Bait — Lamprey Eel

Ken Jones

Staff member
Lamprey Eel. When I was a kid we lived in Portland, Oregon for a period of time and we would head out to the Bonneville Dam occasionally to visit the fish ladders and to see the huge sturgeon that occupied some ponds at the visitor site. Behind the glass windows by the fish ladders you could watch salmon and occasionally other species of fish moving up the river. A common sight was to see lamprey eels climbing ever so slowly up the ladders and sometimes latching on to a window. They had a nasty looking mouth and I never imagined I would later see them used as bait.


But, they fill a niche! That is what I was told one day when I asked why people would spend upwards of $20 for a single lamprey eel, generally the Pacific lamprey, Lampetra tridetra. At the time, in the early 2000s, they were still a fairly recent addition to the Bay Area and Delta list of baits. Initially they were adopted, at least in part, due to the misery of frustrated fishermen (especially sturgeon fishermen) dealing with Chinese mitten crabs.

The crabs, an invasive species that came into SF Bay via the ballast waters from Asian ships, had expanded throughout the Delta, Carquinez Strait, Suisun Bay and even into San Pablo Bay much of the year. Anglers were looking for bait able to withstand the irritating pincers of those obnoxious creatures. Given how hard it is in itself to tell a bite from Mr. Diamondback, you didn’t want to also be rebaiting every few minutes because “da crabs had got da bait.” The eels are tough as leather and will survive crab attacks or pecks from smaller fish for an extended length of time. Thus a good bait even if on the surface it looked expensive.

Today the mitten crabs are largely gone but the lamprey eels, lampers to some fishermen, have become regular bait for many. Of course the real question concerns if they really are, or are not, good bait for sturgeon. Initially I had my doubts but enough sturgeon anglers use it today that I’ve got to think the question has been answered in the affirmative. Even so, I would vote for ghost shrimp and/or ghost shrimp with eel over mere eel.

As for their use, most anglers simply cut a small piece, 4-6 inches long, and drape it on the hook. Better still, is to go down an inch and a half or so and then cut several strips into the tail end of the eel. The pieces will give a little motion to the bait and disperse more of the smell. Although the eel has a fairly long lasting scent, instead of using one piece by itself all day long, I would have a couple of pieces. Soak one in some eel or ghost shrimp attractant while fishing the other and switch them every hour or so.

Lastly, most anglers do not make the eel their sole bait. Many if using two hooks bait one hook with eel and one with ghost shrimp. Some make a combo bait on their hooks with two different baits (knowing that the eel will remain on the hook even if the other bait is disturbed).

As for that cost, given that one piece of eel can last an entire day, and given how well they freeze, that $20 eel will probably provide one of your baits for a half dozen or more trips. Looked at that way it’s actually a fairly inexpensive bait, especially when compared to something like ghost shrimp.

As for other eels as bait (and Asian markets carry white and yellow eels for about $6) the verdict is also out. Bait shops do not carry them and not enough sturgeon anglers have made the attempt with these other eels to yield any clues.

As a final note, I noticed a bait shop in Stockton carrying live baby lamprey eels one day. The small fish, pencil thin and a foot or so long, were kept in a saltwater tank and were intended as live bait for striped bass. They cost $1 each (years ago). They should make excellent bait but I haven’t seen the live eels in other bait shops.