BULL SHOALS LAKE, Ark. — She came all the way from the North Atlantic Ocean to become a tourist attraction at Bull Shoals Lake.
She’s a record-holder but definitely not an Arkansas native. And nobody knows how she got there.
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The James A. Gaston Visitor Center overlooking the Bull Shoals Dam is a wonderful facility showcasing what it calls “dam things” like equipment, history lessons, stuffed animals, aquariums, a fishing boat on the wall and several kinds of state-record fish.
But it’s newest state record holder is drawing the lions share of attention.
Or should we say, the eels share.
“The first question out of their mouth is ‘where’s the eel’?” said superintendent Billy Lindsey.
“I didn’t know we had eels in the water,” reacted Shannon Foster of Mtn. Home, Arkansas, whose family came to the center just to see it.
Yep. Meet “Elle” the eel. At 40.5 inches long and 5-pounds, 5-ounces, she’s the Arkansas state record-holder caught in Bull Shoals lake by Wilson and Suzette Bowling.
“We just caught her on a trot line,” Wilson Bowling recalled. “Pulled her up and started looking at her trying to figure out what she was. Kinda determined that it wasn’t a snake. It looked like an eel but we’d never encountered an eel before.”
Wilson said he almost fileted Elle because “the meat is very valuable. She’s estimated to be between a two-and-three thousand dollar fish.”
But instead, Wilson donated her to the Game and Fish commission, who gave her to the visitor center where she was placed in a 300-gallon aquarium with a largemouth bass, who kept picking at Elle’s damaged eye and other injuries she’d suffered when she was caught. The bully bass has since been put back in the lake, and Elle, a nocturnal animal, spends most of her time with her face buried in a concrete stump.
The big question is how did Elle end up at Bull Shoals lake? All American eels are born in the North Atlanta Ocean in saltwater and only the females venture inland to freshwater tributaries and rivers.
And to make matters even more interesting?
“Eel can breathe through their gills like a fish but it can also breathe through its skin,” Lindsey explained. “So it can actually travel over land.”
While it’s more likely Elle was at one point someone’s pet or used as bait rather than getting here all the way from the ocean, there’s no doubt she’s making a difference in her new home as a star attraction.
“This eel has become a great conversation starter for this park,” Lindsey said. “People have questions about the eel but as things evolve their questions expand and we end up talking about other aspects of the park.”
“I might want to get with Billy if they start merchandising here,” Bowling said with a smile. “But it’s something that the kids can come up here and see that they would normally never see in their lives.”
At 5-pounds, 5-ounces, Elle would also be a state record American eel for Missouri, where the record eel caught in the Chariton River in 1993 weighted 3-pounds and 15-ounces.
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