Yellow Snake Eel — Eew!


A yellow snake eel from the Balboa Pier

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!  In Mexico called Tieso Amarillo; in Peru called Anguila amarilla or Culebra marina.

Jimbo Jack and a yellow snake eel from Huntington Harbor

Identification: Typical eel-like shape with a spike-like tail, no fin rays and no spots.  Reddish-olive, yellowish-brown or yellow above; lighter below.

Size: Up to 34 ½ inches.

Range:  From Huacho, Peru, to Eureka, Humboldt Bay; also seen in the Gulf of California.

Yellow snake eel from the Dana Harbor Pier

Habitat: Found in both sandy and rocky areas down to a 60-foot depth (although one source says 210 feet). Officially considered rare by the CA Fish and Game (supposedly under 20 ever reported in California) although Pier Fishing in California ( has had many reports of these eels over the years, most commonly from Newport Bay and Huntington Harbor.

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, Burton Chace Park 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. In 2002 I photographed one that was caught by a fellow angler one night out at the end of the Newport Pier  (the same night I caught a basketweave cusk-eel, Otophidium scrippsi). That snake eel and the cusk-eel were given to the DF&G.

 Yellow snake eel and basketweave cusk-eel from the Newport Pier

Shoreline: 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). 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 tussle.

Mel’s hands and a “whirling dervish” kind of an eel — Berkeley Pier

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 related species, considered rare in California, is the Spotted snake eel (Ophichthus triserialis). The spotted snake  eel ranges from Peru  to Humboldt Bay, including the Galapagos Islands and the Gulf of California.

A spotted snake eel from the Hermosa Beach Pier

The gnarly end of the eel!

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