American eels turn up in Allegheny River and a county park lake

Posted on: June 21, 2018 | Bob Frye | Comments

This one’s going to be hard to sell.

Someday, maybe, you’ll tell a story about dogs and cats living together in harmony. Of seeing Bigfoot at the mall. Or about Congress working cooperatively, without concern for party lines, for the good of the American people.

All will come across as whoppers.

But then there will be this. You’ll speak of the summer of 2018, when not one but two anglers, fishing 10 days and roughly 16 river miles apart, caught American eels from the Allegheny River near Pittsburgh.

That’s when folks will ask to see your tin foil hat.

But take heart. Your honor will be restored.

Because that last story – completely, totally, incredibly unlikely as it is — will be true.

Mike Shullo of Penn Hills was fishing downriver of Lock 3 in Harmarville on May 31, trying for walleyes after dark, when he landed an eel he estimated at 40 inches or so.

“You know, I had just caught a big catfish about 10 minutes before, and initially this didn’t do a whole lot. I thought it was maybe another catfish,” Shullo said.

“And then all the sudden, it just took off.”

It fought hard for a bit, putting a deep bend in his rod and making several line-peeling runs. When he first got it close to shore, Shullo’s fishing partner, Dave Shamrock of Penn Hills, jumped into the water to grab it. Then he jumped back out when he saw what it was.

They eventually drug it onto the bank.

“But we didn’t know what to do then either,” Shullo said. “We weren’t expecting to get an eel. We didn’t know if it was poisonous or what. And it was pretty aggressive.”

That story mirrors one told by Dave Smith of Vandergrift.

American eels travel long distances.

David Smith with his Allegheny River American eel.
Photo: David Smith

He and friends were fishing after dark on the night of June 9, near Freeport, where the Kiski River empties into the Allegheny. He was after catfish, with a gob of chicken liver on his hook.

His bite detector went off, indicating a strike, so he set the hook.

That’s when he got his eel, one he guessed was at least 30 inches.

“That thing fought pretty good, too, I was surprised. Then when I brought it on the boat, I was like, oh geez, I wasn’t expecting this,” Smith said.

“I didn’t know if it was something somebody had dumped in the river or what it was. Nobody wanted to touch it.”

Forgive their collective unfamiliarity. It’s understandable.

American eels are native to Pennsylvania, and still common in the Delaware River. In Pennsylvania, in fact, anglers can keep 25 a day in a season that’s open year round. They need be just 9 inches to harvest.

There are few places beyond the Delaware where anglers can reasonably expect to catch one, though. There have been reports in recent years of anglers getting them from the Monongahela River, near the mouth of the Cheat River close to the Pennsylvania/West Virginia border, said Rick Lorson, area fisheries manager for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

But they’ve been mostly gone from the Ohio River basin, which includes the Allegheny, for a long time.

Lorson said only 10 are known to have been caught from the Allegheny since 1940, none more recently than 2015.

“It’s just one of those things that doesn’t happen every day, obviously,” Lorson said. “But it’s pretty neat. They’re definitely interesting animals.”

And well traveled ones.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, American eels are born in the Sargasso Sea, a two million-square-mile chunk of exceptionally warm water in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Females release 20 to 30 million eggs each. Those float to the surface to hatch. From there, the eels — transparent and willow leaf-shaped – spend the next year riding the current to the East Coast of America.

By then, they’re what’s called “glass eels,” 2- to 3-inces long and eel-shaped with fins, but transparent. They turn gray and move inland a bit, becoming “elvers.” Continuing upstream, they become “yellow” eels, though they’re actually olive green in color.

They remain like that in rivers until reaching sexual maturity, something that can take anywhere from three to 40 years.

Eventually, when they’re ready, the Service said, they turn around and go back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die.

So those in the Allegheny are, likely, middle-aged or older eels that have thousands of miles under their belts.

Chances are, Lorson said, they swam the length of the Mississippi River, then traveled the Ohio to reach the Allegheny.

That’s not necessarily surprising, said Josh Tryninewski., a fisheries biologist with the Fish and Boat Commission and member of the state’s eel passage advisory group, working to restore eels to the Susquehanna.

American eels not only routinely travel long distances, he said. They’re pretty good at overcoming obstacles, too.

“They’re pretty durable and they can do some pretty amazing things. They can scale near-vertical surfaces so long as they’re wet,” Tryninewski said. “They’re a pretty cool fish.”

In rivers, they feed on crayfish and small baitfish. They’re nocturnal, he added, it figures that’s when Shullo and Smith caught them.

But everything else about those catches?

Unusual isn’t the word.

“It was the catch of a lifetime, at least around here,” Shullo said.

Shamrock agreed, saying it will make a great story for years to come. He’s fished the area his entire life and never even thought about the possibility of catching an eel.

Now he’d love to make it happen again.

“It’s been three weeks and I still think about it every day,” he said.

Smith is the same way.

“If I’d known the rarity of it, I’d have brought it in for a few more pictures and gotten a better measurement of it,” Smith said. “But it was definitely a good time.”

American eels on the move, with a little help

OK, so American eels can travel long distances. They can transition from saltwater to fresh and back again. They can even scale walls.

But drive?

That’s pretty farfetched, even for an animal as amazing as this one.

American eels are all muscle.

American eels like this one Mike Shullo pulled from the Allegheny River sometimes get to lakes — with a little help.
Photo: Mike Shullo

So how, then, did an American eel end up in 30-acre Lower Twin Lake in Westmoreland County, near Greensburg?

That’s what area fisheries manager Rick Lorson was asking earlier this spring. He and his crews surveyed the lake, looking at catfish and other populations. And what turned up in their nets but an American eel.

“How it got there, hard to tell,” Lorson said.

It was a large one, though.

“Probably 40 inches. I’ll at least go that far,” Lorson said.

That’s not the first time an eel showed up in a southwestern Pennsylvania lake. Back in 2000 or so, Lorson said he handled one in Beaverdam Run Reservoir, near Sidman in Cambria County.

“Any time they’re in a reservoir it’s really weird because you know they had to be transported there,” Lorson said. “Which is not necessarily a good thing.”

They are native to the region, though, so they aren’t automatically killed when found in such odd places.

Lower Twin Lake’s was released, for example.

“We were thinking about bringing it back. But we were in the middle of our survey, so it was in the boat for a little bit and then it went back in the water,” Lorson said.

Anyone who hooks it will have a fight on their hands, Lorson said, especially if they try to harvest it.

He caught and kept one early in his career on the Delaware. It was an adventure.

“You can’t hold on to them. They’re so strong and they definitely are slippery,” Lorson said. “The first problem I had was getting it out of the boat because it was just slithering all over the place.

“I’m glad no one was there with a camera at that point.”

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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Bob Frye is a storyteller with a passion for all things outdoors. He hunts, he fishes, he hikes, he camps, he paddles, backpacks and snowshoes depending on the season. If he’s not an expert at anything, it’s because he’s passionate to try a little bit of everything.