A Primer on the American Eel and Freshwater Eel Fishing Bait

By Ken Schultz

Nov 11, 2021

The American eel is a unique species of fish, and not entirely loved; these facts about eels and  freshwater eel fishing bait will help you catch them

Most anglers catch freshwater eels accidentally on an earthworm or minnow, generally fishing for something else while unknowingly using what is also a good freshwater eel fishing bait. Not everyone is thrilled when this happens because slithering eels are difficult to handle and unhook.

I’m in the minority in liking eels, which I do because of their unique life history and great food value (I smoke them), although in other countries and cultures, freshwater (and saltwater) eels are more highly valued.

About American Eels

Here are some interesting facts about the American eel, known scientifically as Anguilla rostrata:

  • There are over 800 species of eels worldwide; the American eel is just one species
  • American eels range in the Atlantic Ocean from Greenland to Venezuela and spawn in the Sargasso Sea
  • In North America they are found east of the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, and in the Great Lakes (which also have lamprey eels)
  • American eels are uniquely catadromous: they’re born in saltwater, migrate to and live their lives in freshwater, then migrate to sea to spawn
  • No one has ever seen American eels spawn
  • Males and females die after spawning
  • They swim with their whole body, creating waves that allow them to move forward and backward
  • Their slippery mucous coating enhances movement, kills parasites and pathogens, prevents contact injuries, and changes in thickness from saltwater to freshwater

Angling for American Eels

A small number of anglers deliberately fish for American eels in a pond, lake, stream, or river with rod and reel. A key to catching them is fishing on or close to the bottom. They often dwell in vegetated areas and burrow into soft (sandy) bottoms.

Knowing their food will help you determine an appropriate freshwater eel fishing bait. An eel’s diet includes small fish, worms, clams, crabs, frogs, and the eggs of fish, including dead specimens. They are able to tear smaller pieces of food that may be too large to be swallowed whole. A piece of a large dead fish may be a good freshwater eel bait.

The best bait to catch freshwater eel might be a nightcrawler. While any worm might do, a fat piece of nightcrawler, fished with and without a float, on or close to the bottom, will catch eels as well as many other fish species. Another top freshwater eel bait is a dead minnow, fished on the bottom. This is particularly good at night, and will catch some other species as well, notably catfish.

An Alternative Eel-Catching Method

I catch eels in freshwater ponds and in brackish estuary creeks using both a rectangular eel trap and a square baitfish trap. These are baited with a whole or partial carcass of a filleted fish.

The eel trap has a hole at one (funneled) end, whereas the larger fish trap has entrances on four sides. Check the traps frequently because an eel will escape if left in long enough.

A good place to put such traps is near a pond drain, on the upstream side of a pond’s dam culvert, and in a narrowed channel. You should have a fishing license to do this and check your state’s regulations regarding fish traps.

Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz was a longtime staff writer for Field & Stream magazine and is the former Fishing Editor of ESPNoutdoors.com. He’s written and photographed nineteen books on sportfishing topics, plus an annual fishing tips calendar, and his writing has appeared on various websites for more than two decades. His author website is kenschultz.com