American Eel

Anguilla rostrata


American eel side view photo with black background
American eel, Anguilla rostrata
Lance Merry

Anguillidae (freshwater eels) in the order Anguilliformes (eels)


The American eel has a slender, snakelike body with a small pointed head. Its back and sides are brown or green, and the belly is yellow or white. The dorsal, tail and anal fins form a single, continuous fin. The eel’s body appears to be smooth because its scales are so small. The rapid serpentine movement and the smooth, slime-covered skin make the eel almost impossible to hold when captured, giving rise to the “slippery as an eel” saying. Eels are most active at night.


In Missouri, females are usually 16-33 inches; males rarely exceed 18 inches.

American Eel

a greenish eel on the bank. It is snake-shaped, with pectoral fins near its head.
American eel caught at St. Stanislaus CA
Submitted by Shawn Fletcher
Habitat and conservation

Mainly deep pools around cover, such as logs and boulders, in moderate to large Missouri streams and rivers. The American eel population in Missouri has been reduced by large dams, which restrict its ability to migrate.


Young freshwater eels, or elvers, eat aquatic insects. Adults primarily consume crayfish and fish.

image of American Eel Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

In big rivers and major streams throughout much of the state except the southwest region.


Uncommon. Probably occurs occasionally in every large stream in the state, except where its movements are impeded by dams. Distribution and abundance are difficult to determine, since eels are rarely caught with standard fish-surveying equipment.

Life cycle

All eels in Missouri are female. Male eels spend their entire adult lives in estuaries along the coast; only females migrate to inland waters. Most of the female’s adult life occurs in freshwater. Eels then migrate to breed at great depths in Atlantic Ocean south of Bermuda. It is assumed adult eels breed once, then die. When young eels reach coastal waters, they are transparent and called glass eels. As young eels attain pigment and begin the journey into freshwater, they are called elvers.

Human connections

Although North Americans typically don’t relish eel, Europeans consider smoked eel fine table fare. In addition to smoked, eels are known to be quite tasty fried or pickled.

Ecosystem connections

American eels control aquatic insects, crayfish and other fish, and they serve as prey to other predators.