Eels in New York? Once upon a time there were
Eelpot Road is the back way between Naples and North Cohocton, a pleasant country drive along stretches of Eelpot Creek and through Ontario County's southernmost hills and drumlins.
Some folks in Naples, surveyed the other day, believe the odd name comes from the road's shape, forming a hump with Route 21 as its base — sort of like a pot.
In truth, an eelpot doesn't look much like a pot. It's a boxlike structure with funnel-shaped traps, not unlike a lobster trap. And as old maps prove, Eelpot Road was named after Eelpot Creek, not vice-versa. Eelpot Creek is a tributary of Naples Creek, which in turn flows into Canandaigua Lake.
And therein lies an amazing feat of nature. Every American eel that made its home in the creek — and was targeted by the eelpot traps — began and ended its life in the Sargasso Sea, an area in the Atlantic extending from the West Indies to the Azores.
But the eels are long gone. Carl Widmer, 68, a retired fisheries manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation who lives in Naples, says the big eel runs probably ended more than a century ago. "My feeling would have been sometime in the 1800s," he said.
Widmer says he hasn't heard of any eels in the watershed in 20 years or more. He recalls the last one he saw was in West River, another tributary that empties into Naples Creek, near its mouth.
The problem? Man.
Over the years, as upstate New York became industrialized and needed readily available power and transportation, dams and other infrastructure were built that blocked the route to the Atlantic, Widmer said.
The eels would swim down to Canandaigua Lake, head north up the lake to the Canandaigua Outlet and then into a network of rivers, probably including the Clyde and Oswego, before reaching Lake Ontario and then the St. Lawrence River. Next stop was the Atlantic Ocean and then a southern odyssey to the Sargasso where they would spawn.
But dams, set up to provide hydropower to mills, were an obstacle to many of the eels, as was the Erie Canal intersecting the rivers — "not enough current for eels," Widmer said.
But before the 1830s, eels were abundant. One of the places that had a sawmill was Eelpot Creek, and according to a 1924 history of the area by Mabel Monahan Polmanteer, "the story is that every morning before the water was turned on, scores of eels had to be cleaned out from the penstock."
Commerce's gain was also its loss, because eels were a delicacy and the basis of a local industry. They were trapped or speared not only in western New York and the Hudson Valley, where there's still a small industry, but also the Susquehanna watershed that touches, via the Cohocton River, the same Springwater/Canadice ridges that are home to the headwaters of Eelpot Creek. Chances are slim, however, that eels would somehow find a new route at the watershed divide and make their way down into Naples, or for that matter, even get up the Susquehanna. "Dams have caused them to dwindle," noted Widmer.
Janet Switzer, 80, lives on property bordering the upper Cohocton in Springwater. She hasn't heard of any eels in the river "in years."
"Dad caught a nice big one in there when I was about 7," she recalled. "I know everyone in Wayland talked about it. It was awful good eating."
Non-native fish have replaced the eels in many of these upland streams, and these relative newcomers have their own commercial value. Every spring, the Naples Trout Derby raises thousands of dollars for charity and puts money into the local tourist economy. The target fish are rainbow trout — unheard of in local waters in the 19th century — that swim upstream out of Canandaigua Lake on their spring spawning runs, followed in the fall by another non-native fish, the brown trout.
Switzer remembers it wasn't only fishermen, merchants and charities cashing in on the trout runs. Back in the late '40s and early '50s, along Naples Creek and its tributaries, "it wasn't above farmers to go down there with a potato hook and reach in and hook 'em out," she said.
She recalled one farmer who, one spring night, heard some splashing in the feeder stream outside his house and, with the help of a flashlight, clubbed "two of them with a big stick of wood."
The rainbows and brown trout still run strong up the streams. As for the eels, they make it to Lake Ontario. But the sweet, spring-fed waters that trickle and then gush down into Canandaigua Lake know them no more — at least not in the numbers that would clog up a sawmill.
THE EEL WORLD
American eels are a "catadromous" species, meaning they spend the majority of their lives in fresh water but migrate to salt water to spawn.
Life cycle: Larvae measuring approximately 2 inches in length are carried by ocean currents toward coastal waters. Shortly thereafter, the larvae morph into a small, transparent "glass eel." The eels darken in color as they make their way inland, often traveling hundreds of miles. (Females typically travel much farther inland than their male counterparts.)
Once inland, the eels live in the fresh water for most of their lives, which span between five and 20 years. Adult females can grow as long as 5 feet; males can grow up to 2 feet.
When sexually mature, the female eel reverses its path and returns to the Sargasso Sea for January spawning. Shortly after spawning, the eel dies.