American Eel

American Eel
Anguilla rostrata
(A.K.A. - The common or freshwater eel)


Key Distinguishing Markings:

  • Some people think an eel looks like a snake, but if you look closely you will see that it has fins.
  • The American eel has pectoral fins and a very long, continuous fin which is the dorsal fin, anal fin, and tail fin combined.
  • Head rather long.
  • Eyes small and placed well forward on head.
  • Lips thick.
  • Adults usually white or light-colored below and yellow to olive green above, but coloration is variable.
  • Lower jaw longer than upper.

Size:

  • Eels range in size from 2 inches to over 3 feet long.
  • The females are much larger than the males.

Distribution:

  • Greenland south along the Atlantic coast of Canada and the USA to Panama, and throughout much of the West Indies south to Trinidad.

Habitat:

  • Eels prefer muddy bottoms and calm waters.
  • They are nocturnal which means they are active at night.
  • During the day eels hide under rocks on the bottom.

Food Preference:

  • They eat a variety of fish, insects, snail, clams, and worms.

Spawning:

  • Mature eels from around the world, including the American eel, return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and then die. The Sargasso Sea is an area of calm water northeast of the West Indies.
  • The eels begin to migrate in the fall and arrive at the Sargasso Sea in February when spawning occurs.
  • Females lay ten to twenty million eggs in one season.
  • The eggs hatch into long larvae with large teeth.
  • American eel larvae are then carried by currents to areas along the Atlantic coast.
  • As the larvae drift, they change into a more eel-like form.
  • Once they develop into the glass eel or elver stage at 2 inches, the eels move into freshwater rivers and streams.
  • Here they remain for several years as they grow into mature eels.

Fishing Tips:

  • You can fish for eels with any kind of cut bait.
  • American eels are a popular bait for crabbing and fishing.
  • For current recreational and commercial size and creel limits, see Maryland's updated regulation page.

Fun Fact:

  • If you have ever caught an eel on your fishing line, you know that it feels slimy. This slime coat protects the eel from disease. When an eel is caught on a fishing line, the stress felt by the eel results in an increase of this slime coat.
  • Elvers (glass eel or elver stage at 3-4 inches) are determined little creatures. They've been know to climb wet walls of dams and wiggle up moist grass banks to get around obstacles.
  • Although few people in the United States eat them, eels are a popular food in Europe and Japan. As a result, eel fishing is an important commercial fishery.
  • Every American eel ever caught in rivers, bays, and ponds in the Bay was hatched from an egg below the surface of the Sargasso Sea, southwest of Bermuda.

Family: Anguillidae (Freshwater eels)

Order: Anguilliformes (eels and morays)

Class: Actinopterygii (ray-finned fishes)

For information concerning American eel and their management, please contact Keith Whiteford.

Illustration by Duanne Raver


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