Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

TWRA's Region 4 - East Tennessee

Reservoir Fisheries Management Program

American Eel - Anguilla rostrata

(This page was last updated - 06/08/2007)

Scientific name: Anguilla rostrata (Anguilla = latin for eel, rostrata "long nose")

Common names: American eel, freshwater eel, Atlantic eel, common eel

American Eel

Species Overview

American eels are relatively uncommon in Tennessee, but are occasionally found in the tributaries of the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland River systems. The Tennessee state record taken from Watts Bar Reservoir in 1980 weighed a little over 4 pounds.

Their life history makes them one of our most unusual species. Adults spawn and the young begin life in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic between the West Indies and Azores. They move towards North America and many enter freshwater systems to mature. Some eels remain in estuarine and marine waters and mature earlier than those in fresh water.

Eels are economically very important. They are considered a delicacy in Europe and Asia, especially young eels otherwise known as "glass eels". They are highly sought after for use as live bait by cobia and striped bass anglers along the Gulf Coast and in New England.

 

American eel
American Eel from Mo Fishin Bait and Tackle by Jim Negus

Identification

The only other fish in Tennessee that resemble the American eel are our seven species of lamprey. Lampreys, however, lack jaws and do not have pectoral fins.

They have very elongated, smooth, snake-like bodies. They can cover their entire bodies with a mucous layer which makes them very hard to capture by hand.

 

Sargasso Sea
Sargasso Sea spawning area from USFWS

Habits

American eels have gills, but can also absorb oxygen through their skin. This allows them to tolerate very low dissolved oxygen levels and travel over land and around barriers in streams and rivers.

Eels are nocturnal. They will eat just about anything including insects, fish, worms, frogs, and even dead animal matter.

 

Glass eel
Immature American eel "glass eel" from USFWS

Life Cycle

American eels begin life in the Sargasso Sea. Their buoyant eggs hatch into transparent larvae (leptocephalus) that drift with ocean currents for about a year until they reach the Atlantic coast. By this time they have developed fins and are shaped like adults, but are still transparent. It is these immature "glass eels" that are prized in the European and Asian food markets.

Some "glass eels" move into freshwater to mature while others remain in the marine environment. After as few as three and as many as 40 years of maturing, they return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. Females release millions of eggs and it is assumed that they die after spawning. No one has ever witnessed American eels spawning.

 

American Eel range
Range map for the American eel from Nature Serve

References

Etnier, D. and W. Starnes. 1993. The Fishes of Tennessee. The University of Tennessee Press.

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service pdf

Rich Russo. 1998. Fishing with Eels. from www.stripersurf.com pdf

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