The complex life cycle of freshwater eels found in coastal streams of North America and Europe affected the development of the eel spear’s functional shape and beautiful form. The reproductive cycle of freshwater eels was a mystery until 20th century Danish biologist Johannes Schmidt discovered that spawning takes place in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda. When the black and silver adult eels are about 10 years old, they head out to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die. The newborn eels (called larvae) drift in the Gulf Stream. American eels return to the East Coast in about a year and others continue on to the coast of Ireland, Britain and Europe over a period of about three years. As they grow, larvae change into miniature adults called elvers or glass eels. In times past, elvers formed masses at the mouths of the coastal rivers as they waited for a full moon before proceeding. Elvers develop colour first a juvenile olive brown hack with a yellowish underside which changes after several years to the adult’s black and silver. During winter groups of eels hall up in the mud at the bottom of freshwater ponds.
The skinny, snakelike eel with its strange life cycle was a real challenge for the spear maker and led to a wide variety of spear designs. Different shapes were developed to cope with the different hahitats and sizes of the eel at each stage. Eel spears are called “gigs” in some areas, “gleaves” in England, and the multipurpose eel/fish spear used on Long Island, NY, is called a “rag” spear.
Eel spears are basically two types, one type impales the eel on a sharp-pointed tine and the other snags the eel between blunt prongs and holds it by pinching the eel’s body and snagging its skin so it can’t slide out. The different approaches are significant, since a skewered eel will die and need to he cleaned, salted and possibly smoked before it is sold. Conversely, snagged eels can he released, packed in baskets and sent to market live with netted or trapped eels to he sold as fresh eel.
The two approaches to eel spearing result in three easily recognised spear types that can be compared with flowers. The spears that look like tulips have toothed blades and those that look like thistles have hooks at the ends of the tines; both snag the eel ‘s skin. Spears that look like papyrus blossoms have barbless tines to impale the eel. Collectors refer to tulip-shaped eel spears with the saw-toothed blades as “European spears” or mud spears. Tulip-like eel spears usually have saw-tooth-edged blade-like tines with the teeth or barbs along the adjacent blade edges. The ends of saw-toothed blades are tapered to guide the eel’s body into the slot between the blades. When the eel is pushed up the slot between the tines, the body is pinched and the saw teeth snag the tough eel skin, thus keeping the eel from sliding out.
Thistle-shaped (winter) eel spears are used through the ice and have a fan-shaped array of from 2 to 16 tines with the tip of the tine bent into a U-shape with the sharp tip pointing back up between the tines. The centre of the thistle is a flat dull-edged blade extending out beyond the hooked tines to protect the soft iron tines from rocks in the muddy bottom. The eel slides up between the tines, the tines pinch the body and the reversed point keeps the eels from sliding out.
Papyrus blossom-shaped (summer) eel spears have blunt arrow-headed or oval spoon-shaped prongs on both sides of a usually barbless, sharply pointed tine. The prongs protect the tine’s point from rocks and force the eel’s body into alignment with the tine so that it will be impaled as it slides between them. The gap between the shoulders of the prongs is narrower than the eel’s body, and the shoulders of the prongs hold the eel on the tine, thus no need for a barbed tine. A lot of creative design has gone into shaping the blunt prongs and arranging the way the prongs and tines are attached to the spear’s shaft.
The “rag” spear uses closely spaced pointed straight tines to spear fish like skate or flounder. Each tine has many cut barbs to hold an eel between them as does the saw-tooth-bladed tulip-shaped mud spear. Rag spears are not particularly good looking because elegance has been sacrificed to make the spear dual purpose.
Examining the spearhead gives clues as to how the spear was made and its original use. In a few cases eel spears have a maker ‘s mark; in other cases the spear ‘s maker may be recognized or known based on workmanship and design details. Serious tool collectors will appreciate the wonderful work of the skilled craftsmen who made these spears.
Eel spears are the ultimate embodiment of beauty of form derived from function. The combination of the dynamic functional design of eel fishing spears with wrought iron craftsmanship of the highest order results in an unadorned attractiveness that makes them extremely desirable. The visual impact of eel spears is equal to, if not more impressive, than that of axes.
About the author:
The reporter Marcel L. Salive, Ph.D. is the author of the book “Ice Fishing Spears”. He collects eel and fishing spears, carves ice fishing decoys and is a member of the NFLCC, the Great Lakes Fish Decoy Collectors and Carvers Association and the American Fish Decoy Association.
Appeared 1997 – Toolshop Auctions Catalogue