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American Eel

American eel


Olive to brown on the back, fading to greenish yellow on sides, gray or white underbody; snakelike body with small conical head and broad mouth; paired bluntly rounded pectoral fins; long, continuous dorsal, caudal and anal fin. Grows to 5-6 feet and weighs 10-15 pounds.


American eel Distribution

Mainly in Mississippi River and its larger tributaries.


Fish, invertebrates and terrestial organisms washed into the water.

State Record

Grows to 5-6 ft. State Records are not documented for non-game species.

Expert Tip


The spawning life cycle of the American eel is endemic to this species. Eels are catadromous, which means they spawn in saltwater and mature in freshwater. The cycle begins with the female maturing in freshwater streams over a period lasting from 5 to 20 years. Upon maturity they migrate downstream to the sea in autumn. Females are joined by the males, which have remained in the estuaries, never growing much more than 2 feet in length. The suspected area of spawning for all freshwater eels is in the southwestern North Atlantic Ocean east of the Bahamas and southwest of Bermuda in a region often referred to as the Sargasso Sea.

After spawning, mature males and females have not been observed near spawning grounds and are presumed to die. Eggs of the eel have never been sampled in the ocean, but it has been estimated a single female may produce from 5 to 20 million eggs. It takes at least a year of travel for the transparent, leaf-like eel larvae to reach freshwater streams along the coast of North America. Larval eels are called leptocephalus larvae and move via oceanic currents. Upon reaching the coast, these larvae metamorphose into 2 l/2 inch long worm-like transparent "glass eels" and begin ascending coastal streams to their eventual home to mature.

Fishing for eel is unimportant in Iowa, and most of those caught are taken incidental to other species. They are taken by commercial fishermen from the Mississippi, but the harvest each year is usually less than 2,000 pounds. The flesh of eel, while very rich, is said to be delicious. It is sometimes prepared by pan-frying but is more often smoked, pickled or jellied. Smoked eel is by far the most accepted and is considered a delicacy. There is little demand for eels in this section of the country.


Present in these Iowa water bodies: