By Joel Page
Using my tripod as a walking stick, I carefully worked my way down the dark and muddy slope of a Maine riverbed to the rocks below where the nets and plastic bucket marked carefully selected and secretive fishing spots. The elver fishermen had arrived hours earlier to stake out a good location on the shore. With the baby eels selling for $2,300 a pound, the extra time and effort is worth it. Once their space is secure, it’s time to “hurry up and wait,” as one fisherman explained.
Elvers are American eels harvested as they swim upstream from the ocean where they are born to rivers and lakes where they will live until they reach sexual maturity. They swim at night with the incoming tide, so the fishermen typically work in the dark.
With only around 400 permits issued by the state, reporter Jason McLure and I had some difficulty finding fishermen willing to be interviewed or photographed. Although we had a handful of names and phone numbers, they were all dead ends. There was always a veil of secrecy as we asked around trying to track fishermen down. With the amount of money involved, ensuring personal security and preventing poachers were common concerns. Reporters and photographers can be considered threats to these efforts.
Two friends of mine asked around a small fishing community up the coast, and the closest they got was the acknowledgment that there were people in the area fishing for elvers. Everyone went quiet when asked for a name. Another journalist had warned me that this would be the case. We just had to go to a river where there might be fishing and be willing to “hurry up and wait.” This strategy eventually worked and we found our subjects as long as we promised not to mention the name of the river or the town they were fishing in.
When finally upon the action, I noticed each fisherman had a different technique for dipping his net in the water. One preferred to walk back and forth along a stone wall; others swung the net from side to side in front of them. As we were waiting in the afternoon, one fisherman invited me down to try one of the nets so I could see what they have to do for hours each night. I expected the net to glide easily through the water, but with such a fine mesh needed to catch the eels, it was more like paddling a canoe with an awkwardly long paddle.
When the sun had set and the tide rose again, it was time for them to fish. Unfortunately it was now raining, but the alluring market price for their haul outweighed any concerns about the weather. They worked for hours, but it was slow going that night because the rain-flooded river was running stronger than usual so the elvers would wait until it calmed down to continue.
By early morning, the fishermen were debating whether to head home or try another spot. Jason had gotten the name of an eel buyer we hoped to track down the next day in Portland, so I headed home to dry out. I took off my rain gear, muddy boots and headlamp and tried to wipe down my wet cameras as I packed them.
Our story wasn’t done yet, but we had made a big first step by finding these fishermen. From there, things started to fall into place. One fisherman gave us the name of his eel buyer to contact.
While photographing the packaging of eels at their facility, I met a fisherman I’d been trying to reach earlier in the week. He agreed to allow me to photograph him as he checked his net early the next morning. What started on muddy rock in the rain led us to a warehouse on the Portland waterfront, then on to a marsh outside of town. That was the final component I needed to show elver fishing in Maine.