Yellow Snake Eel

Snake Eels—Family Ophichthidae

Yellow snake eel caught by Fishy at the Balboa Pier in 2007

Species: Ophichthus zophochir (Jordan & Gilbert, 1882); Ophichthus, from two Greek words meaning serpent and fish, and the Greek zophochir, for darkness and hand (dark pectoral fins).

Alternate Names: Eww, a snake!  Eww, a snake!  In Mexico called Tieso Amarillo; in Peru called Anguila amarilla or Culebra marina.

Identification: Typical eel-like shape with a spike-like tail, the dorsal fin starts above the pectoral fin and ends before reaching the tail; no fin rays.  A barbel between the front and rear nostrils and usually two barbels behind the rear nostril. Reddish-olive, purplish, brown, yellowish-brown or yellow above; lighter below; no spots.

 Yellow snake eel taken at the Dana Harbor Pier in 2006

Size: Up to 39 inches.

Range:  From Huacho, Peru, to Eureka, Humboldt Bay; also seen in the Gulf of California. First reported in California by Hubbs in 1916 from a specimen collected off Long Beach and once considered rare (California Fish Bulletin Number 157, Miller and Lea, 1972 — with under 20 ever reported in California). However, PFIC has had many reports of these eels, most commonly from Newport Bay and Huntington Harbor and they are now considered fairly common north to Long Beach.

Habitat: Found in both sandy and rocky areas down to a 60-foot depth (although one source, Wintersteen, 1975, says 210 feet).

Yellow snake eel taken from the Dana Harbor Pier by fishsouthcounty in 2010

Piers: PFIC has had reports from quite a few piers. Best bets: Oceanside Harbor Pier, Dana Point Harbor Pier, Balboa Pier, Newport Pier, Seal Beach Pier, Belmont Pier, Venice Pier and the small piers inside of Newport Bay and Huntington Harbor. Science records show an Ophichthus zophochir being taken from the Del Mar Pier in 1960 (although the pier was demolished in 1959) and from the Berkeley Pier in 1964. PFIC regular “Mel” caught, photographed and released a yellow snake eel from the Berkeley Pier in 2006. I photographed one that was caught by a fellow angler one night out at the end of the Newport Pier. That fish, taken in 2002 was given to the DF&G.

Yellow snake eel (top) and basketweave cusk-eel (bottom) taken at the Newport Pier in 2002

Soreline: A rare catch by southern California shore anglers.

Boats: An inshore species rarely seen on boats.

Bait and Tackle: Taken incidentally by anglers fishing on the bottom for other species. Most commonly taken at night and with squid as bait (although their preferred food is supposedly fish and clams). I would also think saltwater worms such as bloodworms and lug worms would be excellent baits. Tackle should be kept simple: a medium-sized outfit with light line and a size 6 to 2 hook. Be prepared for a surprisingly spirited tassel.

Food Value:  Don’t know anyone who has eaten one although most eels are considered fair to good eating.

Comments: An unusual, gnarly catch that enjoys twisting its limber body around your arm (and scaring the bejeebers out of you) when you try to unhook it.

A yellow snake eel taken from the San Clemente Pier in 2016 (Photo courtest Hashem Nahid)

Yellow snake eel taken in Huntington Harbor by Tobias Lopez in 2013

Yellow snake eel taken from the Dana Harbor Pier in 2002 by John Coll

Yellow snake eel taken in the Huntington Harbor in 2006 by Jimboijack

Another shot of the yellow snake eel taken at the Dana Harbor Pier in 2010 by fishsouthcounty

Yes they can get a little gnarly. Yellow snake eel taken by Mel at the Berkeley Pier in 2006

Yellow snake eel taken in Huntington Harbor by Tobias Lopez in 2013

Close up view of a yellow snake eel’s mouth —  Huntington Harbor 2003

Yellow snake eel taken at the Oceanside Pier in 2010

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