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The American Eel: An Aquatic Phantom in Arkansas (Part I)


Part 1 - Save The American Eel

A blond, good-natured Navy vet in his late-twenties, Casey was catching eels all over Arkansas. He was collecting data for his thesis, and working on an “eel ladder”―which is what these serpentine squigglers need to get beyond the dams that have been blocking migrations throughout their range.

American eels are usually associated with the Atlantic Coast and the river systems that enter the continent east of the Mississippi, but they also occur in the West. Swimming in through the Gulf of Mexico, they’re in every state along the Mississippi River, plus Texas and South Dakota. They used to exist in New Mexico, they’ve been recorded in Arizona, they were introduced in Utah and California, and they escaped from a facility in Colorado. They’re also in Nebraska, due to a railroad bridge collapsing in 1873, spilling a load of eels into the Elkhorn River.

Out of all the known fishes in the world (and yep, they’re actual fish with tiny, slimy scales), it’s speculated that this species—which exists from Greenland down to South America—has the widest known range of any fish in North America, sometimes traveling up to 10,000 miles. They’re born in the Sargasso Sea somewhere between the Bahamas and Bermuda, and being “catadromous,” they eventually head into freshwater, where they live for three to forty years until they’re sexually mature. That’s when they head en masse back to their secret spawning grounds (which no one has ever seen) to get it on and die.

“Howdy,” I greeted Casey. …

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Mark Spitzer is the author of twenty books and an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, where he is the Editor in Chief of the award-winning Toad Suck Review. His essay collection Season of the Gar (U of Arkansas Press, 2010) will soon be followed by a sequel entitled Return of the Gar (U of North Texas Press), and he is also working on a book called Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West for the University of Nebraska Press. He can be seen on the alligator gar episode of Animal Planet's River Monsters series, or paddling through the tornado-littered sandtar soup of Lake Conway.

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