The Waikato River, east coast of the North Island, New Zealand. Our first official recon mission has taken us a ways upstream from the mouth of the river, into sheep country, not surprisingly. The water is clean but milky blue with sediment carried from the high volcanoes on the western horizon, where the Waikato rises from melting glaciers. With our boat nudged onto one of the many sandbars braided through the river, my friend Steve and I dig out our lunches and collapse onto the sand. We hear a droning over the whitewater, then, from upriver, the first person we’ve seen all day—GQ Man, as we would later call him—roars into view in a small beaten-up jet boat, bounces over the rapids, carves a stylish turn through the big eddy in front of us and pounds his boat up the gravel a few feet away.
“The name’s Glen,” he says with a big smile, clambering out and reaching into his pocket to roll a cigarette. “Good to meet you.” He has messy blond hair, second-day stubble, and is sporting a smart-looking pair of knee-high boots and tan moleskin pants—Abercrombie & Fitch meets the Marlboro Man. He takes one look at our admittedly pathetic sandwiches (peanut butter) and offers us something else instead. “You blokes want some sheep’s tails?”
I figure they’re sausages or something. “What are they?”
“Sheep’s tails,” he says.
“I know, but what are they?”
“Sheep’s…tails,” he repeats slowly, his face wrinkling into a light-bulb smile. “You’re not from around here, are you?” With that he walks back to his boat, rummages in a muddy, tattered garbage bag and returns with two handfuls of sheep’s tails, as in, the actual tails of sheep. I can honestly say that until this very moment, I had no idea sheep even had tails, much less that people ate them. “Throw them on the fire to burn the hair off, brush away the ashes and nibble at the meat between the knuckles. A little bit of salt and pepper helps. I always take a bunch in case the fishing’s no good.”
Steve and I exchange glances. This, clearly, is our man: a fisherman, a local and someone of wide-ranging culinary tastes.
“Say, maybe you can help us,” I start. “Would you know where we can catch some eels? We’re looking to cook up a few of them.”
The man who has just deposited two handfuls of bloody, mud-flecked sheep’s tails by my feet blinks and cocks his head. He scans my face as if deciding whether I am kidding, crazy or just plain stupid.
Steve breaks the silence. “We heard the best way to find the big ones is to swim the river, so we brought wetsuits and everything. Any suggestions?”
“Yeah,” he chortles. “Forget it. I’d rather swim with white sharks than eels. Had a big one attack my Labrador retriever, hunting ducks last year. Tore all the hair off its hind leg. Bloody thing wouldn’t let go, so I shot it with my 12-gauge. Believe me, you don’t want to swim with those things. Ever seen one, mate? Huge mouth full of teeth. Slimiest, ugliest, meanest bastards on the face of the earth.”
We talk for a spell, exchanging pleasantries about the countryside, until at last GQ Man flicks his butt on the sand, shoves the bow of his boat back in the river and jumps aboard. Just before he guns it, he looks back one last time, shaking his head.
“You guys have some balls,” he says with a bemused smile. “But if you want to keep them, I suggest steel-mesh underwear.”
When I first heard that the clear, mountain trout streams of New Zealand are home to giant eels, I didn’t believe it. Come on, I thought. But after a little fact-checking I discovered it was true—eels, big ones, black, slimy, six feet long and as thick as a football.
My friend Steve and I were already in Australia, and we were looking for a good reason to visit New Zealand. Giant eels seemed like an excellent reason. I quickly developed a plan. We would swim with the eels. Masks, snorkels, the whole bit, floating down some gorgeous clear river. I’ve done it before in B.C. with salmon, which was great, but eels would be even better.
It would also be something of a tribute to one of the most fascinating scientific expeditions I’ve ever read about. A few years ago, Clyde Roper, a zoologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, mounted an expedition off the Great Barrier Reef in search of giant squid, 60 feet long with eyes the size of dinner plates. Nobody had ever observed one in its natural habitat, only washed up on beaches, dead. (Giant squid are like giant eels in that they really do exist, which never fails to surprise people.) Roper, whose specialty is cephalopods (squid, octopus, cuttle fish), failed to observe one. But giant squid live in the dark ocean depths; eels are a lot more accessible. And how many people have swum with giant eels?
I also had another reason to admire Roper. A true renaissance man, he doesn’t limit his research to the laboratory. He takes it one brilliant conceptual leap further: to the kitchen. As Richard Conniff says of Roper in his book Spineless Wonders, “Having delivered an enthusiastic description of the differences among various cephalopods, he is liable to conclude, ‘Which one tastes best depends on how much garlic you use.’” Roper, apparently, likes them best with hot Thai peppers. He’s eaten just about every kind of squid and octopus that swims and once even made an important discovery by this commendable method; he had eaten a section of giant squid a colleague found washed up in Newfoundland and found it bitter and ammoniacal, which suggested the muscles were rich in ammonium ions. That turned out to be true, leading him to deduce giant squid can maintain buoyancy without expending energy.
So, yes, we would eat some wild giant eel. I’d always wanted to try fresh eel, and here was an opportunity for culinary discovery. I’d had it smoked, but fresh it’s considered one of the best things you could hope for on a plate in front of you. Except, of course, in squeamish North America, one of the only places in the world where eels exist but haven’t caught on as tablefare. The monks at Our Lady of Spring Bank Cistercian Abbey (who operate a website called monksonline, which offers, among other things, a few unusual recipes) hint at the possible reasons: “If the serpentine sliminess of the body is not enough for you, take a look at the head. Its wolfish grin is enough to make anyone swear to vegetarianism for life.” Bad looks aside, there are still other issues. The venerable Larousse Gastronomique says that eel flesh spoils quickly (and, interestingly, that raw eel blood is poisonous if it gets into a cut on your hand), so for grilling or frying, eels should be bought live and killed at the last minute: “To kill an eel, seize it with a cloth and bang its head violently against a hard surface.” I think it’s safe to say that’s a procedure you won’t be seeing on Emeril Live! any time soon (“Let’s kick it up a notch! BAM!”). Preparation also seemed to demand a stout constitution. From Culinaria France: “Suspend by the head so that the blood can flow from the tail, and then remove the entrails. Pour the blood in a container [for the sauce], mix with some red wine to prevent coagulation.”
Clearly, there would be challenges to overcome. But such is the nature of all great expeditions. To be sure, we would be ready, by which I mean to say we would be hungry. Appetite, as some wise person once said, is the greatest sauce of all.
And so, after striking out on the Waikato, we follow GQ Man’s advice and head for Tongariro National Park. We arrive on a rainy, deathly black night. It’s early November—springtime in the Antipodes—and we check into a place called The Grand Chateau, an elegant hotel built in 1929 in the style of C.P. hotels in Western Canada. With the ski season over and the hiking season still around the corner, we have the place nearly to ourselves. We drop our bags in our rooms and retire by the hearth in the dimly lit Ruapehu Lounge downstairs, sipping beer and talking to the porters about eels as the wind whistles outside and streaks the windows with fat raindrops.
“Well, now,” says Tekarehana, an aristocratic-looking Maori man with a meticulously trimmed beard fringed with silver. “You’ve certainly come at the right time. The eels come out at night, you know, and most often when it rains.” He places another log on the fire and jabs the coals back to life with a poker, sending sparks drifting upwards. “There’s probably a few of them slithering around right now, if you’re game enough.”
The concierge, a charmingly foppish man, overhears our conversation and comes over to join us. His name is Mike Hutchinson. “They’re lovely to eat. Fatty, they are—put some weight on you.” He tells us that eels are 25 per cent fat by weight; salmon, which are fatty enough, are less than three per cent. Hutchinson also confirms something else we’d heard before. “They’ve got teeth, you realize, and they’re not shy about using them.”
“We’ve heard that,” I say.
There is a pause as he digests our plan with restrained, but unmistakable amusement. “Swimming with eels,” he says wistfully. “I’d like to see that.”
He then recounts an episode from The Grand Chateau’s distant past, when the hotel’s chef dispatched local kids to procure some eels for an important dinner with visiting royalty from England. “Oh yes, it was to be a smashing occasion,” he says, looking off in the distance, smiling fondly. “But the chef, a French chap, left them in a pot in the sink, still alive naturally, and by the next morning they were all gone. Oh, it was terrible,” he says, shaking his head. “The eels roamed the hotel for ages.” Once, a large one appeared beneath a table in the dining room, to the horrified shrieks of well-heeled patrons. The smaller ones got into the drains and lived there for months, until finally the manager called in a plumber to flush the pipes. They never did find them all.
We wake the next day to low clouds, more rain and only a vague idea of where to begin. But eels turn out to be a great conversation opener and we soon meet lots of people eager to share their wisdom regarding the apparently lost art of eeling. Unfortunately, however, I am beginning to discover that when it comes to eels people have a hard time reaching any kind of consensus. “You should have gone to the South Island,” someone says. “You should have gone farther north,” someone else says. “Wrong time of year,” laments another. Luckily, though, Steve bumps into a Maori woman whose husband, it turns out, is an avid eeler who works as a porter at The Grand Chateau. “You should talk to him,” she tells him. “He goes eeling all the time.”
We track him down. When Alan Wilkinson learns of our quest to catch and eat an eel, his face breaks into a huge smile. He is a big man, exuberant and friendly, and he warms to our mission immediately, taking us under his wing with great enthusiasm. Speaking slowly and deliberately so we won’t miss anything, he says, “We have been brought up by Tuna. That’s the Maori word for eels. I come from a big family—eighteen. Nineteen, actually. That’s why we went eeling as kids. To feed everybody. You see? We’d come back with a big basket full of them and we’d boil them with onions and all that. And salt. Or we’d put them on a wire and lay them on the embers. And that’s it. You want to go eeling? Tomorrow we will go. But first, it is our custom to take you to where I am from. Because that is our custom. Then we will go out and play.”
According to Maori legend, Tuna is the eel god. He had a daughter named Hine, who married Maui, a nasty sort who ended up killing Tuna by smiting his head off with an axe. Tuna’s severed head fled to a river and gave birth to all freshwater eels; his tail swam out to sea and gave birth to the congers.
Imaginative explanations for the rise of eels span many cultures. Aristotle devoted a large part of his Natural History to eels and their mysteries, suggesting that eels sprang magically from the mud of ponds. Later, Pliny contradicted him, writing that baby eels came from the scrapings left over from mature eels that rubbed themselves against rocks. An old Irish myth explains that eels rise from horse hairs that fall into the water. Wherever they occur, eels have inspired fanciful myths for thousands of years.
The truth about eels, however, is only slightly less improbable. Until less than a hundred years ago, all that was known about European eels was that they lived in rivers for most of their lives, descended to the ocean, and some time later, baby eels, called elvers, returned to the river. And that’s about it. The whereabouts of their spawning grounds remained a mystery until, finally, a persistent Danish biologist named Johannes Schmidt (with funding from the Carlsberg beer company) triumphed in his quixotic bid in 1922. Schmidt had combed the Atlantic and found that small eel larvae could only be found in one spot, the Sargasso Sea, located, appropriately, in the Bermuda Triangle, an astounding 6,500 kilometres from the coastline of continental Europe.
How the eels find their spawning grounds in the Sargasso is a mystery, though the most popular hypothesis is that ocean salts act as a guide—eels can detect minute differences in salinity, thanks to a faculty so acute it surpasses all man-made instruments. How the elvers manage to navigate through myriad ocean currents back to the land of their ancestors—a journey that takes two years for European eels—is not known. How eels transform themselves from deep-travelling ocean fish to shallow, freshwater fish—and then back again—is also not known.
The long-finned eels of New Zealand are similarly mysterious. They live in the rivers on both the North and South islands for up to 60 years, much longer than their European and American cousins. They spawn only once, at the end of their lives, when they descend their home rivers and, biologists believe, swim 2,000 kilometres to a spot somewhere off the coast of Tonga. After the elvers drift back on ocean currents to New Zealand, they swim upstream, and their ability to get around obstructions is legendary; long-finned eels, apparently, are not easily discouraged. The small ones have been known to scale the concrete walls of dams, and the larger ones simply crawl out of the water and go it on land, squirming their way around the obstruction and back into the water. Eels, having gills, are most definitely fish and not reptiles as was once thought, though one species of eel has lungs and can’t breathe without coming to the surface. But even the freshwater eel can get by on land for long periods of time. Eels can breathe through their skin when it remains moist and for this purpose they produce huge amounts of slime. As long as they’re not caught out in a hot sun, eels can survive out of water quite comfortably. There has been one substantiated case of a farmer discovering eels in his field, eating peas. Usually, however, they are carnivorous, eating trout, ducklings, small hapless mammals. The truth is, eels eat just about anything they can fit into their mouths, which, I am honoured to add to the limited body of eel knowledge, sometimes includes the hind legs of Labrador retrievers.
“I use mutton,” says Alan Wilkinson the next day, when I ask him what eels take as bait. “Or any kind of seafood. Peppies. They are a flat, clam-like thing.”
After touring the strangely beautiful volcanic landscape near Alan’s village, we drive to his home, and meet the family in his small, basic kitchen. They want to hear our stories, so we tell them about who we are and where we’re from. Alan shows us a video of the New Zealand All Blacks, the national rugby team, performing the traditional Maori challenge, or Haka. “Ka mate, ka mate! Ka ora, ka ora!” shout the players fiercely, beating their chests and stomping their feet in unison.
“It means, ‘It is death, it is death. It is life, it is life,’” says Alan.
Long after dark, we head to the garage and set to work making a gaff. Alan selects a large fish hook and secures it in a notch in the end of a stick. “It has to be strong,” he says. Afterwards, we drive along dirt roads to the river, bundled in layers against the chill, rain-whipped night. Gripping flashlights, we descend a steep muddy bank to the river’s edge, slipping and sliding. Aiming the beam of his flashlight into the water, Alan searches in the nooks under rocks and beneath sunken logs. Nothing. “They hide in burrows, but once they smell the bait, they will come out.”
Steve fishes out the bait from the bottom of a supermarket plastic bag. Fresh lamb chops. We rig up some handlines with heavy sinkers and lob the works into the water with a loud plonk. And we wait. And wait. Alan is wearing a fleece jacket, which unfortunately is doing a good job of sopping up the rain. We huddle behind a bush to get out of the wind. And we wait some more, blowing on our fingers to maintain at least a little feeling. Steve and I have agreed to give this spot a good try before we move on somewhere else tomorrow, so we stick it out. Every now and then we shine a flashlight into the dark swirling water, only to see nothing. We pull up our lines to check whether the lamb is still on the hooks; it is, but it has turned whitish and shrivelled in the cold water. It looks the way I feel.
After a couple more hours of this, Alan seems to be losing hope. Steve and I had lost faith a long time ago, but felt compelled to pretend things would turn around any minute. We seize the opportunity and convince Alan to give up. We climb back in the car, soaked, defeated and hungry. Driving back, we wish we’d just stayed at Alan’s house in the first place and eaten the lamb chops ourselves.
The chopper slows and shudders as the pilot flares on approach to the landing strip, which is not really a strip at all but a patch of cleared brush barely big enough to accommodate the skids, on a high knife-edge saddle in the mountains.
With the wind blasting over the tight pass, the pilot wants to get the hell out of here as soon as possible. “You’ll find the cabin down that trail,” he yells over the thump-thump-thump of the rotors. “Good luck!”
We snap some pictures of the helicopter as it lifts off and U-turns back along the snaking river valley, and we listen until the whir fades into silence.
“Well,” says Steve, rubbing his hands together and smiling, “this is it. We’re finally here.”
Yesterday, in a last ditch effort to find a river full of eels, we visited the department of conservation in Turangi. A friendly Swiss expat by the name of Michel Dedual seemed eager to help. The Rangitiki had the biggest eels, he said, but the place was also a training ground for the military and it was doubtful we’d get permission to go there on short notice. “But the Mohaka is also good. Lots of eels in there. It’s in the wilderness, though; you can’t walk in. You’ll have to fly in.” Michel had swum the Mohaka before to survey trout populations. “Take a stick with you,” he warned. “The eels will attack your legs and it helps to whack them away.”
The Mohaka valley is like nothing else we’ve seen so far of the North Island—wild, steep mountainsides covered in thick jungle and not a sheep to be seen. We schlep our gear down the switchbacked trail until we enter a clearing, where we first set eyes upon the “cabin.” A crude sign made of a hunk of worthless lumber announces it as Mohaka Manor.
The cabin is disappointing, to put it politely. It has a hard plastic sheet for a roof, filthy green tarps for walls, no door and a dirt floor. The kitchen table is a plank of greasy black wood that is clearly also the favourite toilet of a team of small but well-fed mammals. The wood-framed bunks are just as bad, strung with wire and covered by dank cotton sleeping pads. Calling this squalid rundown hovel a “cabin” is a cruel joke. It’s more like a port-a-john with bunks. For this, we are paying $50 a night.
Steve turns to me. “Before we leave this place, I say we burn it down,” he says, only half joking.
Disgusting though it is, there is no option but to stay. This will be our home for the next four days. That the cabin is a pit of despair is one thing the kind people at the charter service did not mention. But we soon discover another problem—it isn’t even near the river. It sits on a shelf in the mountainside, a good hour’s trek from the water via a trail that leads down a cliff so steep we sometimes have to face the mountain and descend using the roots of trees like the rungs of a ladder. Then, we have to fight through a tangled wall of lush jungle undergrowth on the valley floor—all vines, giant ferns, rotten, punky logs that crumple when stepped on, twisted trees covered in lush beards of wet green moss—before crossing a swamp with man-eating mudholes of stinking ooze. The final descent follows a narrow path cut into the side of another mountain like the spirals of a screw, which is decorated by moist, bright-purple mushrooms right out of the imaginations of the Brothers Grimm.
The river, though, is just the way we thought it would be. Clear, green and fast, flowing over clean stone. The first day we leave the diving gear behind, figuring we’ll need a day to scout the best section to swim. When we finally make it to the water’s edge, Steve, who has gotten there first, says, “Look, man: floating rocks.”
At first I think he’s kidding, that they’re hunks of smooth wood that look like rocks. Then, no: rocks the size of softballs and bigger, swirling on eddies by the bank—floating. Using a stick I fish one over and pick it up. It’s rough and weighs nothing. Volcanic pumice, filled with air pockets. Figures that a river that has giant eels would also have floating rocks.
We thrash our way downriver for a kilometre or so, finally coming to a deep pool where the river piles into an undercut cliff, changing directions. The current is strong and dangerous. We can’t risk swimming close to that wall, where we could get pushed under and trapped, so we move on, spending the rest of the day scouting downriver, occasionally spotting giant brown trout finning in the shallows, but no eels. It doesn’t seem like a good sign. To top things off, the rain has returned, and you can just tell it isn’t going away any time soon.
The next day we stuff our packs with wetsuits, masks, snorkels, fins and lunch, then head for the river. Sure enough, the rain continues. We suit up for the long hike and when we reach the river, we explore upstream. There are no trails at all; we simply bash our way through the jungle. After a couple of exhausting hours, however, we spot a sandy beach through the trees. Parting the branches and stepping onto the sand, we enter a small canyon with sheer walls of green on the opposite side. Mist hangs in ghostly patches along the tops of the tallest trees. Walking along the beach we turn a corner and find a pool of deep water connected to a fast-flowing but smooth run. It’s perfect, the one place we have seen that doesn’t look suicidal to swim.
With the reality of swimming in eel-infested waters upon us, however, the river suddenly doesn’t look so inviting. Nevertheless, we struggle into our wetsuits, spit in our masks and high step into the shallows with our fins on. I plunge in and enter an alien world of sound, muffled, muted, with a far-off swishing of watery commotion. The cold water stings my head, hands and feet. Worse, the current is stronger than it looks, even in the flat sections. Visibility is not good, either, maybe 20 feet. From above, the river looked clear as distilled water but underneath the surface, bubbles and bits of flotsam obscure the light and make things look soupy. Somewhere in here, I think, are giant eels, lurking. With my field of vision cut off by the mask, I snap my head side to side, sure that I’ll catch sight of a monster eel bearing down in the cloudy water, jaws open. I swim down the middle at first. Nothing. Then I get braver and approach the banks, scanning the inky blue holes under tree roots and rocks looking for any sign of life. In one dark mess of jumbled wood, I see something move, and for an instant my heart jumps into my throat. But it’s only the roots of a tree swaying in the current.
The river soon carries me dangerously close to a set of rapids I have no intention of descending, so I fight my way to shore and pick my way back over the rocks to the head of the pool, where Steve has just gotten in. We swim this section of river again and again. No luck.
After a while we reconvene by our gear on the bank. It’s raining harder now, with real gusto, and we sit in the mud wearing our soaked wetsuits, waiting for it to stop long enough to put our clothes back on. My face, feet and hands have turned blue. Mosquitoes and sand flies swarm around our heads. We hunker there for some time, shivering and miserable, without saying a word. It’s getting late. Finally we decide to hike back wearing our wetsuits, something we’ve been avoiding, but now it’s obvious there’s no choice. Everything we own is wet, anyway. My cameras have been fogged for hours. With every step we feel the clammy suits against our skin and at this moment it’s hard to imagine ever feeling comfortable again.
The next day is pretty much the same. Plodding though the jungle, scouting spots to swim; swimming, not finding any eels; then plodding back to camp, wet, tired and fly-bitten. By the last day, I can’t take it anymore. Screw the eels. I have my fly rod with me and damned if I’m not going to catch a big beautiful brown. The barrel-fermented Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay I have been saving for our eel meal will be opened in short order if I manage to fool one of these big trout on a fly.
Wading barefoot into the piercing cold water, I stand on a submerged dune of fine light-coloured sand, trying to cast a Yellow Humpy into the riffle in front of me. But the river’s edge is so overgrown I can’t get off a decent cast. When it doesn’t snag on a branch behind me it lands in a pile of tangles on the water. Nevertheless I soldier on, switching flies and trying every trick I know.
Disgusted, I finally wade ashore. Steve has been dappling his fly over a boulder in the river, and after no luck, he decides to give my spot a try. I lie back on a moss-covered log swatting flies as he beats the water to a froth, probably scaring every trout for miles, if I haven’t already. Then he gives up, too.
That’s when I see it in the water, only a few feet from Steve, black and utterly creepy, undulating its snake-like body above the sandy bottom. It’s huge.
“STEVE!” I scream. “There’s an eel right beside you!”
He doesn’t believe me.
“Where?” he asks in a dubious voice, splashing towards the bank just in case.
“Look, look,” I point. The eel has swum a little upriver towards a tangle of logs and rocks. “There! Right there!”
“Oh my God,” he says, spotting the long black body.
There’s no time to waste. A few days ago a man at a fishing store sold us what he considered an appropriate size gaff for eels, a hook so big it looked like the anchor on a small boat. But we hadn’t yet bothered to fix it to a stick, so Steve retrieves a branch from the forest and sets to work carving a notch the way Alan taught us to. I dig out the handline and bait, a package of second-rate lamb cuts that was outdated when we bought it. After sitting unrefrigerated for three days in a zip-lock bag, it assaults me with a cloud of stink so putrid I can taste it.
As Steve puts the final wraps of twine around the gaff, I scramble upstream to the log-jam to keep an eye on the creature. I can’t see it. Then, right by my feet, I spot its massive, wolfish head poking out from under a log, and it makes me shudder.
Steve gets into position. The handline I’m using is made of cotton, 40-pound test, wrapped around a thick wooden dowel. I spear a chunk of rotting lamb onto the hook and fling it in the water. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there’s a whole bunch of eels swimming toward it, circling into a writhing ball of black slithery flesh until one of them opens its jaws and swallows the bait whole. I lean back into the line to set the hook and when the beast feels the tug it rears its ghastly head out of the water and starts twisting around the line, twisting, turning, gaping its mouth as I look on in horror, forgetting all the wonderful things I’ve heard about eels, staring only at this sinister, evil, evil devil fish crawling up the line toward me and suddenly—it just comes out of me, I don’t know—I shriek at the top of my lungs. I pull back hard, the eel pulls back hard and then the line snaps.
“Gaff it!” I scream. “Gaff it!”
Standing precariously on the bank above it, Steve—normally a humane, animal-loving man—starts strafing the gaff through the water in a maniacal frenzy, again and again with no luck, then finally the big hook sinks into flesh and a primitive battle ensues, Steve struggling to hold on, the eel wrapped partly around a log, every bit a match for Steve, and then, just as suddenly as I had, Steve lets out a terrible shriek.
At last, grimacing in revulsion, Steve wrenches the beast loose from the log, and with the giant eel wound tightly around the gaff like a boa suffocating a pig, we scramble up the muddy bank, slipping on fallen leaves until we get to a clearing of flat ground. The eel is nearly five feet long, probably 25 pounds and the most revolting creature I have ever set eyes upon.
“Well,” Steve asks, “what now?”
“Kill it,” I say.
“Pick up that rock over there and bash it on the head.”
The preferred method for killing eels is a matter of some controversy. Alan had said an axe to the neck is the best way. The man who sold us the gaff hook suggested we put it in a burlap sack, suspend it from a tree and have at it with a cricket bat. Without these resources, however, we decide the rock is the way to go.
Steve lifts up the rock, which must weigh 20 pounds, and drops it on the eel’s head. It bounces right off. The eel tries to make a break for the water, but Steve picks up the rock again and bashes it once more. Again, it simply bounces right off. The eel’s head is wide and fatty and, apparently, unbelievably strong. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m used to trout, which are so delicate you can practically kill them with a mean look. If they don’t expire on their own in a minute or two, a little rap on the head is all it takes. But the eel seems indestructible. We both feel sorry for the wretched thing, but by now it’s definitely injured so we have no choice. Again and again Steve pounds it. I can feel the impacts through the ground. The thing just will not die. It is turning into a hideous ordeal, a medieval beat-down, like the penultimate scene in Casino when Joe Pesci and the other guy get brutally clubbed to death. All we want is for it to be over, so I look around for a bigger rock. It’s dark now and I can’t see very much, but finally I find one. I can barely lift it. Waddling over to the eel, I struggle to heft the massive stone over my head. Then, with a one-two-three, I hurl the great rock down. We know it’s all over when we hear a loud, sickening crunch.
With the butter sizzling in the pan, I cut the mushrooms and pour two glasses of wine.
“To the eel,” I offer.
“To the eel.”
Steve leads us in a moment of prayer to the eel gods. It seems appropriate given the nature of the encounter. Then we sit there, wordless, shell-shocked. Though it’s been two hours since the death scene, we haven’t really discussed it, concentrating only on trudging back in the darkness. It was, by any measure, a deeply unsettling encounter.
“Well,” I say after a while, by way of an ice breaker, “you sure did a good job of gaffing the hell out of that thing.”
“You’re the one who unleashed that boulder on its head,” he responds, instantly indignant.
Another long moment of reflective silence passes.
“It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” Steve confesses, and I have to agree. Then more silence.
“You hungry?” I ask Steve.
“No, not really. How ’bout you?”
This, I can tell you, is incontestably true, though we haven’t eaten since morning. But the only thing we can do now to redeem ourselves is to eat the damn thing, which is why I start sautéing the mushrooms, big fat portabellos I’ve been keeping for the occasion. I cut up some potatoes for a Spanish omelette and in another pan, slice some red peppers, onions and garlic. Prior to flying in here, we had to decide on a cooking method. Everyone we had spoken to about eating eels offered their own recipe, but in the end we had decided to go traditional, the way Alan had recommended, which also had the attraction of being easy.
Now it’s time to grill some eel.
We walk over to where it’s lying on the ground. It’s been dead for at least three hours, but when I take a knife and slice into it, the eel lifts its tail off the ground, slowly but deliberately, then uncurls it back down just as slowly.
“Oh, man,” says Steve. “That’s all we need right now.” Seeing even a façade of life in something you know was dead some time ago—and in something you’re just about to eat—does not please.
Steve immobilizes the tail by stepping on it with his boot, and I hack off a huge steak, slicing it in a few places to tuck in pieces of lemon, then throw it on the grill.
Unfortunately, I’ve grossly miscalculated the time it takes to grill eel. Eel flesh, I discover, resists heat quite well. It takes almost 40 minutes to cook through, during which time fat drips and sizzles, drips and sizzles, non-stop. It’s like trying to grill a five-inch-thick slab of beef fat.
Finally, the moment arrives. I re-warm the mushrooms, peppers and onions, serve them up on two plates and carve into the eel steak. The flesh is white, firmish, and the flake is very fine. We dig in. It’s chewy, bursting with oil. I look over at Steve, who’s trying to subdue a large mouthful, leaning forward over his plate and wiping his mouth as the juices squirt out. After a few moments of effort, he finally gets it down and I ask him what he thinks.
He considers it for a few moments. Then, in a measured way that hints he’s still undecided, offers, “Interesting.”
This seems like an accurate assessment.
For my part I have decided, at least, that portabello mushrooms are not the ideal accompaniment to eel. Their texture—soft, chewy and slippery—is too similar to the eel flesh (which alone is pretty much all the fatty texture you can stand on one plate). But the onions and peppers seem to cut the flavour a bit, which helps. The eel flesh itself is okay, but when you get a mouthful of fat, which is hard not to do, the taste is strong and, I’m afraid, a little off-putting. Maybe it’s the circumstances. Nonetheless, we finish the eel, chewing just to get it down, as though it’s punishment for our crime.
With bellies full of eel, we hunker around the fire in our musty, filthy clothes. For the first time in over a week, it looks like the rain has finally stopped. But then it comes back, drizzling just enough to dampen whatever spirits we have left. We stare at the fire, mesmerized by the embers, flaring and glowing white, a lick of flame coming to life here and there, then dying, then coming to life again, then dying again. Ka mate, ka ora.
By the afternoon of the next day, we’re back in civilized country, in Hawke’s Bay once again, our last night in New Zealand. It feels really good to be back, clean and showered and dry for the first time in five days. Really good. We’re at a fish-and-chips place that thankfully has no eel on the menu. For less than five bucks each, we have a mountain of crispy French fries made from properly aged potatoes—not too sugary—with two huge slabs each of perfectly cooked, delicately battered, absolutely scrumptious Pacific kingfish. We’re sitting outside on the patio near the wharf, and at long last, the sun is shining for real, and we sit here in our shirt sleeves, luxuriating in the warmth.
“You know,” I say to Steve, digging into the fish, “I don’t think we should rule out eel just yet. Who knows, maybe breaded and deep-fried is the answer.”
Steve looks up at me, glaring. It’s clear he doesn’t want to talk about it, doesn’t want to take the bait. Like a soldier back from the front with a thousand-yard stare, he can manage only a few words, a single sentence actually, but one that says it all.
“Pass the tartar sauce.”