Project Canterbury

The Compleat Angler
Or the Contemplative Man's Recreation

by Izaak Walton

Observations of the Eele, and other fish that want
scales, and how to fish for them.

PISC. It is agreed by most men, that the Eele is a most daintie fish; the Romans have esteemed her the Helena of their feasts, and some The Queen of pleasure. But most men differ about their breeding: some say they breed by generation as other fish do, and others, that they breed (as some wormes do) of mud, as Rats and Mice, and many other living creatures are bred in Egypt, by the overflowing of the River Nilus: or out of the putrifaction of the earth, and divers other wayes. Those that deny them to breed by generation as other fish do, ask, if any man ever saw an Eele to have a Spawn or Melt? and they are answered, that they may be as certain of their breeding as if they had seen Spawn: for they say, that they are certain that Eeles have all parts fit for generation, like other fish, but so small as not to be easily discerned, by reason of their fatness; but that discerned they may be, and that the He and the She Eele may be distinguished by their fins. And Randeletius saies, he has seen Eeles cling together like Dew-worms.

And others say, that Eeles growing old, breed other Eeles out of the corruption of their own age, which Sir Francis Bacon sayes, exceeds not ten years. And others say, that as Pearles are made of glutinous dew-drops, which are condensed by the Suns heat in those Countries, so Eeles are bred of a particular dew falling in the moneths of May or June on the banks of some particular Ponds or Rivers (apted by nature for that end) which in a few dayes is by the Suns heat turned into Eeles, and some of the Ancients have called the Eels that are thus bred, The Off-spring of Jove. I have seen in the beginning of July, in a River not far from Canterbury, some parts of it covered over with young Eeles, about the thickness of a straw; and these Eeles, did lie on the top of that water, as thick as motes are said to be in the Sun: and I have heard the like of other Rivers as namely in Severn (where they are called Yelvers) and in a pond or mere near unto Stafford-shire, where about a set time in Summer, such small Eeles abound so much, that many of the poorer sort of people that inhabit near to it, take such Eeles out of this Mere, with sieves or sheets, and make a kind of Eele-cake of them, and eat it like as bread. And Gesner quotes venerable Bede to say, that in England there is an Iland called Ely, by reason of the innumerable number of Eeles that breed in it. But that Eeles may be bred as some worms, and some kind of Bees and Wasps are, either of dew, or out of the corruption of the earth, seems to be made probable by the Barnacles and young Goslings bred by the Suns heat, and the rotten planks of an old Ship, and hatched of trees; both which are related for truths by Dubartas and Lobel, and also by our learned Cambden, and laborious Gerrard in his Herbal.

It is said by Randeletius, that those Eeles that are bred in Rivers that relate to, or be nearer to the Sea, never return to the fresh waters (as the Salmon does alwayes desire to do) when they have once tasted the salt water; and I do the more easily believe this, because I am certain that powdered Beef is a most excellent bait to catch an Eele: and though Sir Francis Bacon will allow the Eeles life to be but ten years; yet be in his History of life and Death, mentions a Lamprey belonging to the Roman Emperour to be made tame, and so kept for almost threescore years: and that such useful and pleasant observations were made of this Lamprey, that Crassus the Orator (who kept her) lamented her death. And we read (in Doctor Hackwel) that Hortensius was seen to weep at the death of a Lamprey that he had kept long, and loved exceedingly.

It is granted by all, or most men, that Eeles, for about six moneths (that is to say, the six cold moneths of the year) stir not up and down, neither in the Rivers nor in the Pools in which they usually are, but get into the soft earth or mud, and there many of them together bed themselves, and live without feeding upon anything (as I have told you some Swallowes have been observed to do in hollow-trees for those six cold moneths), and this the Eele and Swallow do, as not being able to endure winter weather: For Gesner quotes Albertus to say, that in the year 1125 (that years winter being more cold then usually) Eeles did by nature’s instinct get out of the water into a stack of hay in a Meadow upon drie ground, and there bedded themselves, but yet at last a frost kil’d them. And our Cambden relates, that in Lancashire Fishes are dig’d out of the earth with Spades, where no water is near to the place. I shall say little more of the Eele, but that, as it is observed he is impatient of cold; so it hath been observed, that in warm weather an Eele has been known to live five dayes out of the water.

And lastly, let me tell you that some curious searchers into the natures of Fish, observe that there be several sorts or kinds of Eeles, as the silver Eele, and green or greenish Eele (with which the River of Thames abounds, and those are called Gregs); and a blackish Eele, whose head is more flat and bigger than ordinary Eeles; and also an Eele whose Fines are reddish, and but seldome taken in this Nation, (and yet taken sometimes): These several kinds of Eeles are (say some) diversly bred, as namely, out of the corruption of the earth, and by dew, and other wayes, (as I have said to you): and yet it is affirmed by some for a certain, that the silver Eele is bred by generation, but not by Spawning as other Fish do, but that her Brood come alive from her, little live Eeles no bigger not longer than a pin; and I have had too many testimonies of this to doubt the truth of it my self, and if I thought it needful I might prove it, but I think it is needless.

And this Eele of which I have said so much to you, may be caught with divers kinds of Baits; as namely with powdered Beef, with a Lob or Garden-worm, with a Minnow, or gut of a Hen, Chicken, or the guts of any Fish, or with almost anything, for he is a greedy Fish; but the Eele may be caught especially with a little, a very little Lamprey, which some call a Pride, and may in the hot moneths be found many of them in the River Thames, and in many mud-heaps in other Rivers, yea, almost as usually as one finds worms in a dunghill.

Next note, that the Eele seldom stirs in the day, but then hides himself, and therefore he is usually caught by night with one of these baits of which I have spoken, and then caught by laying hooks, which you are to fasten to the bank or twigs of a tree; or by throwing a string crosse the stream with many hooks at it, and baited with the aforesaid Baits, and a clod, or plummet, or stone, thrown into the River with this line, that so you may in the morning find it near to some fixt place, and then take it up with a Drag-hook or otherwise: but these things are indeed too common to be spoken of, and an hours fishing with any Angler will teach you better, both for these and many other common things in the practical part of Angling, than a weeks discourse. I shall therefore conclude this direction for taking the Eeie, by telling you, that in a warm day in Summer I have taken many a good Eele by snigling, and have been much pleased with that sport.

And because you that are but a young Angler know not what snigling is, I will now teach it to you. You remember I told you that Eeles do not usually stir in the day-time, for then they hide themselves under some covert, or under boards or plancks about Floud-gates, or Weires, or Mills, or in holes in the River banks; and you observing your time in a warm day, when the water is lowest, may take a strong small hook tied to a strong line, or to a string about a Yard long, and then into one of these holes, or between any boards about a Mill, or under any great stone or planck, or any place where you think an Eele may hide or shelter her self, there with the help of a short stick put in your Bait, but leasurely, and as far as you may conveniently; and it is scarce to be doubted, but that if there be an Eele within the sight of it, the Eele will bite instantly, and as certainly gorge it: and you need not doubt to have him if you pull him not out of the hole too quickly, but pull him out by degrees, for he lying folded double in his hole, will with the help of his tail break all, unlesse you give him time to be wearied with pulling, and so get him out by degrees; not pulling too hard.

And to commute for your great patience I shall next tell you how to make this Eele a most excellent dish of meat:

First, wash him in water and salt, then pull of his skin below his vent or navel, and not much further: having done that, take out his guts as clean as you can, but wash him not: then give him three or four scotches with a knife, and then put into his belly and those scotches sweet herbs, an Anchovy, and a little Nutmeg grated or cut very small, and your herbs and Anchovis must also be cut very small, and mixt with good Butter and salt: having done this, then pull his skin over him all but his head, which you are to cut off, to the end you may tie his skin about that part where his head grew, and it must be so tyed as to keep all his moisture within his skin: and having done this, tie him with Tape or Pack-thred to a spit, and rost him leasurely, and baste him with water and salt till his skin breaks, and then with Butter: and having rosted him enough, let what was put into his belly, and what he drips be his sawce.

But now let me tell you, that though the Eele thus drest be not onely excellent good, but more harmless than any other way, yet it is certain, that Physicians account the Eele dangerous meat; I will advise you therefore, as Solomon sayes of Hony, Prov. 25. Hast thou found it, eat no more then is sufficient, lest thou surfeit, for it is not good to eat much honey. And let me add this that the uncharitable Italian bids us, Give Eels, and no wine to our enemies.

And I will beg a little more of your attention to tell you that Aldrovandus and divers Physitians commend the Eele very much for medicine though not for meat. But let me tell you one observation, That the Eele is never out of season, as Trouts and most other fish are at set times, at least most Eeles are not.

I might here speak of many other Fish whose shape and nature are much like the Eele and frequent both the Sea and fresh Rivers; as namely the Lamprel, the Lamprey, and the Lamperne; as also of the mighty Congre, taken often in Severne, about Glocester, and in what high esteem many of them are for the curiositie of their taste; but these are not so proper to be talk’d of by me, because they make us Anglers no sport, therefore I will let them alone as the Jewes do, to whom they are forbidden by their Law.

And Scholar, there is also a Flounder, a Sea-fish, which will wander very far into fresh Rivers, and there lose himself, and dwell and thrive to a hands breadth, and almost twice so long, a Fish without scales, and most excellent meat, and a Fish that affords much sport to the Angler, with any small worm, but especially a little blewish worm, gotten out of Marsh ground or Meadowes, which should be well scowred, but this though it be most excellent meat, yet it wants scales, and is as I told you therefore an abomination to the Jewes.

But Scholar, there is a fish that they in Lancashire boast very much of, called a Char, taken there (and I think there only) in a Mere called, Winander Mere; a Mere, sayes Cambden, that is the largest in this Nation, being ten miles in length, and as smooth in the bottom as if it were paved with pollisht marble: this fish never exceeds fifteen or sixteen inches in length; and ’tis spotted like a Trout, and has scarce a bone but on the back: but this, though I do not know whether it make the Angler sport, yet I would have you take notice of it, because it is a raritie, and of so high esteem with persons of great note.

Nor would I have you ignorant of a rare fish called a Guiniad, of which I shall tell you what Cambden, and others speak. The River Dee (which runs by Chester) springs in Merionnithshire, and as it runs toward Chester, it runs through Pemble-Mere, which is a large water: And it is observed, that though the River Dee abounds with Salmon, and Pemble-Mere with the Guiniad, yet there is never any Salmon caught in the Mere, nor a Guiniad in the River. And now my next observation shall be of the Barbel.

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