A Suitcase Full of Eels



Hana Tintor’s story

This story was sent to us by Hana Tintor. It was written by her Grandfather, Željko Mataga, and is one of several stories he wrote growing up in Opuzen, a small town on the South of Croatia. Opuzen is well known by its river - Neretva.

The Eel by Željko Mataga 
Translated from Croatian to English by Sandra Weither.
Illustrated by Hana Tintor. www.hanatintor.com


Many centuries ago the Neretva River and its people were widely known for the pirates of Neretva. In last two or three centuries its valley has been celebrated for the Neretva eel, and not before the seventies of the last century did the tangerine take over the fame.

The eel is a species I grew up with. Since my early age it has fascinated me with its mysterious and peculiar way of life as well as with the very specific way it is caught and prepared. There are some world famous specialties – fish stew (brudet) and grilled eel on skewers. Since people from the Neretva valley have been catching it for centuries, they know everything about its unique and secretive life cycle in nature. Most of my understandings came from my father’s stories. When we had guests at home my father would prepare some of his eel specialties and, during that ceremony, would talk about everything they were interested in. What he enjoyed the most was telling them the story about the eel’s unbelievable and intriguing journey to the far away fish nurseries. While telling this story he was always in some special mood, slightly smiling and his eyes sparkling. I was listening to him carefully and memorizing the story which has not faded away even 60 years later…

For thousands of years nature has been creating the entire landscape of the Neretva River as one enormous, unique fish pond. The Neretva River, while breaking through the Dinaric Alps, brought with it huge amounts of water together with alluvial deposits which covered marshy areas in lower Neretva and settled in numerous water flows, ponds, lakes and ditches. Exactly these water areas with muddy and soft bottom provide ideal habitat for the eel. Its elongated serpentine body can easily hide itself there and spend days protected from many predators. During the night the eel goes out looking for food. Here the life of a small female eel begins, its size of a match. Let’s assume it is the starting point of its miraculous life path. How, and where from, she arrived here, will be explained later.

The little eel preys upon small worms, crabs and fish eggs during the night. With the arrival of winter the water becomes colder and the eel buries itself in mud and waits for spring when water becomes warm enough for night hunting again. She keeps up with this rhythm for years. About ten years will pass before the eel grows to half a meter and weighs 20 decagrams. At that point it becomes sexually mature and its long journey can start. Exceptionally, some of them stay in the same marshy environment and set off at the age of 20, 50 or even 80 years reaching the length of one and a half meter and weight of more than 6 kilograms. It is one way journey. Or is it not?

The adventure begins in autumn, in specific weather conditions. The signal for departure appears during the rainy night with strong south wind. It is the moment when huge number of eels leave their marshy freshwater habitat and hurry down through the maze of ravines towards the sea in order to continue their long journey as soon as possible. This first and the shortest part is full of traps set by people to catch them.  
Just near the delta and along the sea coast, males await. Then, in massive schools, they travel together along the winding path for a couple of thousands kilometers. Leaving the Adriatic Sea, without stopping and feeding, schools move towards Gibraltar. After the Mediterranean, the eels push across the Atlantic near Bermuda and Florida, all the way to the depths of the Sargasso Sea. This uninterrupted mission lasts for months. How can those astonishing creatures put up with such an effort? How many of them become victims of sea predators? Why don’t they spawn in the Adriatic Sea whose southern part exceeds the depth of a thousand metres?

There are even tales about their intertwined snake-like bodies forming humongous round balls which constantly spin and in that way accelerate their movement. It also protects them from predators. Supposedly, these balls could have been seen from ships. It is hard to imagine what sort of force could accelerate and direct underwater movement of so many spherical shapes so it seems more likely that people, due to the absence of facts, created the myth.

In autumn period, from estuaries of many Mediterranean and Atlanitc rivers, numerous schools of eels pour into the sea depth just to be found in the eastern Atlantic in the direction towards its western shores. I was imagining it as a strange and gigantic tree with its branches reaching all Eurpean rivers, its trunk intersects the Atlantic and long deep roots extend to the depths of the Sargasso Sea. On the tips of branches some centripetal force attracts the schools in thicker branches and then towards the same trunk, descending to its pristine roots. There, in murky and cold depths, millions of eels lay billions of eggs, and die.

The most enigmatic thing was to envision what happens in the depths of the Sargasso Sea, in the heart of death and life. In my imagination I saw that exactly there, in that dark void, countless big balls of entangled eels are formed ejecting billions of new glittering galaxies of life. The balls then disappear in the womb of the huge dark hole, and fertilized eggs, like tiny sources of life, emerge to the surface. Here, a millimeter small, transparent larvae appear in the shape of flat, glassy leaves. They are carried away by ocean streams or pushed by root force of my imagined tree towards the European rivers. In the period of two or three years they grow to a few centimeters and unmistakably arrive to estuaries of the very same rivers where their parents embarked on their quest in the opposite direction. And here we come to the zero point where the story about little eels begins and where the circle of life starts again.  

There is probably a meaningful explanation to the question of spawning place which we posed earlier. Let us imagine what was happening on the planet Earth almost 200 millions years ago. At that time there was only one supercontinent, Pangaea. Millions of years later strong tectonic movements started, supercontinet broke apart, northern and southern American continents divided from the rest of the land thus creating a gap which was filled with the sea. 

Through millions of years the gap between the new continents and the supercontinent was widening. Consequently, the distance which our eel had to pass to reach the spawning area became longer. With the change of the earth relief this fish species had to adapt or forever disappear. As its path was getting longer, the threat of predators was increasing. Its meandrous body with larger fat supplies was not enough. Breeding capabilities had to change which meant that even smaller number of specimen with more spawn had to be enough to ensure successful survival of the species.

Then, suddenly, people appeared with their interventions in nature that disturb the balance and threaten the life of this exceptional species. By building river banks and sea embankments the usual and wide corridors which eels used for the return to their marshy habitat were intersected. The juvenile eel had to look for alternative, hardly passable ways. Till the middle of the 19th century people’s interventions were limited and did not cause serious damage but in the second half of the same century land reclamation began in lower Neretva, especially in the wider part of its delta. Huge wetlands were transformed into fertile agricultural land. At the same time the eel habitats disappeared and their living area became significantly reduced. Additional problems were caused by usage of pesticides, wastewaters pollution and uncontrolled fishing. Similar thing happened to hundreds of other deltas in Europe causing a global threat and a problem which should be a warning and evoke global concern, and finally, a global action. In reduced habitats it is important to protect and optimize life conditions, control the catch and at the same time start with fish farming. However, this is a challenging topic for some other story. 

The second part of the story refers to eel fishing. Since the time of the Venetians it has been known that some families from Neretva were given certain fishing location for eel catching as a reward for fighting against the Turks. Those locations in wet grasslands were dug and deepened by hundreds of meters long ditches what created dense labyrinths of canals through which the life of eels was streaming.

In this network of canals in Jezera my family had a couple of bigger and smaller ditches which we called penjali. Every year, in the mid summer, my father would begin with fishing preparations. It was necessary to check tratun (a type of scoop), notice if there were minor or greater damages on the net structure and patch all the holes. Uncle Nikola was a real expert in that; detailed, thorough, precise. It would occasionally irritate my father because he thought it could be done faster. Besides that, special scythes and hoes with four to five meters long handles had to be prepared. As a little boy, I was curious why those scythes and hoes had to be different, bigger and heavier than those we used in mowing and hilling. The explanation was that the long scythe was needed to mow water plants in ditches (water lilies, etc). The scythe needed to be thrown a few meters far and when it sank it was pulled along the bottom mowing thoroughly all underwater plants. When all areas were mowed, the heavy, black soil was pulled out. That was how the areas got cleaned and deepened so the fresh water could circulate and make better living conditions for eels. The amount of autumn catch also depended on that. While talking about that, my father would stress out that he would like me to grow up as fast as possible to help him with this important and difficult work. The years were passing and every August, almost every day before dawn, my father and uncle would go to Jezera with those long hoes and scythes on trupa (a type of traditional wooden boat), and come back exhausted around 9 o’clock to escape threatening scorching sun.

When I finished primary school in Opuzen and the first grade of grammar school in Metković, there was finally the August I was impatiently waiting for, not only for first ripe figs and grapes, but also for the beginning of important work which I could at last be part of. I agreed with my father that the time had come to visit penjali together.

One morning, before the dawn, it was enough to feel the touch of my father’s hand and to hear his voice saying it was time to leave. At the very same moment I was on my feet. Sultriness did not become weaker for days, not even in the early morning hours. I wondered how it was going to be at noon. We packed everything we needed and carried it to our little boat: some food, a lot of water and three scythes. About 50 minutes of rowing and we would reach our ditch. Meanwhile, father would talk about what was ahead of us, what needed to be done, and even about some changes in society that he found encouraging.

˝You know pretty well what we were going through during the time of collectivization. Only now, after seven, eight years, we are slowly recovering. There is no more dictation forcing us to renounce our ownership, what we must plant and sow, how many products we have to give. It seems like godfather Šime was right when he said that the things thoroughly changed. The State and the Communist Party are not against the farmers and their property anymore. We again have our cooperatives, just as before the war. The cooperatives take over, sell and pay well for our products. This year, for example, the factory bought off all our tomatoes. Still, we survived the most difficult times mostly thanks to the eel. Firstly, the eel fed us from autumn to spring. It is the kind of fish which you do not need to prepare immediately after catching it. We put them in a special wooden floating structure where it can live for months. Secondly, it is the most expensive fish and people buy it on the daily basis. We are a large family and, since no one has a regular pay, we use that money to buy oil, sugar, salt, petroleum.

However, there is one more thing about the eel which is beyond just being useful. It is the experience when you are here, in a small house by penjal waiting for the strong south wind which brings rain and thunder, when the sky and the earth come together and you are aware that you are in the centre of everything. The water flows around you swarm with eels. It is when they start their long journey. From Kuti lake, Crne rike they come here. This autumn you will finally feel this experience.˝

We rowed to the entrance of our first ditch. It was actually a canal which is four, somewhere five meters wide, maybe two metres deep, and about hundred metres long. First twenty metres, on both sides, there were muddy edges up to one metre high. After that they became lower and disappeared in a swamp. On the water surface there was a visible dense network of water lilies and other underwater plants.

˝We are going to start here, next to the deepest part, where later in autumn the coop will be fastened.˝ – said my father.

We both took scythes while standing on the edge, a few steps away from each other. He showed me how to handle the scythe and explained that it was made thicker and harder but if it was pulled along the bottom with sudden movement it could break in half. Therefore, it was important to do it with the feeling.

It was not the first time I was observing my father while doing it. I was analyzing the rhythm and ease of his moves. This might be one more reason why I learned surprisingly fast how to control my moves, find the rhythm and master this heavy tool. From time to time we would stop, wipe the sweat or refresh ourselves in pleasantly warm water we were surrounded by.

After about three to four hours, snack time included, the father called it a day. In this job you must not exaggerate. A bit tired, but satisfied, we sat in our boat and rowed back home. What a relief! After heavy scythe, the oar was as light as a feather. Besides that, on our way back we would have a 15-minute break by the Prunjak River where we had one of our vineyards and refresh ourselves with figs and grapes. At the edge of the vineyard, just by the river, the fig trees were almost touching the river with their wide, umbrella-like tops. What a pleasure was to climb that tree looking for the ripest and largest fruit.

We spent next ten days doing the same job at the same pace. Underwater mowing finished and it was time to replace long and heavy scythes with similarly heavy and long hoes. From a few meters distance we had to reach dark and sticky mass of soil and then pull it out carefully on the edge next to our feet. When pulling the soil out, the essential thing was the angle of the hoe and the amount of soil to pull. If you took too much soil, the resistance was so strong that you became helpless. Exactly that was the reason why a certain amount of time had to pass before, while watching and listening to my father, I managed to coordinate my arm movements, feel the subtleties and establish the best possible rhythm to feel less exhausted and tired. While pulling out and putting the soil next to my feet, the swampy mass was constantly splashing and our bodies were soon coloured in dark, muddy patches. Fortunately, we were surrounded by warm and clean water and we would clean the mud away from time to time.

The end of August was approaching as well as the beginning of a new school year. My father concluded that we did a great job. At the end we were rowing through all of our ditches, feeling the blend of fatigue and satisfaction.

While I was observing this dense and long canal network, I was thinking of generations who were painstakingly creating them, for hundreds and hundreds of years. How much effort, sweat, persistence… When you added magnificent maze of trenches, you wandered if it was possible that all of this was done by the man of Neretva with bare hands, using just three tools: hoe, scythe and a shovel. Wasn’t that a monument to human endurance and indestructibility?

With the arrival of the autumn the coops had to be set at every ditch. The special structure was made of thickly woven nets in the shape of a funnel. They were fastened with densely placed firm stakes which supported and secured the whole structure. The wooden rings became narrower ending with longish carrot-shaped coop made of woven brushwood. On their journey, eels came to the net funnel which directed them towards the coop from which there was no way out.

I agreed with my father to spend the night in a little hut this autumn, at the time when big catch was expected. I wanted to see, feel and experience everything he talked about so many times with amazement. It was some time at the beginning of October and a change of weather could be felt. It was a gloomy Saturday and south wind got stronger. We were quickly packing and putting things in our boat. We decided to take two boats. If the first night is successful, one boat might not be enough for the whole catch. Father said that we had to arrive at the ditch before night, check all coops and then we would spend the night in our little hut. In the morning we would see if there was any catch waiting for us.

Indeed, we managed to check everything even before the sunset and rowed to our shelter. It was a little hut made of thick layer of bulrush fastened by a stable wooden structure similar to a small tent. At the bottom it was about two metres wide and maybe two and a half metres long. Above the surrounding mountains the first lightnings appeared. The wind was getting stronger and soon we could hear the thunder. The rumble became deeper and the flashes more intense, especially when the darkness fell. Around us, the rustle of thick bulrush and roof was louder. We were comfortably sitting on a straw mat while the pause between lightnings and thunder was getting shorter.

˝It is going to be a real atmosphere. With loud thunder and south wind only the proper autumn rain is missing. But I’m sure it won’t fail us.˝ – my father said.

In those circumstances it was not difficult to foresee it. However, it was almost unbelievable with what precision people from my region could predict the weather changes, especially some older people. At that time there was no radio nor TV, and newspapers were available only in a local library, often delivered late. No one talked about cyclone and anticyclone, about high or low pressure. People cautiously observed the sky, tracked the clouds, they could tell the difference among types of wind. For intsance, they could not measure the atmospheric pressure but they could feel it in form of less or more serious health issues. Putting all this together, they developed the ability to recognize and foresee the weather. This ability, as many other skills and knowledge, was handed down from generation to generation.

Suddenly, it seemed like flashes of lightnings and thunderbolts shook and moved the gravitational force in clouds and they started to let the first big drops of rain. Soon after the sky and the earth were merged in one unity of sounds, colours and smells. And really, in this miraculous environment I could better understand my father’s relaxed cheerfulness. He was lying on the straw mat and enjoying in priordial force of nature, breathing in a unique smell of marshy soil, listening to sounds of south wind, thunder and heavy drops of rain. In this harmony a person really became a part of life which is undisturbed, where the landscape breathed freely and gracefully. The symbiosis between a man and incomprehensible power of nature was complete.

We talked late into the night, mostly about eels and the catch. I imagined the beginning of their marvellous movements in water flows around us. Afterwards I fell into a deep sleep. When my father woke me up, it was a typical gloomy autumn morning, without thunder, with mild wind and boring drizzle. We put on our raincoats and boots and rowed for about ten minutes to the first ditch. Father pulled out the coop. It was boiling from commotion serpentine bodies trying to find the way out of this confined space.

I helped my father to carry the weight of the catch. We made the opening on the top of the coop and transferred the catch to a densely woven sack.

While we were emptying the coop, some eels wriggled out, missed the opening of the sack and went under the straw mat at the bottom of the boat. We continued to check other hunting postitions. There were five or six of them. It took a long time to empty the scoops, put them back and fasten them to the bottom of the ditch, maybe more than two hours. In both boats there were two sacks of eels, one in the bow and other in the stern. We were supposed to come back to ruinous wooden bridge on Prunjak, near our house, as soon as possible. Two wooden structures were anchored there and the caught eels could live there for days or months. This strucuture was called burać and it was a special floating store in the shape of prism. Its firm wooden structure was covered by planks with densely drilled holes, around 10 mm in diameter. The clean river water constanly flowed through those holes enabling eels to move and survive in this crowded space.

When we came closer to the first and then to the second burać, we removed the lids and carefully transferred the caught eels. That was a successful end of the hunt as well as one special and unforgettable experience.

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