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An encounter with age - by Barry McConnell

          The eel is a very slow growing species. It grows so slowly that the long accepted yardstick for eel growth rate is an increase in weight of just 1lb every ten years. At this rate an eel weighing more than the current record of 11lb 2oz would be a very, very old creature. Eels of this age and size undoubtedly exist in our waters and they could be lurking in the depths of an old pool that is steeped in history where they can slowly grow, and remain undetected for several decades.
          Three years ago I discovered a small canal feeder reservoir that was built at the same time as the canal in 1752. Willow trees were planted on the bank and, as they aged they grew so big and frail that the trunks split and the top branches fell off. The fallen branches sprouted roots and continued to grow in a mass of re-growth, right on the waters edge, where wave action has undercut the bank beneath the entanglement. The margins are quite deep close in with some lily pads breaking the surface. The first time I saw the place, as I sniffed the air, I could almost sense big old eels lurking. Many patches of feed bubbles were fizzing the surface of the open water as feeding fish rooted amongst extensive bloodworm beds. There are so many small fish in this water that just one scoop in the deep margins with a landing net provides enough bait for the night. There are no pike in this water and few perch. Little is known about the eels because no one ever fishes for them. One of the attractions to eel angling is that you never target a known fish and are searching for a truly wild fish that has never been caught before. The prospect of fishing this old water where the eels have never been pressured by anglers had me very excited.


          The first time I fished there I hooked an eel first cast and went on to catch eels of 4lb 9oz, 5lb 4oz and 6lb 8oz during the first two nights.

4, 5 and 6lb Eel's - August 2006

          The following season sport had slowed down and I only caught five eels. The two biggest each weighed exactly 6lb 12oz but this was not a repeat capture, they were different individuals of exactly the same weight that must have been there for nearly seventy years without ever getting discovered

Different Eel's - Same weight 6.12 - May and June 2007

          I had expected the catch rate to fall like this and, as the eels responded to the angling pressure, it became time to start searching for quiet areas that rarely get fished, where eels can retreat to and remain undisturbed.


          I visited the water again last week and set up next to a yellow sign saying ‘danger of death no fishing beyond this point,’ where overhead power lines cross the reservoir. To deter anglers from fishing here, the angling club hasn’t removed the snags from this area and the odd branch can be seen poking out between lily pads. From where I set up, with an awkward backhanded cast, the bait could be fired out beneath the pylons and into the area that has rarely been fished.

          I am using the Dyson rig in conjunction with a rollover indicator that has the counterbalance adjusted until a slight but not too heavy tension is on the line. A lightweight bobbin or other type of indicator will do instead but it should be of a lighter weight than the buoyancy of the sunken float ensuring that the float will ride up to the intended height and not be pulled lower by a too heavy indicator load. After casting in, the line is tightened and the indicator placed over it. Pull the indicator down to the ground then let go. The buoyancy of the float will be enough to pull the indicator back up ensuring that you know exactly how far off bottom the bait is being presented. If the float doesn’t drag the indicator back up then you know the rig is stuck against something and it is necessary to recast.

          This water holds both narrow and broad headed types of eel so I put worms on one rod and a dead 4” roach on the other.

          The eel will ambush a live fish by rising slowly towards the surface and approaching from beneath and behind the fish. Livebaiting isn’t permitted on this water so I hook the dead fish behind the dorsal fin then suspend it from the Dyson rig, high up in the water, where its silhouette will look like that of a free swimming fish. After killing the bait I get rid of its swim bladder by squeezing the fish between fingers and thumbs and forcing the swim bladder towards the anal vent until it pops out. I do this so that the bait will be presented naturally, the right way up, hanging belly down from the hook rather than having the buoyant swim bladder cause it to rise into an upside down position.

          On the other rod I put four lobworms on a size 6 barbless hook. A small piece of elastic band is pushed on to the hook to stop the worms wriggling off. When using worm it is important that the indicator isn’t too heavy because this can result in bites going unnoticed and the bait may have been stripped from the hook by small fish that nibble the end of the worm. A lightweight bobbin or indicator will register small fish activity so you can tell that there is still some bait on and when there is no more activity you know it is time to put fresh bait on.

          The first run was on the dead roach. A carp of 6 or 7 lb was soon brought to the net with my 3lb test curve rod and 15lb line. I put on another roach and recast only to catch another carp straight away, so, for the next cast, I selected a larger bait to reduce the incidence of carp. In this water the carp feed heavily on the freely available masses of small fish. The carp angler in the next peg could hardly believe that I was catching carp while using roach for bait. I explain to him in boilie-angling terms that a deadbait is 100% unprocessed fishmeal.

          Just after midnight I was alerted by the alarm giving one bleep. The take was slight and delicate as an eel slowly and gently mouthed at the bait. Then, suddenly, line was ripping through the rod rings as a very fast run caused the alarm to sound a one toner. After becoming lulled by the quietness of a still night such a sudden alert can cause panic and you have to keep your head as a rush of adrenalin can boost events to a surreal level.

          A firm strike set the hook and I felt the unmistakable wriggle of a massive eel writhing on the end. The eel took control and headed for the bottom, wrenching the rod round with a nerve wracking force. I raised the rod and it bucked and flexed through its full test curve as I bent into the eel to try and gain the upper hand. I managed to get it up on to the surface about ten yards away where it was back paddling the water with a snake like motion. I encouraged it to stay on the surface and, with a slow but steady pressure, brought it in over the top of any threatening snags. There was a tussle at the net when the eel started spinning wildly and thrashing at the water. I was actually shaking with excitement as I parted the folds of the net to see a rare old specimen eel weighing 5.05 with the hook firmly embedded in the corner of its mouth.

          As it was getting light the worm rod was away and I landed another big old eel of 4.07.  A weight gain of 1lb every 10 years would age these two eels at mid forty to mid fifty. I have often marvelled over the fact that the big eels I target are older than me but here I realise that I am fast catching them up and I have just had an encounter with my own age group.

Barry McConnell

Danger of death, no fishing beyond this point.

          I am allowed two rods here. On each rod the bait was presented two to three feet off-bottom by means of a Dyson rig. The Dyson rig, which is also known as the CD rig, is a sunken float rig that was created by Colin Dyson as an improvement to a pike angling rig called the VB rig which was devised by Vic Bellars in the eighties. The Dyson rig is widely used by today’s eel anglers to present the bait off-bottom.

5.05 August 2008
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