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Apr 25, 2008, 05:25


Whitewater rafting, drinking, bungee jumping, drinking, jet boating, drinking, swimming with dolphins, drinking, stunt plane flying, drinking, American indie rock celebrity name-dropping, and drinking; New Zealand offers activities aplenty for the jaded misadventurist and hardened alcoholic alike. But whether you're down under or up over, it's a pay-to-play world, people.

There is one sport, however, which has thus far eluded the long arm of the international leisure industry: eel fishing (or “fushing” as some Kiwis will tell you). Unlike its upscale cousins, trout and bass fishing, eeling requires only minimal equipment and financial outlay, while having the added attraction of being even less taxing on the brain. When asked if I wanted to take part in a weekend expedition to hunt for these near universally reviled bottom dwellers, I gave my hosts a world-class nod shot and stumbled to the van.

Round 1, October '96

Mid-Saturday afternoon. Four Kiwis and myself are eeling at a stream near the Tasman Sea. It's raining. Melted ice in my duty-free Stoli being the only water I've had to drink in days, I open my mouth to catch some drops. It's the only thing I can catch, save for an occasional glimpse of an eel slithering near the surface. The others, a bit more fortunate, but not by much, get the intermittent stolen bait tug on their lines. My unendorsed cast-and-drag method doesn't even rate a nibble.

Perhaps a little sports psychology is called for. Entering the mindset of the eel (no great stretch at this point) I realize that I too would be more than a tad suspicious of a moving chunk of steak. Don't pre-historic creatures prefer their vittles inert? While grappling with this question (as an eel I find that I'm thinking faster than an actual fisherman), the stinging precipitation on my face derails this train of thought. One thing's for damn sure: if I were an eel, I sure as hell wouldn't be getting rained on. The fact I'm thinking at all while fishing is definitely trouble. Having tossed away our steak, the prospect of leaving empty-handed has my paunch in an uproar.

We're close to calling off the hunt when Paula hooks one. After wrestling with it for five minutes, she pulls the eel out of the water and swings the furiously writhing four-footer onto soggy land, where Simon Miller clubs it square on the head with a heavy stick. And again. The pulverizing blows from this strapping Kiwi-Irishman should be enough to kill the eel dead, but they're only sufficient to temporarily cool it out. As the eel resumes thrashing, Simon picks up the custom eeling spear we've lugged all the way from the car with us, and, in a moment of true fisherman glory, spears it through the brain with a solid thrust. Audible disgust all around as we watch this procedure merely increase the eel's bodily agitation. Simon moves in for a bit of knife-in-hand combat, holds it down as best he can, and proceeds to saw its head off. The body continues to twist in a spreading pool of its own blood.

We return to the cave and cure the eel in preparation for smoking the following day. We slice the body, gut its vital organs and remove as many of the bones as possible. I spot some partially digested steak cubes amidst the pile of entrails and wonder if it's possible to salvage them for a bit of surf and turf. I'm handed the knife. I cut the eel into smaller pieces, splay each one open, and begin pouring salt on the exposed flesh. As the salt makes contact, the pieces of eel squirm back to life, though with diminishing boisterousness, until at last a dead calm prevails. Maybe I'll spring for that trout license after all.

Back in Auckland, Simon fires up the smoker and some hours later we sit down to eat. Prior to taking the first bite, I prod my serving with a fork. No discernible movement, I cram some down my pie hole. I find the meat tasty and succulent, yet deceptively heavy. Each mouthful seems to be the equivalent of three or four. Everyone says their meal was delicious but no one wishes out loud for seconds. Attempting to relax with a post-dinner drink, I pray that the movement in my gullet is merely indigestion.

Round 2, January '97

Simon Cuming, Colleen, Saskia and I are budget camping at the Bay of Islands. Our pockets are not nearly deep sea enough for a hotel and charter boat so we're relegated instead to eeling at a riverside campground. And we wouldn't have it any other way. Unless we could. The bait of choice this time is “snarler” (Kiwi for sausage). We drop lines in a tranquil, shallow section of stream off the main river and spot three eels within the half hour.

Colleen's engrossed in James Ellroy's My Dark Places and I'm laying on my back visualizing a hot mince pie when Saskia excitedly calls us over. She points down at an eel which is staring straight at us, its head a full inch out of the water and cocked slightly to one side with an eerily plaintive quality. The eel is definitely checking us out. “There, that black one... Blackie! Blackie followed me all the way from over there!” Saskia explains that she was downstream where “Blackie” apparently broke the surface and stared at her for over a minute. She then walked back towards us several meters, to the pool where the stream joins the river, when Blackie reappeared and once again stuck his head out of water to resume his gaze.

Has Blackie ever seen humans up close before? If so, would he dare come anywhere near the surface? Or has he previously experienced the bounty of human kindness and is now looking for a hook-free handout? Saskia breaks the staring contest and goes upstream to where Simon is crouching with his handline. As she leaves the vicinity, Blackie slowly pulls his head underwater and disappears from sight. Moments later, he reemerges directly in front her and Simon, and for a third time sticks his head above water. “Look!! Blackie's followed me again! Oh no, we can't catch him now!” Fuck. From potential meal to newfound friend, it's now official: we won't be having Blackie for dinner.

Determined to catch something, Simon C. goes after the other two eels instead, taking care not to place any hooks in Blackie's vicinity and jerking the line out of the water if he comes too close. But what about these other two? Are they Blackie's family? His bitter rivals for scarce resources? Will our removal of one of them mean that Blackie grows even older and larger? Whatever the case, we're careful not to name them. Further speculation is cut short as the lure of the snarler proves too great and Simon C. finally catches one. Our other foodstuffs running low, the decision is reached to eat this one tonight. We bid a tearful farewell to Blackie and head to camp.

The post-catch death throes turn out to be no less hectic than two months ago, but this time we're ready. We fix a marinade of soy, garlic and ginger and drop the still-wriggling chunks of eel meat in it. We put a lid on the pot, let the whole thing soak for a couple of hours and get tight in the meantime. Later, we sauté our dish at the camp kitchen. We can't help but notice some of the other campers dining on fresh catch tuna, but we're proud of our afternoon's hard work so we put on our best game faces and gulp down the first few bites. The final result is revealed to be a dense, soggy, boney meat in heavy soy, garlic and ginger marinade. Urp. The meal does have its moments but our initial gusto slows to a crawl by mid-plate. The following day we head straight for the nearest fush 'n'chups shop and have ourselves a belt-loosening grease-fest in Blackie's honor.

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