ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Every summer, Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest travel hundreds of miles to gather a fish you're probably never going to see in the fish market. It's called the Pacific lamprey. Now, this is not a pretty fish. It's two feet long, skinny and slimy like an eel, and has a giant round mouth with teeth.
Ann Dornfeld followed one tribe to Willamette Falls, a waterfall outside Portland, to harvest this traditional native food.
ANN DORNFELD: 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.
Mr. KELLY DIRKSEN (Tribal Fish and Wildlife Coordinator): They need a really good PR department because they're not the greatest-looking fish, and have a pretty morbid way of making a living by sucking the body fluids out of marine mammals or other fish.
DORNFELD: 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 a parasite, lampreys return to freshwater to spawn. Many climb the rocks behind Willamette Falls en route. You heard right, they climb using their sucker mouths in flinging themselves up the rocks. The falls are where the tribes have always gone to harvest lamprey and where we go today. We put on special gear for this slippery work.
Boots with felt soles make it easier to walk on the slick, algae-covered rocks that sit in the shallow but fast-flowing water at the base of the falls. Tribal member Pete Wakeland says we also need cotton gloves to help us grip the lamprey.
Mr. PETE WAKELAND (Natural Resources Manager, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde): Pulling them off is easy. It's hanging on to them after you get them off the rock that's hard, because they wiggle and they're kind of slimy.
DORNFELD: One man swims behind the falls and plucks the fish off the rocks. He hands them through the waterfall to a harvester who's 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.
Mr. WAKELAND: That waterfall was pounding me. Every time I'd reach in to get the eels from Kelly, the waterfall would hit you and it hurts. It's heavy.
Mr. DIRKSEN: Yeah. There are a couple of times, Pete, I thought you were going to get washed right into me. I was looking for something to hold on to.
DORNFELD: Now, the crew uses a zip line to shoot their bag of writhing lampreys from the rocks down to the boat. This process gives even grown men a giggle.
Mr. WAKELAND: Yoo-hoo-hoo. That's too good.
DORNFELD: Several weeks and several harvests later, the tribes organize a traditional lamprey roast at the Grand Ronde reservation. A huge firepit settles into glowing ambers as the men find a Bigleaf Maple tree and cut down some skinny branches. They slice off the twigs and leaves with a traditional axlike tool, it's 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. The skewers are 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.
Unidentified Male: Don't be scared.
Unidentified Male: It's very, very (unintelligible).
Unidentified Female: It's oily, so watch your dress.
DORNFELD: It's really good.
Unidentified Female: See. Okay. Who's next?
Unidentified Male: What did she say?
DORNFELD: It's like a cross between, like, a pork chop and mackerel. But the flavor of lamprey is almost beside the point. For the Grand Ronde, this is about tradition and tasting the old ways.
For NPR News, I'm Ann Dornfeld.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.