A different kettle of fish - by Chris Daphne
Picture the scene, you arrive at the water, it is a beautiful summers afternoon, the lake is teeming with life. You walk round looking for those features that so many have written about. Weed beds, islands, reed fringed margins, tree lined banks and the old favourite fallen log. Knowing full well that these areas may just harbour that elusive specimen.
The water is alive, fish fry scatter as the resident predators feast, is it a Pike, Perch or could it be your intended quarry. Carp cruise on the surface whilst Tench through up the tell tale fizz of bubbles. All is well. You find a likely swim, weed beds and lilies abound, and you have a fallen log…perfect. The thermometer reads 20oC; there is a slight heavy muggy feel to the air with maybe a chance of thunder. The eels should be feeding tonight. Lobworms on one rod, a quick swish of the landing net and you have enough live/deads for the nights proceedings. You wait expectantly, adrenaline building for what is to come once the sun goes down.
Sound familiar? Sounds perfect to me, these are the types of waters that are written about, warm and rich in life. But picture this scene…
You arrive at the water, it is summer but far from a beautiful day, it’s still and warm but with a generous helping of cloud cover. There is a very good chance of rain, this is midge heaven. You peer from behind your midge hood at the water. It looks threatening, dark, peat stained and very deep. There are no trees, no weed beds, no islands just a massive open sheet of black water. Your thermometer tells you the temperature in the margins are 16oC, what is it where the sun never penetrates? There are no other species other than resident native Trout and these are thin on the ground. Live baits are banned even if it were possible to catch some. You can’t find lobworms as the area is just a massive oceanic peat bog; you have to buy your bait in. Where do you start?
It may sound a tough prospect, terrain and climate and don’t forget the midges are so different, the waters themselves are the remnants of huge glacial movements offering little in the way of productivity, fish here are slow growing and long lived….BUT they are catchable with a little forethought and reasoning.
The features that you seek are under the water, what do you look for? Well drop offs are the most obvious, these are not hard to locate, maps offer a great deal of information and on larger water bodies are often detailed with depths in metres. There have been bathymetric surveys done on a number of lochs in Scotland and these can be found online, the beauty here is that they are all natural and have rarely changed except for where Hydro power has been installed. Leading around gives you a good idea along with a marker float. It is common to see that usually a marginal shelf runs all the way round before dropping away. The steepness of this drop may vary; it may only be a shallow decline or a near vertical drop. By looking at the surrounding terrain will give a rough idea of where it is steep.
Steep sides indicate a steep drop off, here there Is a short shallow shelf before dropping to 30ft gradual slope, the shelf extends out, gradually sloping and then dropping.
It is important to realise that what you see around you is likely to be the same under the water, so if it is mountainous then expect the same. Don’t forget these have not been altered or man made.
Local knowledge is important and to some extent I am lucky as I have access to prior records and local anglers who know these waters even though they have no interest in the eel. This type of info is priceless. It does take a while to get a feel for the water but perseverance and logic bear fruit in the end.
The other major difference is the substrate or bottom make up. Most lochs are deep; they usually have a marginal shelf all the way round, this can vary but may extend well out into the loch with a gradual slope. In some area there may only be 2-3ft of water before plunging away to 30m +.The bottom is generally rock and boulders and some of these can be the size of a car or bigger. The edge of the marginal shelf or should I say the lip is usually strewn with boulders, I lost a number of fish in this area last year. At depth however I find that the bottom is solid and as yet have had no problem snagging, this suggest that the bed here is bedrock and not the jumble of boulders and rocks that you would expect, indeed most snagging occurs on the retrieve once the lead/bait is in the vicinity of the shelf. This is easy to overcome, once you realise what is going on. Just keep the rod up and wind as fast as possible.
So to summarise so far, you have a deep water say 30m deep with an irregular boulder strewn marginal shelf running all the way round, very little fish life or invertebrate life for that matter and relatively cool water and no visible features to cast to.
My approach to this scenario was and still is a fast learning curve, my aim was to just get an eel, I wasn’t fussed about size. Firstly keep things simple until I get “a feel for the Water” I assumed that the majority of eels would be of the predatory type, simply on the notion that Trout and indeed minnows were probably easier prey than anything else. Trouble was I couldn’t use native fish caught fresh, the next best thing was blast frozen Trout. These in fact turned out to be ideal as they are farmed and fed on a high oil content pellet which permeates into the water forming an oily slick/scent trail. Rigs were simple running ledgers. The main dilemma I had was where to position baits, where would the fish likely to be. I went on the assumption that small fish move into the shallows at dusk and so the predators will follow – again a simple assumption. After a few recces at dusk this proved to be the case, minnows were seen in abundance right at the edges and then a little further out small dimple made by what were obviously small trout.
Before attempting the steep drop offs I wanted to acquaint myself a little more and go for something a little less extreme, I managed to locate a steady slope that went from 2ft to 20ft over a length of 30 – 40m. I thought that by putting baits at different points on the slope I would intercept something. It worked because this resulted in the 6-2 as previously reported. Having returned to this spot on a number of occasions along with my father we noticed a bit of a pattern emerging. I would fish 2 rods, one at the bottom in say 20ft, and then another further up at say 15ft, my dad would do the same at 10ft and 5ft. We noticed that I would get bites first, and then a short period of inactivity, then my dad would get bites, then inactivity and then back to me. This would go on all night. It was if they working up and down the slope in a methodical manner or that wave after wave were moving up the slope.
You would think also that baits placed in the shallower/warmer marginal shelf area where there are plenty of rocks and boulders would be a success due to the amount of bait fish. This was not the case, I failed to get a single take anywhere in this region. The slope seemed to be the key. So what of the deeps. This posed its own set of problems.
To get to the really deep water a cast of around 40 – 50m was necessary, I found that if I let the lead sink on an open spool I had no control and also spent a lifetime waiting for the line to sink before being able to tighten up. By sinking on a tight line this was remedied. Runs were pretty much instant; there were a lot of small eels. Striking was a problem as the stretch in the mono meant that forcing the hook home was difficult. Indeed I lost count the number of fish that came in only to find they were just holding the bait and not hooked. As soon as shallow water was reached they let go. Very frustrating. This is a work in progress, I am now going to try braid in these areas this year and hopefully a marked improvement in hook ups will be achieved.
I personally think that in these deep areas the smaller eels feel very secure; the bigger eels seem to prefer the slopes. Although the majority of eels were less than 1lb in the deeps the size range was slightly bigger on the slopes including the 6-2. I think these are more active predators, following the small fish whereas in the deeps the smaller eels wait and home in on anything that hits the bottom, and then it is literally a free for all. I did get rather fed up with the small fish one particular night and though to hell with it. Instead of sections of trout why not put a whole one on and see what happens. I hooked up a trout of around 6inches and literally pumped it full of air. I set it up on a running lead so it would sit around 2-3ft off the bottom. Cast out and got everything tight, I was just setting the bite alarm when the rod was literally ripped from the rests. Upon reeling in I found a semi circular bite/pressure mark in the belly region some two inches across. Having discussed this further it seems feasible that the smaller eels are not so keen to come up off the bottom but the big snakes are there and so on off bottom approach is the way here. A dyson rig is impossible due to the depth and distance for it to be effective so a version of the JS sub surface rig may be the way with a sunken float between the lead and trace. Simply cast out, sink and then let out line so the float lifts the bait. This is my approach this year along with air injection.
When I first saw some of these waters I thought where do I start, by using what Steve R and JS had written and employing them to my situation was difficult at first as the obvious features, bait fish and waters in general just do not exist this far North. But their generalised theories on where fish ought to be and a little knowledge of the water and species itself helped immensely. After one years fishing on these waters I am now totally confident on where to look, what I expect to find and how to combat difficult conditions, but I am still learning as we all are. I am looking forward to this years excursions armed with knowledge and a more methodical approach and safe in the knowledge that monsters do exist in these lochs. Some have never seen a bait and the eels have certainly never been fished for, they are a total unknown so who knows….But I’m going to have a whole heap of fun trying to find out.