Lamprey Harvest Turns Bloodsucker into Treat

Eel-Like Lamprey Held over Fishing Net i i

hide captionThe skinny and slimy lamprey has a giant, round, bloodsucking mouth — with teeth. Lampreys use their breathing holes to filter-feed when they are young.

Ann Dornfeld for NPR
Eel-Like Lamprey Held over Fishing Net

The skinny and slimy lamprey has a giant, round, bloodsucking mouth — with teeth. Lampreys use their breathing holes to filter-feed when they are young.

Ann Dornfeld for NPR
A Close-up of a Lamprey's Sucker Mouth i i

hide captionLampreys latch on to fish or marine mammals with their sucker mouths and drink their hosts' bodily fluids.

Ann Dornfeld for NPR
A Close-up of a Lamprey's Sucker Mouth

Lampreys latch on to fish or marine mammals with their sucker mouths and drink their hosts' bodily fluids.

Ann Dornfeld for NPR
Harvesters Pluck Lampreys Off Rocks i i

hide captionThe harvesters, who wear cotton gloves and boots with felt soles, pull the lampreys off the rocks behind Willamette Falls in Oregon.

Ann Dornfeld for NPR
Harvesters Pluck Lampreys Off Rocks

The harvesters, who wear cotton gloves and boots with felt soles, pull the lampreys off the rocks behind Willamette Falls in Oregon.

Ann Dornfeld for NPR
Pete Wakeland Holds a Lamprey i i

hide captionGrand Ronde Development Director Pete Wakeland holds a lamprey he plucked from the rocks.

Ann Dornfeld for NPR
Pete Wakeland Holds a Lamprey

Grand Ronde Development Director Pete Wakeland holds a lamprey he plucked from the rocks.

Ann Dornfeld for NPR
Lamprey Chopped and Skewered for Cooking i i

hide captionThe lamprey is chopped up and skewered on a maple stick before being cooked over the fire.

Ann Dornfeld for NPR
Lamprey Chopped and Skewered for Cooking

The lamprey is chopped up and skewered on a maple stick before being cooked over the fire.

Ann Dornfeld for NPR
Lamprey and Salmon Cook over Fire i i

hide captionA traditional lamprey and salmon roast cooks over an alder fire pit.

Ann Dornfeld for NPR
Lamprey and Salmon Cook over Fire

A traditional lamprey and salmon roast cooks over an alder fire pit.

Ann Dornfeld for NPR

Every summer, Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest travel hundreds of miles to gather a fish you'll probably never see in the fish market.

It's called the Pacific lamprey, and it's a traditional native food. But the lamprey is not a pretty fish. It's two feet long — skinny and slimy like an eel — and has a giant, round, bloodsucking mouth — with teeth.

If you've never heard of the lamprey, you're not alone. The tribes' fish and wildlife coordinator, Kelly Dirksen, says there are a few reasons the lamprey never gained mainstream appeal.

"They need a really good PR department because they're not the greatest-looking fish, and they have a pretty morbid way of making a living — by sucking the body fluids out of marine mammals or other fish," Dirksen says.

Lampreys use their suction-cup mouths to latch on to hosts like salmon or whales. Then they grate a hole in their host's skin using rows of tiny teeth. After a couple of years living as parasites, lampreys return to freshwater to spawn. Many climb the rocks behind Willamette Falls, a waterfall outside Portland, en route. That's right — they climb, using their sucker mouths and flinging themselves up the rocks.

The falls are where the tribes have always gone to harvest lamprey. They wear special gear for the slippery work. Boots with felt soles make it easier to walk on the slick, algae-covered rocks in the shallow but fast-flowing water at the base of the falls.

Tribal member Pete Wakeland says cotton gloves are used to help grip the lamprey.

"Pulling them off is easy. It's hanging on to them after you get them off the rocks that's hard, because they wiggle. And they're kind of slimy," Wakeland says.

One man swims behind the falls and plucks the fish off the rocks. He hands them through the waterfall to a harvester who is clinging to a boulder. He passes the fish to a third harvester who is holding a big mesh bag and trying not to get swept away.

They repeat the process dozens of times as great blue herons soar overhead. Then the harvesters swim back through the base of the falls and clamber up the slimy rocks.

"That waterfall was pounding me!" Wakeland says afterward. "Every time I would reach in to get the eels from Kelly, the waterfall would hit you. And it hurts! It's heavy."

The crew uses a zip line to shoot their bag of writhing lampreys from the rocks down to the boat.

Several weeks and several harvests later, the tribes organize a traditional lamprey roast at the Grand Ronde reservation.

A huge fire pit settles into glowing embers as the men find a big-leaf maple tree and cut down some skinny branches. They slice off the twigs and leaves with an ax-like tool called an adz.

Next, they whittle off the maple bark and sharpen the tips of the sticks. They chop the lamprey into chunks and skewer it on the maple sticks that are then leaned against a wire next to the fire.

An hour later, the lamprey is ready. A crowd gathers to watch the visiting reporter take the first bite.

"It's oily, so watch your dress," warns Siobhan Taylor, the Grand Ronde's public affairs director.

The lamprey tastes like a cross between a pork chop and mackerel, but the flavor of the fish is almost beside the point. For the Grand Ronde, this is about tradition — and tasting the old ways.

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