That’s fisherman Harry Clemenz spearing eels off of Star Island. The year is 1979 and the month is February. During the 1970s, the winters were still cold enough to freeze the lakes and ponds around Montauk.
In warmer months, fishermen dredged for eel, or set eel traps and pots to catch their quarry. Fishermen understood the seasonal behavior of these snakelike fish. Traps were set on the mud in mid-March when eels rose from their protective homes after a long winter. In the fall, the traps did their job as eels returned to the mud. Once the waters froze, however, the only way an eel could be caught was through a hole cut in the ice.
On February 23, 1978, fisherman Thomas Lester was interviewed by Susan Pollack of the East Hampton Star. A photograph of Lester hacking away at the ice with an axe accompanied Pollack’s description of this arduous work: “come the hard winter, he spears through the ice for eels.” Lester explained that “you usually get only ten or 20 pounds a day that way. On a rare day you can get 100 pounds. With dredging, by contrast, if you hit it right, you can get up to 500 pounds a day.”
Thomas Lester “chipped away at the snow-covered ice, letting the axe rise and fall until he had carved out a hole a foot in diameter and a foot deep. The work was exhausting; four hours of it was about all anybody could stand, he told Pollack. “Mr. Lester’s face and ears were reddened from the work and cold, and the curly red hair that stuck out from beneath his cap appeared bathed in sweat.” He stood, “looking out over the ice after cutting nearly a dozen holes that afternoon to harvest only about five or six pounds of eel.” Lester didn’t realize it then, and neither did Harry Clemenz, but the heyday of eel harvesting on the East End was coming to a close. Not even ten years later, algae would greatly reduce the numbers of eel in Three Mile Harbor.
Eel was selling for about $1.00 a pound in 1978, most of it in demand overseas. Lester sold “skun” eels (skinned) for $2.00 a pound, as skinning reduced the weight of an eel by a third. Lester’s skun eels were bought by a very appreciative local audience, although reactions to eating eel are never neutral. Many people recoil from the thought of these squirmy wrigglers, believing that “only an eel can like another eel.” Shark hunter Frank Mundus, on the other hand, was a huge fan of fried and smoked eel. Beauty, as usual, will forever be in the eye — or in the taste buds – of the beholder.