Potomac eels hibernate over the holidays by burying themselves in mud and so the fishermen who catch those slippery fish for a living stay off the river at Christmas, stay up late, get up early and knock back whiskey to relax.

Down at William Ashby (Buzzy) Cumberland's house, on the Virginia side of the Potomac about 30 miles south of Washington, Buzzy and two other fishermen had knocked back about 5 1/2 bottles of Canadian Mist by 11 a.m. yesterday. They'd begun celebrating on Christmas Eve, quit at 3 a.m. and resumed at dawn.

The fishermen sat around the kitchen table and drank slowly while nibbling on some venison that Buzzy's wife, Marylou, had marinated in Coca Cola. They talked eels.

"We got to get the people of American educated so they'll eat those eels," said Allen (Junior) Dent, 55, a white-haired fisherman whose face has been worn a ruddy red by life on the river.

Almost all of the nearly 2 million pounds of eel extracted from the Chesapeake, the Potomac, the estuaries of Virginia and the waterways of Maryland now goes by airplane to Europe and Japan. There, a fresh, fat eel is the most coveted of all fresh water fishes and sells for more than a steak.Here, however, a fresh fat eel brings a maximum of $1.25 for fishermen like Buzzy Cumberland and Junior Dent.

"We used to fish to live and now [with the high price of gasoline and the low price of eels] we live to fish," said Dent. He said that with his catch of eels, carp, catfish, shad, crabs and perch, he makes just enough money to keep fishing.

Christmas, as much as anything, is the watermen's time to gather and celebrate another year of survival on the river, another year when they didn't have to drive trucks, work construction or ask the government for some handout.

Dent said yesterday that as long as he can fish he will be a happy man. Then he bent over, petted a 14-year-old hound named Snoopy that was sleeping under the kitchen table and called for more whiskey: "Give me a drink of likker before my lights go out."

There are seven families of eel fishermen who've lived for two generations near the village of Cherry Hill. All year long, while the eels are running, they compete with each other, dropping their eel pots from open motorboats in the freezing dawn and pulling them out at dusk. They rarely talk to each other while fishing. But over the holidays, the fishermen said yesterday, they loosen up considerably.

They mend their eel pots, kiss their wives, hug their children and drink whiskey until they can get back on the river.