ELLSWORTH — Country music stars Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings sang, “Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys …. Make ’em be doctors and lawyers and such,” but they were off the mark. If Mama wants her baby to make some real money, she might want to get that child an elver fishing license and a couple of fyke nets. For more than a week, buyers have been paying $1,000 per pound for elvers harvested from Downeast streams, and Downeast harvesters were hauling in the tiny juvenile eels hand over fist.
For several weeks before the latest jump, buyers were paying $900 for a pound of transparent elvers — juvenile eels that are also known as “glass eels.” There are some 2,200 to 2,400 elvers in a pound, depending on how late into the season they are harvested.
One experienced harvester said he’d made more than $1,000 for just a couple of hours spent patrolling the banks of the Union River on Sunday afternoon with a dip net in hand. According to the harvester, the buyer he sells elvers to last week doled out more than $90,000 on a single day to a pair of fishermen who were netting elvers in the Narraguagus River.
Gail Wippelhauser, a scientist at the Department of Marine Resources (DMR), monitors the state’s elver resources. In a recent e-mail, she confirmed anecdotal evidence of this year’s abundance of elvers.
“I haven’t heard complaints, so I think catch is OK,” Wippelhauser wrote.
Like the California gold rush, the elver bonanza, whatever its magnitude, won’t last forever. Maine’s elver season opened March 22 and ends on May 31. Until then, there will be gold in them thar streams, at least as long as the elvers keep heading upriver from the ocean in search of the fresh water where they spend several years before returning to the sea to spawn and die.