Tackle and Tactics
"Eels and eel fishing"
Bob and I cast out our long strips of herring and settled down to await the onset of dusk. Our carp rods were propped up on rests and the bale-arms of the large fixed-spool reels were open to allow the 10lb nylon to spill freely off should a fish move away with the bait.
We had laid a carpet of minced herrings on the firm muddy bottom and, at intervals, a drop of oil would pop up and spread shimmering, coloured discs on the surface of the calm water to show where it lay.
My tackle was the first in action and the silver-paper indicator rustled against the butt ring as a good run developed. I picked up the rod and gently closed the bale-arm. The line tightened and I tensed in preparation for a strike that would set the 2/0 hook. In my excitement I must have applied a little too much pressure, because the nylon fell slack as my ‘customer’ rejected the bait.
Within minutes Bob’s line was streaking out and, being more composed than I, he hooked his fish and after a respectable tug-of-war an eel of about three feet long came writhing onto the shore. As darkness closed in ten more eels of similar size to the first were landed: an excellent night as far as we were concerned.
This account relates to a fishing session many years ago but eels are still a favourite species with me. Sadly, I did not appreciate just how good that eel fishing was and now it is no more: the quarry pond has been filled in at the request of residents on a nearby, new housing estate. Of course, 'snotties' are now much sought after by many sea anglers, especially match fishermen, who value a good bag of eels as something to be proud of.
Because catching eels seems to be fashionable I thought it might be timely to say a few words about how they fit in to the sea angling world. I suppose that, in these days of lavish natural history programmes on television, everyone is familiar with the incredible life history of Anguilla anguilla L. The adult eels breed in the depths of the west Atlantic and the tiny, transparent, leptocephalus larvae drift for three years towards the coast of Europe. As they reach the shores of Britain the larvae change form to become tiny eels, elvers, which disperse to their feeding grounds, where as green or yellow eels they will devour as much dead or living animal material as they can get hold of.
It is at this stage that the eels first become of interest to the sea angler. Everyone who has collected bait along the sea shore must have, at some time, turned over a weedy boulder to find a grey-green, slimy, vulcanised creature splashing in the shallow puddle beneath. These little eels make cracking good baits for bass and pollack. Used live they will cause problems but, freelined or spun, a freshly killed bootlace is hard to beat. On one occasion while fishing from the rocks of the Donegal coast, natural eels out-fished artificials about three to one.
The naturals were simply hooked through their heads with 4/0, cast out, allowed to sink to the tips of the kelp fronds and retrieved slowly. The big olive-bronze pollack just grabbed the eel and golloped it down in one swift lunge.
All of these small shoreline eels are males. The further inland/upstream an elver goes when it reaches the coast the more chance it has of becoming a big, fat female. Just as in the case of congers the female fish are much, much bigger than the males. Over most of the year these small male eels are the only ones which take sea anglers baits. I have caught them when I was fishing for flounders in Poole harbour, when I was legering for wrasse at Chapman’s pool and when I was beach casting with lug for the cod of Chesil beach. In other words, just as in fresh water, they can be caught everywhere.
Those eels living out their lives in salty water are relatively small so the average size of those hooked by sea anglers is generally nothing to write home about. Any eel of more than a pound or so is quite a creditable catch. However, in the autumn when the heavy rains cause rivers to swell with flood water, eels which have spent twenty or more years in freshwater move down to the sea.
Eels which have grown big and fat on a diet of roach, perch, earthworms, insects and slaters are suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to migrate. The burrowing, drably-camouflaged creature, adapted to nocturnal existence in the holes and crevices of a lake or river bed, must now become an ocean-going fish.
Having been little more than an eating machine in the form of a powerful muscular body terminating in rat-trap jaws driven by a solid mass of jaw muscles (quite different to the jaw mechanism of most other species of fish), the eel’s hormones now switch on a gradual change, which over a couple of year will reduce the fish to little more than a tough sausage-skin full of eggs or sperm.
The early stages of the transformation are those which interest the sea angler. Little piggy eyes enlarge to become large, lustrous, light-collectors for deep sea work. The impermeable skin with its coating of waterproof slime, that for so long has had to prevent the eel becoming waterlogged, now has to keep water in against the highly concentrated salt solution outside. In open water the greeny-yellow camouflage uniform is of little use and is replaced by silvery, mirror-like sides. Many other species of fish which migrate to the open sea have a similar strategy and everyone must be familiar with the nickel-plated appearance of the salmon and the sea trout. In estuaries silver eels are the quarry of many sea anglers. As your legered ragworm rests on the grey mud it is a toss-up whether it will be taken by a flounder, a bass or silver eel.
Is there any way that you can select for eels and give yourself a better chance of catching them? Because these fish are not specialist feeders, they are likely to take worm or crab with the same enthusiasm which they show for fish or mussel. Of course, like many other species, eels may be preoccupied or have search images for particular foods and this is sufficient to explain an apparent preference for ragworm in one estuary or fish in another
The only method which I ever used to successfully avoid bass and flounders was a technique described by John Garrad the man who developed the use of baited spoons for flounder fishing. While fishing from a small dinghy in the estuary of the Dorset River Frome, just where it enters Poole harbour, I have (many years ago) caught quite a few decent eels by drifting a two-inch baited spoon while resting at anchor.
A small barrel lead was fitted at the head of the spoon to get it down and it was simply lowered over the stern and allowed to tick slowly over in the current just above the muddy bottom. On a fast flowing ebb tide the eels will often take such a drifted spoon almost at the surface, otherwise it is best to fish near the sea bed. On a good tide half-a-dozen eels in the 1-2.5lb range would not be an exceptional catch to the ‘spoon method’.
To sum up, the common eel is a fish beyond price. Good eating in its own right, it is also a premier bait for predators such as bass, pollack and even tope. They bite freely on a range of baits and can be caught on a variety of methods. When it comes down to a fight the tough old eel takes a bit of beating and I can recall several occasions when I have been fooled by a big eel’s simulation of a bass. Sadly, it seems that the days of eels-a-plenty may be numbered. Overfishing and (possibly) climate change have taken their toll of eel stocks and in freshwaters numbers seem to be diminishing quickly. Eels are long lived fish so it may be some years before the decline becomes apparent to the sea angler.
If you have any comments or questions about fish, methods, tactics or 'what have you.'get in touch with me by sending an E-MAIL to - firstname.lastname@example.org
Eel in a bucket.
Bait fishing from the rocks.