Under the Great Bear; Amongst the Smell of Apple Wood Smoke One hundred and forty miles north of New York City, nestled in the rolling mountains of the Catskills, lies an eight hundred foot long eel weir. At the apex of the wall rising out of the flowing waters of the East Branch Delaware River, bleached, twisted and weathered sits a handmade fifty-foot long wooden trap, referred to as the “rack”. This structure occupies the same area of the river that has had a weir on its riverbed for over a century. What is the contraption's purpose? To capture the American Eels that live in these waters. The engineer of the weir is an elderly fisherman in late his 60’s. A stern looking man with weathered skin, a smoky colored beard down to his chest and always sporting a traditional pakol hat, a hat gifted to him by a US soldier when on tour in Afghanistan. Locals call him “The Eel Man” Ray and he has been fishing river eel on the East Branch Delaware River right outside of Hancock, New York for thirty years.
A veteran himself, serving in Panama during the Vietnam War, Ray looked for ways to re-assimilate into civilian life. He began by running water treatment facilities and odd-job construction projects around the area. Over the course of a few years following the death of his twin brother, Ray searched for a solitary life that led him to the eel weir and becoming its maintainer. Over a few decades, Ray has made his livelihood out of catching and smoking American river eel and selling it out of a wooden shake with red peeling paint on his property. This year, however, the weir had experienced one of its most historically low harvests to date leaving “Eel Man” Ray contemplating about hanging his waders up for good, closing his famous eel weir, and retiring from the eel business entirely.
Through these images, I hope to open a window into the unpredictability of life on the river, and daily work that goes into running his famous smoke shop “Delaware Delicacies” as it stands for the moment with its doors open on the outskirts of Hancock, New York.
Ray looks upstream and checks the status of the weir and its wall. The 900 stones when paired with the natural power of the river create a hydraulic funnel that forces eel to his trap.
Photographs displaying Eel Ray over the years building his weir, cooking, and fishing hang at the entrance of his smoke shop.
Ray empties the holding tank of 60 eels, a low number during this time of year. After bagging, and boxing the eels are placed into a freezer to help remove the mucus that covers their bodies.
A view of a hand-painted sign for Delaware Delicacies and a California State flag in Ray’s front yard.
Smoked eel being weighed and sold to a customer from Maryland.
Here Ray cleans the weir’s lattice panels of dead foliage and elodea. This mix of the two creates a mortar type compound that results in a clogged and ineffective trap.
A California State flag hangs in Rays shed above his old rusted Chevy pickup truck, in remembrance of his late twin brother.
Ray rinses the frozen mucus off the eels with water before preparing the fish for the smoker. Prior to this discovery, Ray used a cement mixer lightly filled with small stones in order to shed the mucus. A long and tedious process that resulted in lots of loss product, time in the day, and a rusted out cement mixer that he proudly displays in his backyard.
Smoked eel is what Ray's smoke shop is known for. Along with eel, his shop also sells a variety of smoked items such as salmon, shrimp, trout, duck, Cornish hen, and cheese.
Hand-painted signs are placed along Rhodes Road, a dirt path that runs parallel to the East Branch Delaware River. Travelers follow this road in search of smoked eel at Ray’s shop “Delaware Delicacies Smoke Shop”.
Here a natural mucus, due to fear, coats the eels as they are transported to the freezer. The freezing period plays an important role in the smoking process, by naturally separating the mucus from the eels prior to smoking.
Under the dim light in his office, Ray reviews the shop's inventory before closing its door for the day. On this particular Friday, he sold the last batch of his smoked eel to customers from Buffalo, New York. He hopes to have a full trap full by the nights end to keep up with the high demand of the coveted fish.
Amongst a variety of goods from local businesses in the area and news clippings sits a painting of an American Eel on a shelf in the shop.
Ray shows off one of the many tags issued to him over the years. These tags were given yearly by the NYS to be displayed on the weir. Over time they were replaced with plastic ID cards.
A dead shad sits on top of the weir’s lattice panels. Occasionally different variety of fish can get caught but by law, Ray has to free or properly dispose of any dead fish.
Ben Rinker stops by to chat with Ray at the eel weir. Ben has helped Ray build the weir for “As long as I can remember,” says Ray. The two have been friends and neighbors for years.
Waters from the East Branch Delaware River flow through the lattice panels of Ray’s eel weir box. The force of the river pushes the eel over the lattice panels and into tunnels that are placed beneath the steps. Once inside the tunnels the eels follow the path of least resistance eventually making their way to the traps holding pen.
Eel Ray Turner stands for a portrait outside his home located in the outskirts of Hancock.
Ray uses a large net to scoop eels from the holding tank. Once caught, the eels are placed into a cardboard box to be frozen and stored until he is ready to smoke them. This year catch numbers were historically low, hurting his shop's profits and his customer's demands for the fish.
Worn and sunbleached photographs showing moments on the weir over the years hang proudly in the entryway of Ray’s smoke shop.
Ray tends to a customer from Pennsylvania. When asked if he had a business card Ray says jokingly “People use cards because they want to grow their business, I want to slow it down”.
Wading upstream, Ray pulls a canoe that he uses to transport any eel caught in the weir back to shore. During the migration cycle, it isn’t odd for ray to make several trips back and forth to a weir filled with eel. Catch rates at the trap vary daily.
In the holding pen next to the smoker of Ray’s shop lives the handful of eels caught during the first week of this year's harvest. Ray guesses their ages range from 15-25 years.
Ray prepares the final two smoked eels, from the season's low harvest, to sell at his smoke shop “Delaware Delicacies”.
“Have you ever met someone that swam in the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean on the same day?” “Well, you do now!” Ray said chuckling as he told stories about his time stationed in Panama. As a veteran of the Vietnam War himself, his support for the military is displayed throughout his shop. Here photographs and news clippings of US Armed forces hang on the walls of his office.
Ben Rinker and Ray Turner sit on the walls of the weir box as the sunsets behind them. When asked why he chose this specific spot to build it Ray tells me “I chose this spot because the big dipper sits directly above it. I took it as nature giving me permission to dip into its waters”.