Eel's in Scotland - by Chris Daphne
I really got into Eels and the sheer mystery of this creature many years ago whilst fishing in my native Yorkshire. Eels were plentiful in fact you couldn’t have a days fishing without getting a bootlace, in fact Eels were actually banned from weigh ins in many of the local matches.
I remember many a night spent in Titty bottle park, Otley where every Friday and Saturday night we would all be lined up waiting for the tell tale bites to come. We never took any bait as lobs were also plentiful from the park flower beds. We weren’t bothered about size really; we just wanted to catch Eels.
At 17 I joined the Navy and fishing really took a back seat although I did manage to get out every once in a while, although I was really after anything that came along. Upon leaving I met my wife and moved up to her neck of the woods - the Scottish highlands. Fishing was forgotten as I couldn’t really get into chucking bits of fluff about. I targeted Pike and where possible Perch, coarse fish don’t really exist this far north. I never gave Eels a second thought (what a fool).
8 years later I am as far North as you can get, after studying fish farming and fisheries management, working for various salmon fishery boards and trusts I find myself in Sutherland working for the West Sutherland Fisheries Trust with a chance to study Eels and perhaps make a difference to the lack of knowledge and interest in this magnificent species.
Some of you may have read the desktop survey carried out by Dr. Shona Marshall and Dr. Duncan May (this can be found on the website). Very little commercial fishing goes on up here although it does go on, catch records are non existent and as Eels are not considered economically and socially valuable when compared to the money spinning Salmon or Trout, data on populations etc are very sketchy. Eels are recorded when caught during electro fishing surveys but these surveys are geared towards juvenile salmonids. Data is scarce.
The WSFT area covers Loch Hope in the North right down to Achiltibuie in the South and includes all water courses flowing west. Nearly all water courses contain Eels, these rivers are generally small but there are also literally thousands of Lochs and small lochans. There used to be Elver fisheries on some of these rivers but these have long since gone along with any catch records.
Angling in the area is by fly only so no-one has really had the privilege of catching one apart from the odd chancer fishing with worm. Most people know nothing about the Eel except that they eat Salmon eggs and Trout Eggs and they taste good when smoked, I intend to change this or at least try.
When I was offered the job I was given the opportunity to come up with project ideas on whatever I wanted. After browsing the NAC website and reading various articles I felt the Eel should be given more credibility, I was sick of studying Salmonids and felt that other species should be looked at as they do get overlooked.
After conducting a habitat survey of the Geisgeil burn and it’s tributaries I thought that this system would be a good choice to carry out a survey on the Eel population. There are no protocols or survey designs for Eels so any methods I came up with could be of use in the future. In addition there would be scope to get local schools and other organisations involved and so raise the profile of the Eel.
This was my idea…
Monitor the Elver run. This was to be done by trapping Elvers and working out the recruitment.
Monitor the Silver Migration. Work out the escapement.
Monitor the Yellow Eels. Using various trapping methods and Electro fishing. (I also got permission to fish for them. Thank you Dr. Balfour) any yellow Eels caught would be tagged and length, weight, jaw size, eye size would be recorded.
Environmental factors would also be recorded along with habitat etc. The project is to run for 3 years and is funded by Scottish Natural Heritage.
From these captures and subsequent data, it is hoped that an assessment of the population can be obtained, management plans can be produced and successful methods can be used on other systems.
The project started this year, traps have been out since March, and trapping has been unsuccessful so far although water temperatures have been very low. I had a few exploratory trips with rod but managed only trout with a few possible dropped runs.
Confidence was low, I wasn’t even sure Eels were present in the Loch; they were present in high numbers in the burn below. There is a bit of a barrier at the lochs mouth but I was assured that this was passable. On May 22 after a prolonged warm spell I decided to have another crack with the rods, my father joined me also, he likes catching eels also. We had a few Trout on worm baits, at about 2130 my dad had a bite and we both commented that it looked a bit Eely, this was on worm, he had a few takes like that but nothing was hooked. At 23:30 my Trout head was picked up and it screamed off resulting in a nice yellow Eel weighing 1lb 4 oz. Now I know this isn’t big but it was my first Eel in 18 years, I couldn’t do anything for 10 minutes, I was so relieved, and it meant Eels WERE present. My confidence shot up, I had another 3 that night and I lost count the number of bites I had. Some were probably Trout but I just didn’t care. The other 3 Eels were all silvering which I thought was a bit strange especially as the smallest was only 8oz.
Now I know they are there, and as the water warms things are looking up. The traps have been removed as I am gearing up for the Elver run (anytime now) I will still be out with rods on a weekend though.
SAVE THE EEL:
As part of our remit on education we are currently running a project entitled “A fishy tale” which involves getting all the primary school children out into the burns/streams and looking at all the life in them including fish and invertebrates, habitat and land use. This has been very successful and the kids have loved it. I have been teaching them about the Eel and its decline and this has really got them interested, in fact we took them electro fishing and they were more interested in Eels than the other fish, especially when one of the Eels started devouring a trout in the bucket 2 minutes after it was caught - predation in action.
This got me thinking, I thought it might be a good idea if a poster competition could be arranged along the lines of Save the Eel. They would be gaining by learning about the species, winners could get some sort of prize and also winning posters could be printed/issued/ e-mailed in angling establishments/shops/papers/mags etc. The schools education organiser was certainly up for it as it follows on from what they have been doing. I am on the local biodiversity action forum and funding may be available as it is a project involving the community about a priority species. Funding may be available elsewhere; this would have to be investigated. I think it would be good if the NAC could get involved also this doesn’t have to be in my area, I personally think it should be a national project. A win win situation for all concerned in my opinion.