Tackle and Tactics
No pictures with this piece but (I think) interesting nonetheless.
In my youth I used to spend quite a lot of time catching fish off the coast of Northumberland. I enjoyed any sort of fishing from dropping a limpet-baited line into rock pools for crabs or blennies to hand lining from small boats for codling and coalfish or going out with the ring netters to catch herrings. Believe me it can be just as exciting as feeling a bite or seeing the float dip to watch the net rising to the surface with thousands of herring splashing and flashing within the headline. Occasionally, under the yellow glow of the lights, a big predatory fish, such as a monkfish (not an anglerfish) would be seen ploughing through the mass of herring in the net.
One of my most memorable experiences happened during a potting trip in a coble from Seahouses. We were up at the crack of dawn to lift the pots. The sea was calm and there was only a slight breeze. I hooked the pot buoy into the boat and with a couple of turns of rope around the winch we began to haul. The crabs and lobsters were removed and the pots rebaited, with coalfish caught the day before, as they came aboard. One or two of the creels were empty but it was a good haul and most contained one or more hefty crustaceans. As I leaned forward to lift the last one I noticed that there was a fish inside. It was not just the remains of the bait but a sizeable codling that must have had trouble squeezing through the entrance. A closer look showed that the cod was stone dead quite surprising since the pots had been set only a day before. I unlaced the pot and took hold of the fish to remove it, as I did so a squirming, eel like shape emerged from its belly and fell onto the boards. Shades of the film "Alien". The skipper leaned over, dipped up a bucket of sea water, handed it to me and indicated that I should put the fish in it.
I scooped up the eel and dropped it into the bucket. Within minutes the water in the container seemed to thicken before my eyes until it resembled wallpaper paste it was quite incredible. I had encountered eel slime before but never anything like this. The animal was only about fifteen inches in length and yet it had filled the whole bucket with slime. My friends told me that this was a hagfish or slime eel. I had heard of these creatures but this was the first time I had ever seen one and I assumed that they were quite rare recent studies however seem to tell a different story.
Firstly, what are these slime eels? I have heard them called 'living fossils'. The oldest known specimens are found in rocks 330 million years old and if they were alive would be quite recognisable today. The fish are smooth and eel shaped with only one small fin that extends around the tail. They are so flexible that they can tie themselves in a true knot. The mouth is quite small and lies in a groove, surrounded by short tentacles, underneath the head. Inside the mouth two sharp plates and a set of prickly 'thorns' take the place of jaws. By flapping the plates the slime eel can hack its way into the bodies injured or dying fish. In fact they find it difficult to bite through skin or scales so they generally attack by entering the gills, mouth or other openings. The hagfish have no real eyes (although some fossil species had large eyes)
Hagfish can be a real curse to fishermen setting long lines because many of the hooked fish may be totally eaten, from the inside out, before the lines are lifted. As I mentioned it used to be thought that these relatives of the lamprey were quite scarce but it is now known that there are over sixty species. It has been found that they are so common that they provide the subject of extensive commercial fisheries. American scientists have estimated that in some areas as many as half a million hagfish are present on every square kilometre of sea bed.
As other fish populations have declined hags are now being caught in huge numbers, mainly for their skins. The skins can be tanned and turned into smooth, high-quality leather. The leather then finds its way into designer goods including handbags, purses, briefcases and even shoes. In the first five years of a newly discovered fishery off the Atlantic coast of North America, over fifty million slime eels were processed up to 1996.
The methods used to catch these eyeless, ghoulish animals are simple. Plastic barrels drilled with small holes for entry and baited with fish scraps are lowered to the sea bed. The fish slither into the barrels after the food and become trapped by their own slime. In good fishing spots as many as one hundred fish have been known to enter a trap in the first hour after it was set. Unfortunately hagfish grow slowly and only lay a few eggs at a time so they quickly become overfished. Already the numbers caught per trap and the size of the fish are decreasing in some key fisheries.
What about the main feature of these animals - the incredible slime? It is produced from several hundred special glands along the body. Normally the mucous eases the passage of the hag into its 'prey'. When they are disturbed or threatened however they really go to town and a single fish can easily produce a bucket of real gunge. A sticky whitish liquid oozes from the skin of the fish and rapidly swells to several hundred times its own volume. Eel fishermen don't know the meaning of "snotty" unless they've seen a hagfish. Since hagfish eat all sorts of carrion and can be abundant it is likely that, from time to time, one will be hooked and landed by an angler. If you should be the lucky person, treat your catch with respect - its ancestry is a lot longer than yours.
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