From the Jan. 24, 1964 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

It was thirty six hours after the heaviest snowfall of the winter, perhaps of several winters. The snow piled up by the plows lay in high, muddy heaps along village streets, or spread itself in varying depths out in the fields where no man traveled or animal grazed.

Ben Mayhew Jr. from Quitsa, John Andrada of Vineyard Haven, and two or three others stood in a huddle discussing eeling. They were in agreement that this was the right kind of a day to sally forth with axe and spear to the frozen ponds. If there were any eels.

Spearing eels was one of the most common activities of Island men of a generation or two ago, and before that time. This, be it understood, in the dead of winter. Old-timers held that it was poor practice to eat eels in hot weather, but when the ice made on the ponds and snow laid in drifts along the stone walls, when gales breezed from the north, that was the time to go spearing eels and, by the same token, that was the time to eat them.

The Rotch family, for example, lived about near the center of the Island as a man could get. Their home and farm were almost equally distant from Tisbury and Menemsha Ponds, on an air line. The traveled way might well add up to a couple of miles or better, to either place, and the menfolks went eeling.

They selected the bitter days of nor’west winter weather, knowing the pond ice would be solid and safe. They collected their axes, sixteen or eighteen-foot spears, a sack to carry the eels, and perhaps a sled on which to haul their burden over the ice, and maybe of the snow as well, since it might lay deep on the ground in all directions, and the Rotches walked.

Eelers were choosey about the places where they fished. There were holes, ranges and other landmarks by which favored places could be located, and they sought such places.

The ice might have been three inches thick or six; it made very little difference to the old-time eeler. The temperature might have been well below freezing, or somewhat above. The wind might have been blowing half a gale or harder, or it might have been one of those sunny, and fairly warm winter days. These things exerted but little influence on the eeler of the time. He was “abreast of his winter’s work,” repairing fishing gear, woodchopping and so on. And he went eeling as much for change of scene and the enjoyment that it afforded as for the eels themselves. This is saying considerable because the old-timers were extremely fond of eels.

Few if any of the present generation would call it fun to raise and plunge an eel spear into the bottom mud of a pond with the regularity of clockwork for hour after hour. The tempo was interrupted, of course, whenever an eel was hooked by the spear. This might have been very often, or it might have been seldom, depending on the luck. When an eel was hooked, it had to be taken from the spear’s tines, and it was very good practice to put it in the sack at once. Winter gulls were not numerous, but there were some and they could alight without a sound behind the busy eeler, steal an eel, and make off with it.

Another cause of interruption was the ice “making,” as they said, on the eel-spear-pole. It would freeze, layer by layer until it might be inches thick and adding much to the weight of the spear. It had to be broken off, which slowed up the fishing and called for extra effort. But that was one of the characteristics of spearing eels.

Such men as the Rotches were, generally speaking, farmers when ashore and whalemen when at sea, and they might spear anywhere from twenty-five to fifty pounds of eels apiece on such an expedition. If conditions favored it, some eelers might drive to a pond with a horse and wagon and hitch the horse near the edge of the ice if there was a lee spot. In such a case, there was no limit to what they might take before darkness fell. But the Rotches had walked to the pond. Now, having somewhere near a half bushel of eels apiece, they must walk home carrying their catch and the equipment as well.

There is not much eel spearing done today. It’s hard work, the eels are not as plentiful as they used to be, and there is seldom sufficient ice to hold a man who is eeling. Yet there are still a few rugged souls who know of some holes in the pond bottoms where eels may be found. No one hears much about such men, but those Islanders who are fond of eels know where to look for them in markets and seeing the eels, they realize that there is an eel-spearer of skill somewhere in the background.

Eels sell readily. In fact, there are seldom enough to supply the demand. And that is why the eel eaters will sit long over their broiled or roasted eels and express the heartfelt hope that whoever the eeler may be, that he may remain vigorous and that his years will be many indeed. He is an anachronism, and as such, possesses the value of any other rare antique.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox