A squiggling, slimy eel at the end of a contrived pitchfork might not seem like the foundation for a collection of folk art, or the inspiration for a collector’s passion. But for Sherman Goldstein of West Tisbury, a hotelier by trade and self-described former fishing fanatic, eel gigs are a passion.
By his own estimate his collection includes about a thousand gigs from all over the world. For those new to the form-is-function world of eel harvest, eel gigs are multi-pronged spear points, a bit like pitchforks, used to stab or snare eels, usually through the ice, from the bottoms of the brackish and freshwater ponds where they spend most of the winter in a dormant state.
Mr. Goldstein’s interest in eels and eel gigs developed from his use of eels as bait for striped bass. He used to get his eels from the late Norman Benson of Lamberts Cove, one of the last commercial eel fisherman on the Island.
Some of his collection can be seen in cases at the Mansion House Hotel in Vineyard Haven which he owns along with unusual fishing lures and a collection of colorful fishing decoys
“They are the ultimate, utilitarian folk art,” he said. “Eel gigs come in so many different shapes and designs. They are so aesthetically pleasing.” Mr. Goldstein explained that most tools are almost identical, but few eel gigs are alike. “I find them to be pretty wonderful,” he said.
Entering the Goldstein driveway off Lambert’s Cove Road it is clear that Mr. Goldstein, 66, has an abiding interest in fish and fishing. There is fence that appears to be little more than a display rack for dozens of old but colorful lobster pot buoys, outdoor sculptures of fish adorn the front porch and a small window to a shed next to the parking area frames what looks like a shrine to fishing and hunting with hanging lures, another fish sculpture, duck decoys, and antlers.
Fishing was once an obsession for Mr. Goldstein, who owns and runs the hotel with his wife, Susie, and their two children, Josh and Nili. “I only go out fishing three or four times a year now, a few times during the fishing derby,” he said referring to the fall Martha’s Vineyard Bass and Bluefish Derby. “I used to fish about 20 times (pause for effect) a week,” he said with a mischievous smile that gives the impression it just might be the truth. He continues to keep lobster pots.
He learned to fish with his father while growing up in Worcester and occasionally fished with friends during his college years. It became a serious endeavor soon after he moved to the Vineyard full time in 1975 to work as a family and marriage therapist with Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.
His halcyon years as a fisherman, through the 1980s and into the early 90s were spent with what he calls The Gefilte Fish Club, an informal gathering of local friends, among them Bob Post, David Finkelstein, Chas Deary, Abbe Dryer, and Ray Houle, fishing aficionados whose knowledge of local fishing was limited initially.
“It was difficult at first,” he said. “We didn’t know any experienced Island fishermen who were willing to teach us how to fish the Vineyard. We used to try to follow more experienced fishermen to find the best places to fish, but they had a way of losing us on the back roads. We shared our knowledge with each other and taught ourselves.” They would end the fishing season with a dinner at one of their houses.
Inside the house, the fishing theme continues. Almost every horizontal space is arranged, tastefully, with gigs or fish decoys or lures or ship models or his small collection of wooden eel traps. The vertical spaces have photos of fishermen, framed cases of fishing collectables and paintings, only some of which have no apparent relationship to fishing.
The living room is dominated by a large wall covered with about 70 eel gigs, in a variety of sizes and styles, some looking lethal, or like instruments of torture, some like works of art or like Poseidon’s ubiquitous trident, which by most accounts was a fishing spear.
Mr. Goldstein says he can tell where they are from by their shape. “Every area has its own style that has developed over time,” he said. Many in his collection are from Europe, including the Scandinavian countries, England, France, and Italy, but most come from the area from Canada to Long Island. Many are well over a hundred years old and a few were made by Native Americans, who Mr. Goldstein said, taught the European settlers how to fish for eel.
On the coffee table there are photographs of Vineyard eel fishermen and a couple of Mr. Goldstein’s favorite gigs, one of which he says was probably the last gig made for use on the Vineyard. It was made in the early 1970s of metal from old Army jeeps in a Korean blacksmith shop from a plan drawn up by David “Dap” Amaral of Oak Bluffs. Mr. Amaral told The Times he had about ten of them made while he was stationed there in the Army because they were so cheap.
“The relationship between eels and striped bass is interesting because they are completely different,” he said. He explained his fascination with the fish while sitting back in a comfortable chair facing his wall of gigs beyond the sofa. “Striped bass are anadromous fish. They live in the ocean and come into brackish and freshwater to breed, and eels are exactly the opposite. They are catadromous. They live in brackish and fresh water and breed out in the ocean. The crossing of the two is almost an archetypal event.”
Both European and American varieties of eel migrate to the Sargasso Sea south of Bermuda to spawn. It can take American eels a year to travel to their breeding grounds after a 5 to 20 year life in their home waters and up to two years for European eels. “No one has ever seen an eel breed or being born, and there is no record of eels coming back after breeding,” Mr. Goldstein said.
Commercial eel fishing was once a thriving business on the Vineyard with Island fisherman shipping thousands of pounds of eel off Island every year, but that business dried up when the eel were overfished, according to longtime fisherman Cooper Gilkes, owner of Coop’s Bait and Tackle in Edgartown.
“In the early 1970s when Island fisherman could sell tiny elvers, small translucent eels, to the Japanese for big money it only took a few years for the eel population to drop right off,” said Mr. Gilkes. “It ruined our livelihood. I’ve only seen a few eels in the past years, a few cormorants with them.” Mr. Goldstein said he thinks pollution is also a factor in the demise of the eel in New England.
The eeling was done with baited traps similar in function to lobster or crab pots. The eels swim in and can’t get out. In the winter when the ponds freeze and the eels become dormant, fishermen would chop holes in the ice and use eel spears to dig up the eels which tend to group together in the muddy, grassy, eel grass pond bottoms to wait out the winter. The spears are usually about 14 feet long.
Eel was once a common Island winter food and is still eaten by some and can be found in bait shops. Louis Larsen Jr., owner of The Net Result in Vineyard Haven, said he sold about 25 pounds of fresh eel this past holiday season, mostly to people who used them in Italian holiday dishes. He bought the eel in Boston and said he thinks they came from Nova Scotia. He sells frozen smoked eel from China year-round that is also used in their sushi. Mr. Larsen has a collection of about 20 eel gigs and remembers fishing through the ice for eel when he was young. The focus of his collection is not eel gigs but fish decoys, however.