I always wanted to tell this story and every time somebody talks about the eel feast they had, I want to tell it more than ever, especially since in our last issue we saw Blair Bernard skinning eels and how tasty they were, according to him.
The cold weather is setting in with a little bit of snow falling, and the eels are migrating to the mud flats among the eel grass. According to the Elders, at the first sign of cool weather and dropping water temperature, eels go into the mud with part of their head exposed. As the water gets colder, they go further in the mud.
I guess this story starts with the important people that were involved–my father, Noel Dennis, more commonly know to the community as Noel Joe Ji’j . He was a big man and in excellent shape. The other person in the story is my uncle, Martin Dennis, more commonly known as Martin Joe Ji’j “ The Barber.” (My father was also a barber in the days when adults got a haircut for 25¢ and kids for a dime!) To finish off our story, there was me and my younger brother Gerald.
This story took place in the early sixties when I was about 12 years old and my brother was a couple of years younger. The place was one mile heading east towards Sydney where the fishing grounds for eels was commonly known as “Paul Morrison” or, if you’re familiar with the stretch of water where Bobby Gee has his trailer, what we call McPhee Islands.
According to our Elders, the question for Mi’kmaq going fishing for eels was “Are you dragging your eel pole today?” and the answer was “tmaqknejk.” I think it was because the place was shaped like a tmaqkn or an old-fashioned clay smoking pipe–just a thought…Now, getting back to our story. We were told to get up early on Saturday morning, which made me and my brother Gerald happy. We set off in my father’s truck and I don’t remember talking about much of anything, but who cares because there was no school!
We arrived at our destination and unloaded our equipment; bags, eel spears–what we call multi-spear and hook shape (also called natuamkewe’l, according to our Elders). The spears are commonly used for ice fishing eels. To this day, I don’t know how the boat got to our destination, maybe it was taken out the day before. To this day, I can describe the boat. It was about 15 feet long, with the boards overlapping each other. I’ve seen a couple over the years. I’ll bet if you ask Uncle Stanley Johnson, he can make one.
The plan was to drop me and Gerald off on McPhee Island to hunt for rabbits. It was the right time of the year, with no snow, and the rabbits were as white as snowballs. We watched for a while as my father and uncle stood end-to-end on the boat, spearing the bottom of the lake, feeling for eels in the eel grass. The mud flats in this area are not very deep, just 10 to 12 feet. When they felt a jerking motion of an eel on the spear, they’d make a quick pull and sometimes there would be two or three eels on the spear, but most times it would be a large one called pqwasaw.
According to my father, the day was perfect. The right wind direction and not too strong was the key. They would drift along with both my father and uncle going full blast with eel after eel coming in the boat. As they approached where the water got deeper, they would stop and row back to the so-called start line with just a boat-wide spread, if you know what I mean. It’s similar to what you do when ice fishing, trying not to hit the same spot twice. I’m still amazed with this, with no GPS, no maps, just traditional Mi’kmaq knowledge. I’m also amazed at their stamina, eeling from morning until night.
In the meantime, Gerald and I were chasing rabbits on the island which took a lot of energy. We were starving!! Finally a loud call came from the shore, “Come and get it.” Gerald and I tripped over each other, running towards the meal call. They would cut a green branch shaped as a fork to cook the eels gently, nice and brown with a little oil dripping. It makes me hungry thinking about the eels, four cents cake, and freshly brewed tea. It was an excellent meal that I will never forget.
At the end of the day, we met at the same rendezvous point and home we went. My father and uncle had a boat load of eels, all shapes and sizes, and Gerald and I had a bag full of rabbits. When we got home, it was sharing time. The big eels (pqwasaw) went to our folks and the smaller ones were salted for the winter.
To this day, when I see eels roasting in the fire and tea boiling, this story always enters my mind.