The American and European eel both breed in the Sargasso Sea. There is a difference in the number of vertebrae between the two types. The American eel having less distance to travel, reaches the coast within 18 months.
The common or European eel Anguilla Anguilla inhabits rivers, ponds, lakes and waterways of Europe, Iceland and North Africa between latitudes 23-70 degrees north.
Eels still hold mysteries - one of nature's closly guarded secrets is that to date they have yet to be seen spawning - at one time country folk thought they grew from horse hair.
Eels are born some 4,000 miles away from Britain off the West Indies in the Sargasso Sea. Spawning in spring and summer, the eel larvae remain at depths of 100-150 fathoms and as they grow they head towards Europe. After two years they will be in the mid Atlantic and they will be about 50mm long. Driven by the gulf stream and instinct, the larvae will reach the coastal waters of Europe by which time they will have grown to approximately 75mm and have reached their third birthday, they now stop feeding and their body shortens and thins. They are now known as elvers and the rivers of Ireland will see these needle-like creatures entering their estuaries in November and December time. Through late winter and early spring untold billions and trillions of elvers would enter the rivers of Europe and the Mediterranean.
Some will make their homes in tidal lagoons, others will disperse throughout the river system and yet othes making their way to the remotest ponds, often travelling at night over wet ground.
The eel spends most of its life in fresh water. They are primarily scavengers, but will also eat live food including young fish. Adult size and age varies dependent on growth rate and food supply but on average after 7-19 years females grow up to 100cms long and males, being smaller, up to 50cms, with an average weight of 1.5kgs (3lbs).
On reaching maturity the eel becomes lighter in colour and its eyes and nostrils enlarge; they become silver eels and will start their migration through late autumn and begin their journey to sea across the Atlantic and returning to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.
Normally made from willow, these were typically from 700mm to 1550mm long with a funnel shaped opening so that once the eel had entered it would not be able to escape back through the entrance often known as the cheale. Many variations of this type of trap existed depending on locality and builder. Eel traps were known under a variety of names from region to region - grigs, kiddles, wheels, hives and putcheons. These traps would be baited and used all year round.
The open end of the pot where the eel will swim in to catch the bait.
Eels on the Thames
The Thames supported a large number of eel fisheries, they were often caught in large wicker baskets known as eel bucks, which were fixed to wooden posts to form a fishing weir. The bucks would be raised out of the water to retrieve the eel from the narrow neck. These structures would face upstream to catch mature adult fish returning to sea.
Eels were very popular and large quantities were sold at Billingsgate, London's famous fish market. Many came from the eastern counties and others were also brought in by boat from Holland.
The largest eel caught on the Kennet at Newbury weighed 15lbs.
The largest proportion of eel would have been caught using nets, these are long and conical in shape with a number of non return valves supported by hoops.
Various methods of funnelling the fish into the trap were employed (wing and coghill nets) wings attached to the mouth of the net to form a large funnel would face up or down stream, alternatively, (fyke nets) a wall of net would be placed vertically over the entrance of the conical net to divert the eel whilst travelling up or down stream. Large numbers of silver eels would be caught in these nets - particularly on dark nights as the eels migrate.