a terrorist; once she has grown into a fair-sized fish, man Ls practically her only foe. Many men leave her alone, for it is widely believed that her blood Ls poisonous. Scientists scout this belief.

Still, Jean Thuot says: “We’re

always cautious with them. Apart from those we ship for export, we slice up the odd one for the house, but we take care not to let any blood touch our eyes. We have no proof it could blind a man, but we prefer to stay on the safe side.”

Funny fish, the eei. Still, it’s Quebec’s biggest inland catch. And for the Thuots, it’s bread and butter. ★