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Learn about the American eel

American eel is the only catadromous fish in North America, meaning it lives mostly in freshwater but returns to the ocean to spawn. Read on to learn more about this fish species.

Appearance

  • The American eel can be up to 5 feet long and weigh up to 16 pounds. Typically, eels are around 2 to 3 feet in length.
  • The color of eels varies based on their habitat. They can change colors to match the surface around them. Typically, eels are a dark brown with faded yellow on the sides. Their belly can be pale brown, yellow or white.
  • Eels have a snake-like body. They have a pointed head, a large mouth, and small, round eyes. Their dorsal fins are fused with the caudal and anal fins. The American eel most closely resembles the European eel and the American conger eel.
Juvenile American eels

American eel facts

  • Species name: Anguilla rostrata
  • American eels prey on ultimately any small fish or invertebrate that crosses its path. As far as who preys on the eel, a wide variety of fish and wildlife intercept the migrations of eel at different life stages to feed on their fatty, nutritious bodies.
  • The American eel is catadromous, meaning they migrate to the sea from freshwater to spawn. When mature, American eels migrate from coastal rivers to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.
  • Females can release up to 30 million eggs. The transparent young then hatch from their eggs and drift on the ocean currents. After roughly a year drifting on the ocean currents, the eels reach the United States coastline as transparent 'glass eels'.
  • The young eels arrive at about 2.5 inches and soon gain dark skin pigment, earning the name 'elvers'.
  • The elvers will soon morph into 'yellow eels', young adults with a yellow-green color. In 5-10 years, most become mature and begin their epic journey back to the Sargasso Sea.
  • Many mysteries remain with the American eel's life history. They arrive to our coast with their sex undetermined and years later swim offshore for over a thousand miles to spawn once and die. 
  • American eels occupy the most diverse habitats among fish in North America. They live along the entire eastern seaboard; ranging from Canada through the Caribbean, and south to French Guiana in South America. They have also been seen along the southern coast of Greenland.
  • Commercial fishing harvest is open on American eels at least 9 inches in length. You cannot harvest smaller glass eels in Massachusetts. Recreational fishing of American eels is also permitted with a daily bag limit of 25 eels.
  • The Division of Marine Fisheries manages the American eel in coastal rivers and the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife manages eel at inland waters. Coastwide, eels are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Check municipal regulations, as they may be different from DMF regulations.
American eel distribution map

Additional Resources for American eel facts

Angling tips

  • When angling, use cut pieces of bait and pay attention to changes in line movement, as their bite is subtle. Fried eel is better than you might expect!

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