MONCKS CORNER — The catch was gold. Anglers went after it at night, out of sight and little regarded by most people in the Lowcountry.

Elvers The elver catch fluctuates each year, and fishing activity changes as prices go up and down.

1999 - 118 lbs.2000 - 0 lbs.2001 - 107 lbs.2002-2004 - 0 lbs.2005 - 13 lbs.2006 - 5 lbs.2007 - 0 lbs.2008 - .01 lbs.2009 - 0 lbs.2010 - 239 lbs.2011 - 15,000 lbs.2012 (est.) - 17,000 lbs. S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

The haul earned as much as $2,000 per pound, and millions of dollars were made.

What does eel taste like?

W.R. Livingston, the late Moncks Corner eel farmer, once said eels taste like baked ham.Jimmy Livingston, his grandson and an eel fisherman, said it’s a white, flaky, firm fish that’s really good smoked. The secret is to leave the skin on while cooking or barbecuing.“They’re delicious,” he said. Bo Petersen

They were netting eel.

The price of eel

$4.50 Nigiri unagi (eel) sushi, Wasabi Japanese Steakhouse, Charleston$9 BBQ eel roll (sushi), J.Paul’z, Charleston$18.95 BBQ eel over rice dinner, Takara, San Francisco$22.68 Grilled eel, Goshiki Tachikawaminamiguchiten, Tachikawa, Japan Source: Restaurant websites

Not just any eel. The anglers trapped tiny American eel elvers by funneling them into fyke nets that work like big windsocks. Elvers are young eel — silvery, translucent slivers about the size of skinny little earthworms.

The enigmatic eel

In a sea of strange creatures, the American eel is as mysterious as they come.Like the shad and other creatures, the eel migrates between salt and freshwater. But the shad and others come inshore to spawn. The eel lives its life in freshwater, goes to deep water offshore to spawn, then dies.No one has ever seen a spawn. A submersible has photographed a single eel in deep water off the Bahamas.The tiny spawned larvae are so transparent that to find them in water, you shine a light and watch for it to become wavy behind them. If they are held in the hand, all you can see is the eye.Elvers, or young eel, are so transparent that you can see the spine and beating heart.Elvers come inshore in an annual run that works its way north stream by stream from late winter to late spring, and peaks for only a few days each stream.The runs occur at night. One eel fisherman watched a run take place in Maine during a solar eclipse.Atlantic States Marine fisheries Council, S.C. Department of Natural Resources, eel fisherman Jimmy Livingston.

They swim in from the seaweed in the deep Atlantic, to take up residence in freshwater rivers. They have not fed yet, and if they can be caught before they begin to feed, they can be sold to international buyers.

First eels in area date to about 1960

MONCKS CORNER — The first American eel caught commercially in South Carolina, at least in modern times, might have come out of a culvert pipe near the Tailrace Canal.W.R. Livingston, a commercial catfish angler on the Marion-Moultrie lakes, turned to catching eels sometime around 1960, during the late winter when the other fisheries were shut down.He discovered that eels would use the pipe, so he set a net across it.“Back then, people said there was no way you could sell eel,” said Jimmy Livingston, his grandson. “People still say ‘ewww’ when you tell them you’re catching eel.”The eel has never really gotten on the plate of Southern cuisine, but is more popular in Northern states. In fact, eel might very well have been on the pilgrims’ plates for the first Thanksgiving dinner.And eel is very big in Europe and Asia.By the early 1970s, Japanese buyers had approached Livington and other eelers, said Allan Hazel, S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist, and the market took off.By 1974 W.R. Livingston and a partner were raising some 30 million eels per year at pond farms in Moncks Corner and Georgetown.By the 1980s Livingston had 40 ponds in his Moncks Corner fields.The business hit harder times eventually, struggling with the up-and-down prices for eels, increasing regulations and other problems. It was disbanded after Livingston died.

The eels are transported to Asian countries such as Japan and China and grown on a farm with eel feed they otherwise would not eat.

In the Orient eels are like lobster here — so sought-after that the Asian catch has been depleted. Meanwhile, a parasite is killing remaining eels.

No one has been able to spawn eels in captivity, and in Asia they have been trying for years.

With consumers there eager to pay, the import elver price shot up — a couple years ago elvers were just a few hundred dollars per pound.

“It’s like gold,” said Allan Hazel, an S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist who monitors the elver catch.

Thousands per pound

Elver fishing traditionally has been subsistence fishing, making a few dollars during late winter when other fish can’t be caught.

Not many people in the Lowcountry bothered.

The market price fluctuates year to year. Elvers can be as tough to gather as gold flakes. It takes an estimated 2,500 of them to make a pound.

But if an angler happens to hit a run, the tiny eels can pile into a net.

“In some places you can catch several thousand per night,” Hazel said.

In the Lowcountry, 1,000 pounds is considered a banner night. This year, that would have brought as much as $200,000.

American eels are considered to be in severe decline by federal monitors. The catch and season are tightly regulated.

South Carolina and Maine are the only Eastern states that still allow elver fishing. In Maine, really the heart of the industry, more than 400 licenses per year are issued.

In South Carolina only 10 licenses are issued, and fishing is limited to the Cooper River, trying to ensure that enough elvers survive.

A lot of years, the commercial catch here has been zero — a combination of low prices keeping anglers out of the water and the hit-or-miss nature of the catch.

Elvers move at night, the mass of them in runs that last only a few, unpredictable nights on any one river.

“They can taste that freshwater and they go for it,” said Jimmy Livingston, a third-generation eel fisherman from Moncks Corner. “It’s almost a flip of the coin whether they’re going to hit or not.”

Stealthy business

Anglers are notorious for not giving away secrets like the sweet spots to fish.

Elver netters have a reputation for stealth.

In the late 1970s, wildlife officers dealt with cases of guns being drawn and truck windows shot out, Hazel said. There were tales of spies, and elver anglers running decoy trucks to misdirect them.

“These fishermen potentially are making more than a million dollars. They are secretive, protective of spots,” Hazel said.

There’s some truth to that, Livingston said.

“I think there was some sneakiness going on. There was some stealing. Crooks will be crooks.”

But there’s more to it. In the Lowcountry, elver fishing is family heritage.

The fyke nets are hand-sewn because they can’t be bought. The net Livingston uses was made 25 years ago.

The fishing, like the net, becomes a kind of heirloom. The families who have those 10 licenses asked for them back when there was little demand, and they have held onto them for years.

“Nobody cared about (fishing for) the elvers when they were $20 per pound. It was just something you could do to get by,” Livingston said.

But the good years became pretty good. Asian buyers first turned up in the Lowcountry in the 1970s, and prices rose.

In the 1990s prices jumped to $800 per pound before settling to $100.

“It got a little fevery. People found out they could make money,” Livingston said.

The catch, meanwhile, has fallen from as much as 4 million pounds in the 1960s to about one million pounds today.

In the 1990s, with prices jumping, the state responded to federal concerns by restricting licenses, assigned by lottery.

As existing license holders, the families who had fished elvers all along were grandfathered in.

They felt they were portrayed in public as the bad guys.

“It didn’t take much. It’s very easy to villainize a small group,” Livingston said.

The crisis

Elvers are as good as gold right now, and that worries everybody.

The fishery might soon be shut down.

“The population is at the lowest we’ve ever seen it,” Hazel said.

Livingston gets a wry smile and shakes his head. He didn’t elver fish the past two years, concentrating on the family farm and his other businesses.

He didn’t think the price would stay high, much less climb.

But, “absolutely,” he said, he’ll be out next spring if he can.

He thinks there are more elvers, in Lowcountry rivers at least, than federal studies account for. The Cooper catch dropped after a canal was built in 1986, diverting flow from Lake Moultrie, he said, and likely moving elvers to other rivers.

“I hope they don’t (shut the fishery down). I think it would be premature,” he said.

Federal studies suggest that the decline is so precipitous that U.S. Fish and Wildlife is considering adding the American eel for the Endangered Species List, a move that could well end the catch.

Meanwhile, a committee of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the federal group in charge of regulating the eel fishery, will meet this month on what Kate Taylor, council fishery management plan coordinator, called “the elver crisis.”

The committee may recommend further restrictions on the catch or closing the elver fishery all together — action that could be taken by the end of the year.

“If they say that’s it, game over,” Hazel said.

Poaching is a constant concern. Overseas buyers, catch and anglers themselves are closely monitored.

“They’re very tight. Those game wardens are up there watching those rivers. They have to, it’s so lucrative,” Livingston said.

If the open market is restricted more or shut down, and a black market develops, the poaching threat doesn’t go away — not by a long shot. There are a lot of coastal rivers and few wildlife officers.

“Obviously, if prices stay up at $2,000 per pound, (poaching) becomes a bigger issue,” said Lt. Robert McCullough, of DNR law enforcement.

As it stands, elvers are gold.

The last two seasons,“it’s gotten crazy,” said DNR biologist Hazel.

“Calls from Japan, Taiwan, Korea. A call from a Hollywood reality television producer. Every day the (telephone message) light was flashing.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.