The strangest fish ever seen in the streams of the Ozarks is the freshwater eel, though the ugly sculpin is a close second. But a sculpin is only as big as your hand, at the most, while an eel might be the length of your leg. Its snakelike appearance and willingness to take a baited hook have given many anglers an unexpected jolt.
Once plentiful, even in small streams, eels are now absent from streams in watersheds above dams.
Freshwater eels spawn in the Atlantic, reportedly east of the Bahamas. The newly hatched eels live for a time in the ocean. Then the females head inland, while the males move for coastal waters. Those eels which ascend the Mississippi and then the Missouri, St. Francois and White rivers, may find their way into the tributary streams of the Ozarks, unless blocked by dams. After five or more years in fresh water, they head back downstream and ultimately to their spawning grounds, where they spawn and die.
J. E. Cowan, in his history of the Powell-Cyclone community on Big Sugar Creek in McDonald County, Missouri, very near the southwestern corner of Missouri, relates two incidents involving married couples catching eels. The first, from 1927, features Frank and Ruby Cowan, who were fishing for catfish on Big Sugar Creek near Cyclone:
“The couple ate their supper before attempting to catch anything else that evening. Later that night Frank caught an eel. When he pulled the fish up and out of the water onto the bank it turned loose of the hook and fell to the ground. Frank quickly recognized it as an eel. He dropped his fishing pole, ran over to the squirming eel and picked it up. He was able to pick the eel up by wrapping his hands around it and at the same time pushing it against his clothing. He called to his wife, Ruby, for her assistance. With the eel safely back from the water, Frank tied a string through the creature’s gills and wrapped the opposite end around the emergency brake stick of his Model-T Ford. The poor eel tried vainly to break free from his captors….The measurements made on the eel gave its length at four and one-half feet. The flesh was rather yellowish in appearance.”
For an eel to reach Cyclone on Big Sugar would have required it to cross the Gulf of Mexico, then ascend the Mississippi, the Arkansas, the Grand (in Oklahoma), entering Missouri via the Elk (or Cowskin) between Tiff City, Missouri and Grove, Oklahoma, then swim eastward to Noel, then five miles north to the mouth of Big Sugar, then 10 miles eastward past Pineville to Cyclone. Due to dam-building, this remarkable journey has not been possible for a half-century, and a slim connection between a place on an Ozarks stream and a spot in the Atlantic has been severed.
Mr. Cowan has given us another story that lets us understand that the eel was once common in Big Sugar, but not always feared, at least not by a woman:
“Mr. McCullough, with his wife helping him, fished in Sugar Creek for eel nearly every night. Mrs. McCullough would perch herself in a rather precarious position on a slanting rock just below the spot occupied by her husband very near the water’s edge. When her husband hooked an eel, he simply lifted it out of the water and dropped it into the waiting lap of his wife. She would then wrap her ‘mother Hubbard dress’ around it to prevent the eel escaping back into the water. Mrs. McCullough sat on this same rock so often over the years that one would tend to believe they could still see the outline or print of her bottom on it.”
The most enjoyable days of my childhood were spent exploring that section of Big Sugar Creek, and I believe I have sat in the very rock where Mrs. McCullough patiently spent the evenings, her skirt full of squirming eels. The eels are no longer there, and I wonder where there are still such women.