Ray Turner makes his living from the river and it takes a lot of work. In fact, if you want to talk with Turner, you talk with him while he is working.
“I’ve already done the preliminary evisceration. This is the second step, when I get the guts out,” said the 64-year-old Turner, peering out from his thick gray-black beard and his full length, brown leather work apron. “You need to get your fingers underneath the liver near the head, start from the top and pull the guts out in one piece. I designed this tool—a tablespoon with a sharpened edge and two notches cut in that fit around the spine—to scrape the body cavity clean.”
The guts Turner is removing belong to a sliced open, 27-inch long, 20-plus-year-old Anguilla rostrata. It’s the snake-like American eel native to local rivers and now on its way to becoming one of Turner’s signature products—smoked eel—that he sells locally from his deep woods deli shop and by mail across the United States.
Turner owns and is the only employee of Delaware Delicacies Smoke House, located in a pine forest at the end of a dirt road along the East Branch of the Delaware River outside of Hancock, NY. The smoked eel business is year-round work.
The blue plastic tub filled with thawing eels that he’s gutting on this warm March afternoon were caught in Turner’s mid-river, stone eel weir the previous September during the eels’ annual autumn migration. For the eels that Turner traps, the migration begins in the pools and riffles above his property and ends, for those not caught by Turner or others along the way, in the Sargasso Sea, in the south central Atlantic Ocean, where Anguilla mates and spawns and dies and starts the lifecycle anew.
According to Turner, the migration or run of these catadromous fish begins a week or so either side of September 29 each year. A new moon and high muddy water gets things moving. The main part of the run lasts just a few nights, during which Turner can trap hundreds or even thousands of eels.
Turner freezes much of his autumn catch. He cleans and smokes them in the winter and spring to keep a supply of smoked eel on hand for sale.
“I spend the summer preparing for the run,” he said. Turner described a process of stacking rocks to build a V-shaped weir across the width of the East Branch, and constructing a five-foot-wide by 50-foot-long wooden fish trap at the downstream point of the “V”, where the fish are caught in slated boxes and hauled in. Neighbors, friends and guys who think trapping eels is a pretty cool thing to do are on hand to help Turner harvest his business inventory.
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em
Turner’s hand-built smoker and smoke house are next to his hand-built home, deli store and storage buildings, which are all in a place called Eel Weir Hollow, according to maps dated to the 1800s. Turner has built his business over the decades on the eel population and eel heritage of this place. He also smokes and sells salmon, trout, pheasant, shrimp, duckling, cornish hens and cheese. Lots of cheese. More than seven tons of cheese since 2007.
Turner hot smokes the eels and most of his products. Hot smoking brings the meat’s temperature to 145 degrees for the fish, 165 degrees for the fowl. Turner cold smokes salmon and cheese. In cold smoking, product temperature cannot exceed 90 degrees; cheese must be held to 70 degrees so it doesn’t melt. A civil engineer by training, Turner rigged his smoke house to cold smoke products even on the hottest summer day.
His smoke draws from five different kinds of sawdust—cross cut dry, cross cut green, joint cut dry, joint cut green and dry stump. He loves sawdust made from apple wood and, in fact, uses nothing else. He will trade you a shopping bag full of his products for a pick-up’s load of apple wood.
Turner works hard to make his living from the river. His customers appreciate his hard work. “I do quite well,” said Turner, “but it’s not easy work. Building weirs, I can haul a couple of tons of stone a day.
“I have no computer, no fax, no microwave, no cell phone, no BlackBerry. I have tranquility, eagles, the river. I have my Chevy, a canoe and a sign.”
“It’s a job that’s never done,” said Turner. “I love the job. It’s a journey.”