'You gaff it!'
CONGER FROM THE BEACH
I rang Harry's doorbell and found him ready to go. A flask was filled with his characteristic and peculiar brew of coffee-hot, wet and undrinkable (according to his fishing partners). He had on his standard winter gear-two pairs of trousers that obviously doubled for painting apparel, two pullovers, tatty Barbour coat and well-worn waders. His two rods were carefully propped up against the wall of the garage alongside his trusty angle-iron rod rest, his gaff and the tackle bag - an army relic. We were off for an evening's conger fishing from the beach at Durdle Door.
By the time the tackle was packed into my small blue Viva there was hardly room enough for us, but we squeezed in and set off on the twenty-minute drive through the Purbeck hills. Arriving at the car park we flashed our parking ticket at the man on the gate and drove on over the `sleeping policemen', through the caravan site and into the field, which serves as a parking place. No other cars were in the field so it seemed likely that we would have the beach to ourselves apart from the odd (sometimes very odd) holidaymaker. We unloaded all the gear, put the rods together and began the long descent to the sea.
The stiff wind was wailing through the tall dark pine trees on the campsite but it was not strong enough to make fishing difficult. At the edge of the enormous ridge which separates Durdle Door from Man o' War Bay, we paused, looking down at the sea. A heavy swell was welling through the rocky archway and swinging onto the beach where it broke in a short steep surf: `Looks good!' muttered Harry and then we started to descend the steps cut into the cliff and clearly designed for giants of years past. After the recent rains the steps were slippery with sticky brown clay. It was now quickly approaching dusk and there were still about three hours before high water.
In the dim light we each set up one rod armed with 10-pound line, 1-ounce of lead and a small hook baited with rag worm, in an attempt to catch some pouting for bait. The other rods were also assembled with 18 to 20-pound lines, running legers and 2-ounce pyramid leads. The traces were 15 inches of 30-pound B.S. nylon-covered wire armed with 4/0 bronzed, eyed hooks, well sharpened and baited with frozen squid. I was using fixed spool reels, two ABU Cardinal 77's, while Harry had multipliers, an Ambassadeur 5000 and a 7000.
Waiting for darkness to fall we laughed about our previous trip, which had resulted in an amusing encounter with a holidaymaker. It had been a warm still night and we were sitting rods rested, awaiting a run from a conger, much as we might have done when after carp at one of the local clay pits. The parallel between carp and conger fishing had often struck us.
As we sat, a middle-aged gentleman wandered along the beach with an extremely small dog running to and fro and sniffing around at his heels. The dog, being of an inquisitive nature, noticed us and ran on ahead to inspect. After examining my bait-stained haversack the dog cocked his leg and proceeded to make his mark on both bag and contents. 'That was lucky,' said Harry. `What the f♠♣k do you mean, lucky?' I responded. `Well, it could have been my bag,' said Harry. With that I turned to the owner of the dog who had now approached. `Your dog has just p♥♦♠♣d all over my fishing bag,' I said. 'if he is still here in one minute's time I shall put him on this f♥♦♠ing hook for bait?' The dog-owner took one look at my unshaven countenance illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun, picked up the dog, tucked it under his arm and ran like a gazelle up the cliff steps.
An hour had now passed since our arrival; Harry had a bite on the worm and reeled in a small pouting. A head and two fillets of pouting make three good baits. We fished on and quickly caught a couple more pouting before changing over the two `bait rods' to conger tackle. All four rods were then baited with freshly caught pouting and recast. Two were rested with the reels on a light check and the other two hand held. By this time it was pitch dark with a dense cloud cover hiding the rising full moon. All was quiet so we each poured a cup of coffee and continued our discussion of previous trips.
We recalled the night when the sea had been exceptionally rough; even Harry's 4-ounce lead was rolling around and yet I seemed to be having no trouble holding bottom with my 2 ounce. I smiled and chaffed my partner every time Harry wound in and cast again. Finally Harry said, `Where's your line and lead? I'll try to cast somewhere near it.' He switched on the torch and followed the angle of my line-only to find that I had cast further than I thought and that my lead was wedged part way up the cliff on the far side of the little bay.
It was on a similar rough night that we had one of our most spectacular catches. Trevor had a `conger' run and struck into a powerful `fish'. He played it carefully in the heavy surf and strong undertow. Back and forth he went along the beach for about fifteen minutes. At last, with Trevor having regained most of the line, Harry had advanced cautiously towards the pounding surf, gaff at the ready and torch in the other hand, only to collapse with laughter. `Don't laugh - gaff it!' shouted Trevor. `You gaff it!' said Harry, and Trevor approached to discover that the monster was a British Rail reject sleeper, giving a good simulation of a conger in the drag of the undertow.
Back on the beach things were still quiet. Now it was only about an hour before high water and we were imbibing more horrible coffee. Suddenly there were a couple of clicks from the reel on one of the rested rods. Signs of action at last! A few more clicks and then there was a steady pull of about a foot of line from the reel. As quickly as he could Harry reeled in the other three sets of gear; there was no point in risking any crossed lines. I was holding my rod now and the fish was moving off again. I carefully set the slipping clutch on the reel and struck hard, taking three steps back as I did so. The rod bent over and a fish was on. The line was dragged off against the resistance of the clutch as the fish swam away parallel to the steep gravel beach. I followed struggling along over the loose, rounded stones, but the fish turned and swam back to where it was hooked. `It's a good fish! ' I shouted over the noise of the breaking waves. More line was torn from the reel.
At last the conger was tiring and I pumped it in, yard by yard, towards the beach. `I'll bring it in on the next decent wave,' I said. Harry moved nearer to the water's edge, shining the torch in the direction indicated by the line and holding the gaff at the ready. He could see the fish now, a fair-sized conger. I backed away and brought the fish in on a wave, in went the gaff, and Harry struggled up the slope (two steps forward and one step back) and across the shingle to the base of the cliff, dragging the conger behind him. It was a fish of about 25-pounds. I laid down the rod and killed the fish, by slicing through the backbone behind the head, before unhooking the trace. Quickly we set up two rods again, experience having shown that the chances of catching a conger were never better than when one had just been landed. Our best spell of fishing from Durdle Door produced three fish of over 20-pounds, plus a couple of whips returned, in three-and-a-half hours. The biggest conger, which we landed from this beach, was just on 40-pounds. Other local beaches have produced similar fish to the same techniques.
All was still again so we poured out some more coffee. As we forced down the first mouthful, a reel clicked a couple of times causing a variety of scalds and spillages. After five minutes without further movement I reeled in to find the bait reduced to a strip of skin. We laughed about the time that Terry had a series of such bites that he was unable to hook. Eventually, by holding his rod and striking so violently that he almost suffered injury, he managed to hook the culprit. After a brief struggle I went down the beach with the gaff but on seeing the apparition before me on the shingle I again uttered those immortal words, `You gaff it!' It turned out to be a 2.5-pound squid. There was more to come. The squid was immediately cut up as bait and, ever optimistic, I put the whole head, weighing about 0.75-pound, on my hook and slung it out as best I could into the deep hole close under the rocks of the Door. Some time later a fierce bite and strong run was met with a powerful strike. Nothing! - the only decent fish of the night missed, probably because of the outsized bait and relatively small hook. A cruel lesson in matching bait to tackle.
We returned to reality; a few more clicks and this time there was obviously something interested. Again the other baits were retrieved, this time it was Harry's rod, and again the line went. Another strike and another fish was hooked. Five minutes later I gaffed a second conger of about 10-pounds through its lower jaw.
As Harry removed the hook, using a pair of long-nosed pliers, I pinned the eel down before returning it to the water with an exhortation to come back in a few years' time.
Over the years we have caught many conger of more than 20 pounds, both from the beach and from our small dinghy. We have never yet come across the vicious, fearsome and malevolent creatures described by some sea fishing authors. We try to play our fish out so that it is not rolling or twisting on the surface and is therefore easier to gaff. On board the dinghy they are lowered into a sack and the nylon cut above the trace, the sack is then tied up at the mouth and put under the seat. Normally, the conger does not move about very much or struggle in the dark sack. I can remember one night in particular when we had five or six conger in a large sack under the seat of the boat with a nervous visiting angler sitting over that particular seat. Occasionally there would be a coughing sound from within the sack. Every time this happened our visitor would nearly leap out of the boat. In the end Harry swapped places with him and after that there were no more problems.
These days virtually all our congers are released. Strong pliers or a T-bar type disgorger will usually remove the hook without too much trouble.
The conger is a large eel often associated with rough rocky terrain. The very heavy tackle that is usually recommended for conger fishing is aimed at dealing with the conditions rather than the fish. Anyone who has tried to break a snagged line while fishing from the shore will know how difficult it is. Even 30-pound nylon can be almost unbreakable unless the angler has a very firm stance or plenty of room to move. Therefore, before deciding what type of tackle to use for conger fishing one must assess the conditions.
If a large conger manages to anchor itself in a hole it is almost impossible to extract it. One possibility is to use very heavy line and try to winch it out, another is to have medium or heavy line and wait until it decides to let go (you could be there for days). It will generally be much easier to employ tug-of-war tactics if it is possible to get a vertical pull on the fish, as from a large boat or a ledge directly above the conger. This type of shore fishing is carried out very successfully from the rocks around the Portland area of Dorset where specimens of well over 50-pounds have been caught. An alternative method, which we have favoured, is to fish less-snaggy places, close to rough ground, while using lighter gear.
The only item of tackle that is essential to both boat and beach fishing for conger is the trace, of wire or very heavy nylon, which will withstand the abrasive action of the eel's teeth. The trace must be long enough to keep the main nylon line clear of the fish's jaws and provided that the angler has not fallen asleep or allowed the fish to gorge the bait completely, fifteen to eighteen inches between hook and swivel should be sufficient. We normally make the traces up prior to going fishing with 4/0 bronzed hooks (Mustad Vikings) and 30-pound B.S. nylon-covered steel wire. (There are many other types of wire available today) If such traces are thrown into a fishing bag and left there they tend to become kinked and weakened and care must be taken that damaged traces are not used. We have seen numerous good fish lost by anglers who have not checked their tackle before casting out. One thing that many years of fishing has taught us is that every knot, trace, hook and line must be tested before beginning to fish and also after hooking a snag or a fish. Carelessness could lose you that fish of a lifetime.
From both dinghy and beach, nylon lines of 18 to 30-pounds B.S. have proved equal to all that was asked of them. On one occasion a conger of 39-pounds was landed from the beach, without undue difficulty, on nylon of only 12-pounds B.S. (I picked up the wrong spool on the way out from the house). This fish took about fifteen minutes to bring to the gaff. However when using comparatively light tackle it is necessary to have the slipping clutch of the reel set correctly and not screwed down to its full extent. Large pike, carp and salmon are landed every day on similar tackle and conditions permitting, conger can also be caught on such gear. We would be the last to recommend ridiculously fine lines, but some thought should be given to the conditions and circumstances of each trip in the light of what has been said.
Female conger are usually larger than the males, as the latter appear to stick at 2- or 3-feet in length. Examples of very rapid growth by congers kept in an aquarium have been quoted by Kennedy (several fish growing 10-15-pounds per year). The ear bones of a 29-pound conger, which was caught at Durdle Door, indicated that it was approximately twenty years-of-age, a much slower growth-rate than the aquarium fish. This is only to be expected in British waters because the conger does not tolerate cold winters well and will die if the water temperature falls to about 0°C. Mass deaths of conger were reported in the cold winters of 1947 and 1963. They do, however, feed well at times in the depths of winter. We have caught one from the beach on 30 December and have seen other good fish caught in January.
Finally, the loss of a conger does not necessarily mean the same fish will not return. At times they can be extremely bold. On one beach fishing trip, a good fish was lost, at the gaff, by a local angler who, in true Dorset fashion, believes in hefty traces. The trace was characteristically constructed of what we could only describe as light fencing wire. Shortly afterwards a run developed on Harry's rod and after a brief struggle a 20-pound conger was landed. It was fairly hooked and there, still hanging from its jaw, was the recently lost wire trace. The modest fight that the conger put up was clearly a result of its recent struggles on the other rod.