The fishmonger who came to Lympstone in his battered van to buy my skipper's catch needed to find his eels alive. The day before his coming was the day to raise the eel keep. This keep, as I remember it, was a very simple home made contraption of rusty iron and chicken wire no bigger than a ferret cage. It was rowed out, attached to a buoy and sunk in the Lympstone lake at a depth where it would never dry out. Every time a sizable eel was taken in the nets or on the flounder lines it was delivered to this prison. the keep was raised and sunk again and the newly taken eels joined their fellow captives in the depths. By the time the fishmonger came to call, the often chock full keep of muddied, squirming eels, each wrapped around other, had been washed and bucketed ready for sale.
My father loved to catch and cook eels. He had a little Swedish oak smoker like an army mess tin which cooked an eel to perfection. What he, what any right minded person, could not enjoy was the skinning of them. Eels love life or at least are wonderfully tenacious of it. However dead you think your eel to be it will still squirm and twitch so as to surprise and disconcert you. An eel skinner has constantly to convince himself that the creatures feel no pain. (Ah! but can any man who has never been an eel in the skinning be sure of the matter?)
My father's way of skinning eels seemed to me to have been truly creative although I suppose he borrowed it from his more 'genuine' fishermen neighbours. He had in his shed a blacksmith's vice. This description by the way is not for the faint hearted. if in doubt look away now! He would clamp the head of the eel fast. Then with a Stanley knife he would cut a delicate line around the eel's neck and then with a pair of pliers would tug the skin downwards. The skin would come away, he would never tire of saying, like a silk stocking from a woman's leg.
The doomed eel would twitch to the last.
Next: A disturbing poems about eels.