Lamprey Eels




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By Dan Beard

Fig. 91. 
The "Lamper"

This is the fisherman's name for what is generally known as the lamprey eel, and what is generally known as lamprey eel is no eel at all. In spite of all this, the "lampers" are great bait for bass. Near Binghamton, last summer, with a good lamprey for bait, I caught a bass weighing four pounds, two ounces, and my friend, Mr. James Johnson, caught several weighing over three pounds, while Mr. Johnson's wife landed a six-pounder! These fish were all weighed, measured, and recorded with their outlines in Mr. Johnson's book, kept for that purpose.

I say this because any one who has fished for black bass knows that a three-pound fish can send a thrill down the spine of even old fishermen, and that the "four-pounders" are generally the fish caught around the campfire, and not the real live fish of the streams.

Habits of the Lamprey.

Last summer's experience compels me to speak of the lamprey with the greatest respect. If the fish are passionately fond of the lamprey, the lamprey is also passionately fond of fish, especially of shad, as may be seen from the following interesting account, which appeared in the New York Sun about the time I was making my first trial with them for bait.

The lamprey leaves the ocean in great numbers in March, proceeds to the head of tidewater in the rivers, and there actually lies in wait among the rocks for the shad that will soon be pushing their way upstream to spawn.

The lamprey follows the shad on this interesting journey, fastening itself to the delicate fish by its mouth, which is simply an armed sucking disc with extraordinary adhesive power. The lamprey is always found fastened at the orifice from which the shad drops her eggs, and from which it sucks the roe, at the same time rasping the tender flesh of the fish with its sharp-toothed tongue, drawing blood from the shad to wash down the raped roe into its maw. The shad having by June become of little profit to the lamprey, the latter sets about attending to its own family affairs.

The female lamprey builds her nest in a swift current, making an excavation sometimes two feet deep. She frequently removes as much as a wheelbarrow load of stones in preparing her nest. She has such strength that she can haul up from the bottom stones weighing five pounds or more. Gluing her mouth to a stone, she works backward, drawing the stone after her. John Sawyer, of Sawmill Rift, once speared a lamprey in the Delaware as she was in the act of hauling up a stone in this way, and so firmly attached was she to the stone that it was lifted into the boat with her, she being pulled out of the water by the tail.

The male lamprey hovers about the spot while his mate is building the nest, watching her tugging away at the stones, but never offering any aid. As soon as the big nest is ready the female lamprey deposits her eggs in it, and swims away and dies. I can remember when the shores of the upper Delaware were lined, during the month of June, with dead lampreys and dead shad. As soon as hatched the young lampreys go ashore and bury themselves in the sand, where they are found by eager fishermen, who seek them for bait for other fish.

Properly cooked, the lamprey is good. There isn't a bone in it. Place a lamprey in the sun and keep it there, and it will melt like so much butter, the only evidence that it ever existed being a grease-spot. A peculiarity of the lamprey's flesh is that , although it will melt away in the sun, it becomes tough when put in the frying-pan over a fire, and becomes tougher and tougher the longer it is fried. The only way it can be cooked so as to be fit for the table is by stewing it.

How to Catch Lampreys.

This is downright hard work, and anyone who digs his own lampreys earns all the fun he derives from their use as bait. With a spade in hand he wades in the water above his knees, and digs the soft sand and mud from the bottom, quickly throwing the contents of the shovel on the bank where a companion looks it over for young lampreys. It takes a strong man to lift one of the shovels full of water and mud clear of the water.

How to Keep Lampreys.

Put them in the ice chest in a pail of aquatic grass and ice, or, where it is possible, make a long, wooden box, and cover the bottom with clean sand. Set the box where the water from a spring can run through holes bored in the sides near the top for that purpose. Other holes in the opposite sides near the top allow the overflow water to run off. Have a good cover for your box, and wire netting over the air and water-holes, or you will discover that some land animals are almost as fond of your expensive bait as the bass are.

This box is also an excellent contrivance for keeping bull-heads and other minnows alive. The wire netting over the holes keeps out the garter and other snakes that need only a hint to avail themselves of the opportunity of feeding on your bull-heads.

Lampreys are expensive to buy, to keep, and to handle. When taken out of the box to use, put them in a pail with grass and some big pieces of ice, and cover the whole up well with something to protect it from the sun. When you take a bait out you will find him so numb that it is not difficult to bait him. After he is once overboard, the warm water thaws him out so that he becomes exceedingly lively and tempting to the fish.







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Last modified: October 15, 2016.