SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Every spring, a few hundred fishermen in Maine have a chance to make a lot of money in a short period of time by fishing for baby eels - or elvers, as they're called. Elvers are shipped to Asia, raised at eel farms and mostly end up as unagi, the seasoned, grilled eel that's in Japanese restaurants. As Maine Public radio's Nora Flaherty reports, that long journey starts in the dark of night on a very cold river.
NORA FLAHERTY, BYLINE: In the light of an oil lantern, Chad Jordan and his brother Justin are standing on the stone walls of the riverbank, quietly waving their nets back and forth.
CHAD JORDAN: I'm making a steady current, and they get washed into the current, and then I pick them up with the next swoop.
FLAHERTY: Elvers hatch in the Atlantic. And by the time they're moving through Maine's waters, they look like nothing more than tiny pieces of clear, squishy vermicelli with spines. Fishermen try to swoop them up as they float by on the current. It looks peaceful, almost hypnotic. But Justin says it is really hard work.
JUSTIN JORDAN: Standing on a steep bank, trying to balance all your buckets and your lanterns, swinging a fine mesh net through the water - it's like a trash bag on the end of a pole.
FLAHERTY: Chad and Justin have been elvering for a couple decades, and this year's prices for the eels are some of the highest ever at about $2,400 a pound. There's a complicated licensing and quota system, and people are secretive about it.
J. JORDAN: Nobody really specifies how much they can get.
FLAHERTY: But a few fishermen in the state are allowed to catch enough elvers to earn $120,000 in 2 1/2 months. Justin and Chad are probably not those guys. But during elver season, they still have a chance to make a good portion of their year's income all at once. And Chad says the burst of cash that comes from elvering is a blessing.
C. JORDAN: That really gets you out of the hole and gets stuff paid.
FLAHERTY: Elvers are not a traditional part of the New England diet, but adult eels are, going back to the indigenous people of the area. Justin says he remembers eating eel as a kid.
J. JORDAN: And they squirm in the pan the whole time you cook them.
FLAHERTY: And as for the Japanese version...
J. JORDAN: I've never had unagi, but I eat the first elver that I catch every year just for good luck for the season. It's a little slimy, and it's a little salty like the water, but it doesn't taste like much because they're so small.
FLAHERTY: Elver season continues until early June. For NPR News, I'm Nora Flaherty in Portland, Maine.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILLS' "WILD WERE THE WAVES")
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