YES. I ATE lamprey.
But first, I held one — which was the more memorable experience.
Yakama Nation tribal member Rod Begay passed me a fish about 18 inches long as he transferred part of the day’s catch into a gunny sack for transport back to the boat.
(The only way to get to Willamette Falls, south of Portland, is by boat, though plans are in the works to demolish part of the industrial wasteland of abandoned mills and twisted metal that flanks the falls — but can’t diminish their beauty — and build a park.)
Like the tribal fisherfolk, I was wearing cotton gloves, which helped me grasp the creature. I was startled by its strength as it twisted in my hands, its gill pores pumping. Adult lampreys don’t eat once they return to fresh water, but this one felt like solid muscle.
I had been worried it would be smelly and slimy, but it wasn’t. It was clean, wet and slick — like the river and the rocks. I could feel its heart fluttering. With its sucker mouth closed and its eyes searching for a way out, it was like any captured creature that wants only to be let go.
I was tempted, but these fish were meant for the next day’s lamprey celebration and for tribal elders in Toppenish and surrounding communities.
The next day, I watched tribal member Evans Lewis cook chunks of cleaned, gutted lampreys over charcoal. Of the scores of people queued up for the food — which also included salmon, hot dogs and potato salad — I didn’t notice many refusing the unusual fish.
My piece was about 3 inches long. I pulled back the skin and bit into the flesh. The texture is distinct, a function of the tightly packed muscle fibers. It reminded me a bit of swordfish — dark and meaty. I found the taste savory, not fishy.
One reason lampreys have been slow to garner public support is that they’re invisible to us. They mostly migrate and spawn at night and hide during the day. Their numbers are low, so the odds of spotting one in a river are slim.
Every schoolkid in the Northwest learns about salmon, but lampreys are rarely mentioned, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Monica Blanchard says. “Because we don’t see these fantastic, crazy, cool fish, we don’t have the same attachment to them.”
If you’re really keen to see them up close, you, too, can fish at Willamette Falls, with a valid license and according to Oregon state regulations. But be careful. Those rocks are slippery, and the amount of water rushing by is astounding. Willamette is one of the country’s biggest falls, by volume.
A third option is the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam, where lampreys sometimes can be spotted suckered onto the glass, making their way slowly up the fish ladder in spring and summer.