The wonder of American eels: And the three caught on the Kankakee River

SHARE The wonder of American eels: And the three caught on the Kankakee River

American eel caught June 13 by Denise Wessman on the Kankaee River upstream of Momence.

Oh, Denise Wessman remembers the first American eel she caught around 2003.

‘‘I screamed like a girl,’’ she said. ‘‘I ran in the house and woke my [late] husband up. It had curled up on my line.’’

It was the first of three eels — the latest was June 13 — the retired emergency-room nurse caught from the Kankakee River between Momence and the Indiana state line.

American eels, the only freshwater eels in North America, are an odd fish. In Illinois, they are listed as threatened and are a very rare catch.

That’s why Richie Garcia catching an eel in October (Fish of the Week, Oct. 18) on the Chicago River during the #ChicagoFishes event off the Riverwalk was a big deal.

Richie Garcia with the American eel he caught in October 2017 from the Chicago River.<br>Provided

Richie Garcia with the American eel he caught in October 2017 from the Chicago River.

Wessman catching three might be an unmatched, especially where she caught them.

‘‘We have found only a few American eels on the Kankakee over the years,’’ streams biologist Steve Pescitelli emailed. ‘‘In fact, only four show in our basin survey records. We have collected a few additional ones at the [Kankakee River Valley Fishing] Derby collections and in other sportfish surveys.

‘‘I find it very interesting since they are rare in this area and, as you know, spawn exclusively in the Sargasso Sea. That eel swam several thousand miles to get to Momence — over the Kankakee Dam. From that standpoint, it is pretty significant. We have records for three eels above the Kankakee Dam. The last one was in 1990 and two before that in 1979.’’

The Sargasso Sea is formed by four Atlantic Ocean currents and has no land boundaries. American eels return there to breed and die. Young migrate in one year to the freshwater of North America. Looking more like snakes than fish, American eels can live for decades and can reach 60 inches in length, though most are much smaller.

Denise Wessman.<br>Provided

Denise Wessman.

Wessman caught her first two eels while fishing a minnow on a modified Caroline rig for northern pike in the fall. The third eel had different timing.

‘‘If you are catching them now, they are staying in the area,’’ said Wessman, who became fascinated with eels and studied them. ‘‘I can honestly say I don’t fish for them. I was catfishing [this time].’’

Naturally, I asked with what. That brought peals of laughter.

‘‘My secret catfish bait,’’ she said. ‘‘I am not going to tell you. It is going to be derby time soon.’’

The derby opens Friday. Several eels have been noted during fish-collection day for the derby in recent years.

When I asked Wessman if there was any chance she had a selfie with the third eel, she again broke into laughter.

‘‘No,’’ she said. ‘‘Do you know how hard it is to get off the line?’’

She did have a photo of the eel unhooked before release.

‘‘The whole process is fascinating,’’ she said. ‘‘What is the likelihood of me catching another after the first one?’’

And now a third.

Conservation Police Officers

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is seeking applicants for Conservation Police Officer trainees. The written exam will be administered through Aug. 30. The stated intent is to hire up to 20 CPOs in 2019. Details are at

Illinois hunting

Saturday is the final day for applications for the second lottery for deer hunting and the first lottery for dove permits for public sites.

Wild things

Monarch butterfly in June of 2018, attracted to plants for butterflies.<br>Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Monarch butterfly in June of 2018, attracted to plants for butterflies.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Our first monarch butterfly of the year flitted around my wife’s milkweed and coneflowers Saturday. Doug Taron, the director of the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, identified it as a female.

Stray cast

Hearing Anita Ward’s ‘‘Ring My Bell’’ used in a Walmart ad is like watching a rainbow trout arrowed by a bowfisher.

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