Monday, May 2, 2016

Eel Fishing in the Chemung

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

I’ve been thinking a lot about eels lately. Weird, I know, but let me explain: I’m researching river industry for our summer exhibit about the Chemung River and for a long period before the early 1900s, eel fishing was a big business locally. As it turns out, these kind of creepy, slimy creatures (I’m betraying my bias here), were an important food source and commercial venture for folks along the Chemung.
Advertisement for the Mohican Co. grocery, 1910. Choice eels were 14 cents per pound.
The meat and fish counters at the Mohican c. 1890s likely would have also stocked eels.
Or people could have also purchased eels from their local fishmonger.

For much of history, the Chemung River was practically overflowing with eel. Despite their abundance, eels were always a bit of a mystery to locals. For example, Lakes Lamoka and Waneta on the Steuben/Schuyler County border, were full of eels which migrated from the lakes to the Chemung River. However, locals noted that the eels’ migratory patterns did not match what scientist said was normal. Instead of heading towards the brackish tide waters in the Fall and coming back to fresh water in June, local eels were said to return to the fresh water lakes as early as April and could often be caught earlier by ice fishing. I’m not sure whether or not local eels really were distinct in their migratory habits or if this is just bad science, but it does indicate that eels could be a part of the local economy year-round.

Eel weirs were probably the most popular method of large-scale eel fishing. Weirs are human-made obstructions in a river used to trap fish. 

An eel weir in the Chemung River, 1925.
The weirs, however, were not without controversy. In 1886, John B. Stanchfield, a Chemung County representative in the New York State Assembly, introduced a bill that, when passed, banned the use of eel weirs on the Chemung River. Local fishermen balked at the new restriction. There were some supporters, however. The Elmira Star-Gazette printed, “Every countryman who sets an outline in the spring knows that Stanchfield is his friend. The devices for capturing Chemung river eels by the ton should be forbidden by law and the law should be enforced.”

And it was; local game enforcement agents destroyed any eel weirs they found and made arrests. In 1896, Eugene Berthod was arrested for violating the law. It was alleged that he had taken at least 2,000 pounds of eels and sold to wholesale meat markets. The charges were eventually dropped when a key witness for the prosecution failed to materialize.

Eels were still a hot commodity- I love this help wanted ad that uses a free meal of "eels eels eels" as a job perk!
Despite protections (some of the laws eventually loosened), eel populations decreased significantly in the early 1900s. An article lamenting these changes noted that many of the long-standing fish species had been replaced by animals like “the contemptible, miserable, good for nothing, would-be fish, the carp.” Eels likely fell victim to over fishing and changes to the infrastructure of the river, like the building of dams.

Read more about the history and biology of Chemung River eels in this blog post by Town of Chemung Historian, Mary Ellen Kunst:


  1. interesting article in the fact I never knew eels would survive in colder climates such as our's here in the Northeastern US and be found in local waterways, thanks for sharing this information !!

  2. I never dreamed that eels were so common in the Chemung. Great research piece!

  3. Who would have thought eels were so plentiful in the Chemung River....interesting article.

  4. Ooops- thought I left a comment here. Great research. I never realized they ran in the Chemung River. I have always thought they were a bit creepy-kind of like a water snake.