By beginner’s guide I don’t mean only for beginners I mean by a beginner. Seriously. These posts are about how to do something when you don’t know what you are doing. But I’m a great believer in us being able to relearn the old ways, and even if we don’t have someone to teach us directly there is alot we can figure out ourselves by paying attention, talking to people, and giving it a go. So here goes…

I’m going to be talking about killing an eel, and then I’ll do a post on gutting and stuff (with photos). Just letting you know in case that’s too much for some.

I remember catching eels once as a kid but I’m fairly certain that we didn’t eat them and I have no idea how we killed them. I’ve tickled a big old eel that was under a log in the river once, and I’ve seen them when I’ve been swimming or walking in rivers and lakes. An old friend, who’s a rascal, has told me what I hope are apocryphal stories about people getting bitten by eels while swimming, and how the eel latches on and you have to kill it to get it to let go (he tells me these stories because he knows I go swimming in eely places and because he’s an old bastard). Consequently, I’ve been wanting to learn how to kill an eel for some time. To be fair to the eels though, they’ve always been more than generous sharing their territory with me. I’ve had a few people tell me about being bitten by eels (not latched on) and it seems that it’s a defensive action (you step on them under a bank, that kind of thing).

I’ve also been wanting to learn to eat eel because it makes more sense to me to eat oily fish from my neighbourhood rather than take fish oil supplements from Scandinavia or wherever and because eels strike me as being very nutritious. For the past few years I have been picking people’s brains about eels. The biggest obstacle for me is that so many people say eels are really hard to kill. And then I get variations on what you are supposed to do: cut their tails off, hit them on the head, cut the head off etc. Some people also are a bit scathing about eel, like it’s not a nice or worthy food. Similar to how rabbit is seen I guess. But the more I learn about eels the more I understand how awesome they are and I’m all for taking some of that awesomeness into me.

A friend and I were at the beach last night, having a cup of tea and a conversation when some campers walked past. These are people that come here every year, and when I asked them what they were doing they said they were going to catch an eel. One guy said did I want it? He was joking, but of course I said yes!! So they put out a line, which was just a line and a large hook with a bit of trout on it. We stood around and talked for 10 minutes, and then there was an eel on the line. They pulled it in, and it was a reasonably big one – I later measured it at 1180mm. A friend told me today that an eel grows 1 foot every 10 years. That makes this eel nearly 40 years old. Just a few years younger than me, which is giving me some things to think about.

It didn’t struggle very much, which surprised me, just wriggled a bit and lay there and watched. I suspect they’re not always like that. I’m not very good about killing things, it’s too easy for me to imagine the experience of the animal (or what I think the experience is). I seem to be able to see my own death in the death of animals and that’s not always easy.

So I asked them if they would kill it straight away (we were standing round talking about how big it was). I had a tomahawk in the back of the car, so the man hit the eel on the head (just behind the eyes) three times with the back of the axe. The eel was obviously very stunned. The man said they take a long time to die, but he thought that hitting it more wouldn’t make any difference. I’ve heard this before, something to do with the way the eel’s nervous system works. He though the eel was now dead, even though it still moved a bit. He was very cool about it, asking me if I was ok with this. Essentially I had to put the still moving a bit eel in my car and take it home like that. I asked him to cut the head off for me, which he did. It was really dead then. I think it’s easier to process eels if the head is on, but I still have things to learn about their deaths and what to do afterwards, so I figure this first time having it really dead was best all round.

All this seemed manageable to me, and I think I could do this myself now. I gave my silent thanks to Eel, and the lake, and my out loud thanks to the man who was willing to kill something for me. This is a very cool and relatively untraumatic way to get my first eel and I am grateful to the eel for giving up its life so graciously. I’m also grateful for the generosity of strangers and that I live in a place where it’s normal to give an eel to someone you just met. Then we put the eel in the back of the car and drove home.

I’ll write about the gutting, cleaning, cooking and eating in some other posts.

This is a short fin eel (Anguillis australis). You can’t see this in the photo but you can tell because the fin doesn’t go all the way to the head. Long fin eels the fin goes up to the head (I had been thinking the short and long where how far the fin went out from the body). Long fin eels (Anguillis dieffenbachii) are endemic (they don’t live anywhere else in the world) and endangered in NZ. People say you should put them back. I’m not sure how you get a big long hook out of a live eel’s throat, but I agree it’s a good idea if you can release it. I’m relieved we didn’t get one last night.

Longfins have been swimming up NZ rivers for 65 million years. They go upstream as young fish, and then several decades later they swim 5,000 km out into the Pacific to breed, and then they die. Females only breed once and lay millions of eggs. The eggs become larvae then drift back to NZ on ocean currents where they turn into baby eels and swim up the rivers to live. Eels seem to do alot of things in a grand way. They exude strength and in my opinion demand respect.

Short fin eels seem to have a similar life. Te Papa has a page on them.

From what I’ve read, really big eels are most likely females that haven’t bred yet. Some people say not to take the big ones, but I don’t really understand this (maybe the big ones have better survival genes?) unless people mean that smaller ones are more likely to be male (which is a better take from an ecology and sustainability perspective).

I think alot of what I’ve read about eels is about up North, because in the big rivers in the South the eels can’t do what they’ve been doing for 65 million years. Some eels are locked in (including the one I’m about to eat) by the big dams on the Clutha, Waitaki and Waiau rivers. That’s a huge catchment. I don’t know yet what how those eels breed, or what happens to the ones that try and swim up those rivers to the lakes. I find it incredibly sad that so many eels are now locked in and can’t fulfil their ancient genetic drives. Some dams apparently have special channels for the eels to run through. I’ll have to find out what happens with the big dams.

I also need to find out how to tell the sex of an eel before and after you kill it. It’s possible the big dam-locked eels are also males as they can’t go out to sea to breed either and so just keep growing.

The general Maori word for eel is tuna (in my limited understanding that’s pronounced too-nah, not tune-ah like the sea fish). Southern Maori have many names for different kinds of eels (Herries Beattie lists over 20). Kai tahu tradition suggests the eel harvest starts once the popohue starts to flower. That’s the native clematis and it’s usually flowering here in October. I don’t know why that’s the eel harvest time – maybe because the eels breed in autumn? There is alot for me to learn here – I’m thinking already about how healthy the dam-locked populations are, and what are good eeling practices to ensure eels get to survive and live well.


Department of Conservation page on eels

Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori by Herries Beattie

He Kete Taoka – Southern Cultural Materials Resource Kit collated by Rua Mccallum

More of my eeling adventure:

Eel anatomy

Eating eel