American eels are catadromous, living in fresh water, spawning in salt water. Eels span a wider range of latitudes than any other species in North America. They occur as far west as New Mexico and they are common throughout the Caribbean and the West Indies. While in fresh water, eels live in a variety of stream habitats, especially where they can hide under logs, rocks and undercut banks. Eel can live over a decade and reach lengths of five feet.
Eels have a snake-like body and small sharp pointed head. Color is brown on top and tan-yellow color on the belly. They are covered with tiny embedded scales and a thick mucus layer. Mouths are equipped with many sharp teeth. All fins are fused into one long fin extending around the body. They have the ability to absorb oxygen through their skins to breathe.
American Eels lay buried in mud or gravel during the day and feed primarily at night. They are generic feeder, eating small fish, shrimp, crayfish, aquatic insects and their larva, snails, mussels, aquatic worms, and amphibians. Should animals fall into the water, it may be on menu also. Plus, they will scavenge.
After the adult eels spawn, they die. Eels then start their lives an egg in the Sargasso Sea near the Bahamas. The larvae, called “glass eels,” are very thin and nearly transparent. It can take a year before they reach fresh water, and many fall to predation. Once they enter the river they change into a new body shape. These rounder and darker fish are called "elvers."
American Eel in Texas
Anguilla and rostrata are both Latin, meaning "eel" and "beaked," respectively. The latter is probably a reference to the fish's snout. The American eel has a slender snakelike body with very small scales, and the fish may appear naked. A long dorsal fin usually extends for more than half the length of the body and is continuous with a similar ventral fin. Pelvic fins are absent. The back may be olive-green to brown shading to greenish-yellow on the sides and light gray or white on the belly.
Like the European eel, the American eel spawns during the winter in the Sargasso Sea, a tropical area northeast of Cuba. Adult eels spend most of their lives in freshwater, although the amount of time may vary among individuals. At some point, however, adults leave their freshwater habitats and move toward the Sargasso Sea. Neither adults or eggs have been collected in the vicinity of the Sargasso Sea, but newly hatched eels are found there. Presumably, spawning takes place in deep water and the adults die shortly thereafter. Young eels are transparent and leaf shaped. Years ago when they were first collected they were thought to be a new fish species and erroneously give the scientific name Leptocephalus. Within about a year, growing and moving toward the mainland, the American eels transform into more eel-like forms called "glass eels" or "elvers" and are ready to enter freshwater (European eels have a much longer journey and the process takes about three years). By the time American eels get close to the coast they are about 6 inches in length. The species begins to develop coloration only when the young reach nearshore areas. Once they reach freshwater, females continue to migrate deep inland as far up rivers and tributaries as they can. Males remain much closer to coastline areas. Eels tend to hide under rocks during the day, and venture out only at night to feed.
Although it is native to much of Texas, the construction of dams, which impede upstream spawning migrations, has eliminated this species from most central and western areas of the state.
Courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife
Although many anglers are put off by the snake-like appearance of eels and the prodigious amounts of slime they produce when captured, eels are in fact exceptionally good fish. In Texas, they are usually caught by anglers fishing for something else. The state rod & reel record is 6.45 pounds and 42 inches in length. The world record is 9.25 pounds.