An Oklahoma teenager who was fishing for catfish reeled in something unexpected this week, an eel.
Bird Creek in Osage County is a little sanctuary for Billy Doty and his dad.
“Bighole, call this Bighole right here,” Billy said.
It's where they go to sneak away for a little fishing.
“It's a fun place to fish at and hang out at,” the 14-year-old said.
They're never fishing for anything specific, just whatever bites, like flatheads or sand bass. So it's not uncommon for Billy not to know exactly what's on the other end of the line, which was the case earlier this week.
“At first it felt like a pretty decent sized fish,” Billy said.
But when the line got lighter?
“Thought it was a snake, and that's not good if you catch a snake,” Billy said laughing.
It wasn't a snake though; instead it was an American Eel, about three-feet long.
“Moved like a snake, which kinda freaked me out,” he said.
Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Fisheries biologist, Josh Johnston, said it's not unheard of for someone to catch one in Oklahoma, but it is unusual, because they come from about 2,000 miles away and the journey to get to the state is dangerous.
They're born in the Sargasso Sea, south of Bermuda. When they're little, Johnston said, the eels drift in ocean currents then swim up rivers and streams.
“The males don't go very far; the females, they will go as far as they possibly can,” Johnston said.
To get to the Barnsdall area of Oklahoma, they'd have to make it through 17 locks and dams.
“They've been seen doing really strange things, like climbing up concrete walls and actually getting out into wet grass, and on a really damp night they'll get into wet grass and travel a long way just to get above that impediment,” Johnston said.
Once the eels reach sexual maturity, which could be ten or more years from the time they're born, their struggle to go north ends, they turn around and head back to the ocean to spawn.
“They're so mysterious,” Johnston said. “Once they spawn, they never re-emerge. We assume they die after once time of spawning, but after studies for a couple centuries now from the Japanese and the Europeans and the Americans, all we know is the Sargasso Sea is where they emerge and where the last time we see the adults.”
Johnston said the eels in Oklahoma are less likely to survive the trip back because they won't be swimming against the current and will most likely be sucked through hydropower dams.
“The flow is moving through the turbines most of the time and they'll get chopped up in those turbines,” Johnston said. “It would be very lucky to make through one turbine, but 17, a series of 17, it would be just pure luck.”
The eel Billy caught, however, will have the chance to try; after a few quick pictures, Billy released the rare catch.
“It's rare to hear about an eel getting caught down here, and so just let it go and be back where it was,” Billy said.
He put it back where it belongs, because Billy said he is not a fan of sushi.
Tess: You didn't want sushi for dinner?
Billy: “No. No, sure didn't.”
The fish is one of Japan's top protein sources, Johnston said.
“We have, on the east coast, licenses issued to people that can actually catch these things at a small size and they sell them for huge amounts of money to the Japanese, who grow them out.”
We asked Johnston if it's possible the eel was someone's pet that had been dumped in the creek and he said that's almost certainly not the case.