The lure and challenge of eel angling - by Barry McConnell
Many anglers I meet have never seen a big eel and think of eels as small, slimy, tackle-tangling pests. They find it odd that I choose to fish for eels and I am often asked – why eels? Recently I was asked if I could write an article entitled The Lure and Challenge of Eel Angling. This is quite a hard one to answer in short so I had better start at the beginning.
Obsession – The formative years.
My fishing has always been more of an obsession than a hobby. Even at the age of 4 or 5 I was completely captivated by the underwater world in the local brook with its bullheads, brook lampreys, stone loach and small trout. Right from the start the fascination was so intense that I was oblivious of weather, hunger or time and always in trouble for coming in cold, soaking wet and late for mealtimes. By the time I had progressed to coarse fishing, and then to a teenage specimen hunter, my parents tried to put time limits on angling trips, which were interfering with my education. My diaries from the early 70’s have got ‘Carp Fever’ scrawled on the front. The rods were confiscated as O-levels loomed but it didn’t work and when the weather was just perfect for carp I couldn’t help but go fishing. I’ve still got the old diary from 1973 that records a catch of three mirror carp taken on floating crust without a rod; I used a hand-held spool from a Mitchell 300, which was hidden in the schoolbag. I was supposed to be sitting a French O-level exam that day and didn’t dare tell my parents. See what I mean – obsession.
The attraction to carp was their size and fighting capability. Also, in those days, they were quite rare and considered to be extremely hard to catch. Carp angling was a minority sport and still had that mystery appeal. Somehow that all changed as carp were stocked into more and more waters and it became apparent that carp are not so hard to catch after all. For me carp angling just lost its mystique as it started to transform in to the massive industry that it is today. I moved on from carp and spent the next 15 years pursuing other species – coarse, game and pike – but somehow none of it seemed to have the lure and challenge of carp angling in the early years. I missed the thrill of catching big fish while night fishing during long sessions spent living on the waterside.
It wasn’t until I started to fish for big specimen eels that I found something with far greater attractions than carp fishing. Eel angling is the ultimate challenge and the eel itself makes the most interesting study. It is surrounded in mystery, folklore and legend. This creature of the night is a truly wild fish with a fascinating life history. To get to our inland waters the eel must travel more than 3000 miles from their spawning grounds in the strangely deep Sargasso Sea, which is situated in the same part of the world as the equally mysterious Bermuda Triangle. When our mature eels return to the Sargasso to breed they vanish from our realm of knowledge. No one has ever seen them spawn nor has anyone found out where they go after that. See what I mean about mystery.
Different than other fish:
There are lots of interesting facts and habits of the eel that make it different to most other species of fish. It can live in both sea and freshwater; travel overland; live out of water for long periods; burrow and bury itself beneath gravel or silt. An eels will even take bait down in to the silt. This became apparent on one particular reservoir where small eels of about a pound were taking the bait, moving only a short distance, then stopping. They were burying themselves under the silt where they would hole-up and lie stationary until you wound in and dragged them out causing masses of bubbles from the disturbed silt. The freshwater eel has the most incredible sense of smell which is greater than any other fish except the great white shark. Eels can regurgitate blood as a defense mechanism and their fresh blood is toxic if it gets in to your bloodstream through an open wound, strong enough to kill a small mammal. Eels are sensitive and will respond to the elements. Water temperature, light intensity, moon phase, atmospheric pressure and thunderstorms all have a massive effect on the eels’ behaviour and feeding patterns.
Big eels are elusive. They thrive on neglect and hide in secluded lairs where they can grow big and old in peace. They are very secretive and shun disturbance from man and anglers. The first four big eels I caught were from College Reservoir in Cornwall and although on different nights each one came between 3 and 4 in the morning when most of the lake’s numerous carp anglers were quietly asleep in their bivvies. It seemed that the eels were sneaking out to feed in the small hours when the humdrum of noise from traffic, anglers and the general public was at its quietest. Discovering if big eels are in a water can be a difficult task. You can sit by a water and spot all manner of other species as they feed off the surface, bask, swirl, bow wave, bubble or strike at fry. Not so with the elusive eel they are rarely seen so fish spotting is not really an option.
They are wary too and are especially sensitive to any bankside vibration or disturbance to the water. Their keen sense of smell will soon arouse suspicion if the bait has any foreign smells such as diesel, nicotine, soap, or whatever. They can also feel any resistance caused by the anglers tackle; so free-running, low-resistance rigs are needed but care must be taken over choice of indicators because eels are sensitive to any change in resistance. Eel anglers devise their rigs with these thoughts in mind.
Open Bailarm or Baitrunner?:
There seem to be two different factions regarding approaches to rigs and methods within modern eel anglers. The first type involves eel anglers (myself included) that prefer to fish with a light-weight indicator and a free-running, low-resistance rig with open bail arm tactics. This is the old tried and tested approach as used by John Sidley. The other type of angler wants to take eel angling forward to make use of modern developments such as the bait runner, braided line and the bolt rig. Over the last 10 years some members within the National Anguilla Club have been working to devise a rig which will never deep hook an eel. Stuart Dean started the movement before he retired from eel angling. Damian Wood has since taken it all a stage or two further towards perfection. This entails putting the reel in bait runner mode and having the rod bent round to keep a tight line to a bolt rig. A bent tube has been adapted as a hook guard hook arrangement. It works too. Woody caught plenty of good eels as he experimented with this method – and none of them deep hooked. It seems that eels will tolerate a steady resistance but are sensitive to and will not tolerate a change in resistance. Woody tells the story best and his superbly illustrated articles are well worth a look at to clue you up on this.
There are also two schools of thought regarding the use of a wire trace. Some eel anglers always use wire: others never use it. I am one of those that always use it and every fish I’ve caught in the last thirteen years hasn’t been put off. I don’t use braid though and this apparently doesn’t mix with wire due to lack of elasticity in the braided mainline.
The fight of a big eel can be nerve wracking as pound for pound they are our most powerful fish. You will generally have to keep a steady pressure on the eel and try to keep it moving forwards and near the surface away from all those nasty snags which it will be searching for with its tail. The eel will usually swim backwards so that you can’t gain control by turning its head like you would with other species. You have to keep a tight line in a sort of tug of war situation, always moving the eel towards you. You will be glad of the stepped up rods when you have got 45 inches of muscle snaking on the surface in the middle of a great whirlpool created by the eels’ back-paddling motion. It is necessary to pull harder than the eel to move the eel towards the net yet this must be done within the limitations of the tackle, line strength and hook hold. Once its tail gets around a snag it will escape as it will spiral backwards around the snag until the tackle gives. They can even unhook themselves with their tail. I was watching Pete Drabble play an eel. It was on the surface when it curled its tail round and transferred the hook from its mouth to its tail. This explained to us why we catch so many eels that are foul-hooked at the tail end rather than in the mouth. A big eel can even sever through a wire trace during a prolonged fight by constantly rasping against the tight wire with a see saw motion. This can be a problem especially during a lengthy long-range tug of war. The eel can swim forwards too. It can suddenly swim towards you at great speed making you think it has broken free because the line slackens. With experience you learn to wind down fast to connect with the eel, tighten the line and raise it towards the surface away from the bottom and potential snags. An eel can stand on the bottom in shallow water where they can get the leverage to stand up tall, as straight as a walking stick and rear up like a cobra in front of the net. Getting the eel in to the net is always a tricky manoeuvre. You must get the very tip of its tail inside the rim of the net or the eel will just snake backwards and under the net. This is not an easy task with such a long fish. No other species I have caught has provided such excitement as some of the nerve shattering experiences from big eels.
In 1994 I started to target big eels with the intention to try what is considered to be one of the greatest challenges in freshwater angling – to catch a big eel over 5lb. This started a trail of discovery to a fascinating variety of different waters, as eels, being a truly wild fish, wriggle their way into every accessible body of water. As I got into eeling I started to think of carp as a domesticated species, especially since the trend of stocking so many waters with carp and giving individual fish a name. For me this detracts from the mystery of catching the unexpected and nowadays the carp waters hold no secrets ( except eels of course). Eels, however, stock themselves as their natural migration intends. Going out to try to discover specimen eel waters was a fantastic adventure. Right from the start I was completely gripped. During that first summer I fished twenty one different waters and caught over one hundred eels. The biggest two eels weighed 2.14 and 2.12 – one from a river the other from a canal. It had proved hard to locate big eels. Each venue had too many smaller eels. I was eager to find somewhere with less but bigger eels and reckoned to continue systematically fishing lots of different waters which eels have been able to gain access to. Surely hard graft, applied persistence and the law of averages would find me stumbling on to better venues for specimen eels. The challenge was big.
Peter Drabble who was then a keen pike angler joined in during 1995 on the second year of the campaign. We did a lot of prospecting for big eel waters using large-scale ordnance survey maps to follow streams, inflows and outflows of pools, ponds, pits, reservoirs, meres, canals, lochs, quarries and more. We fished plenty of odd small waters that other anglers have little or no interest in. Pete even caught an eel in a tiny flooded bomb crater. Many new waters were fished as we targeted those with an obvious outflow which the eels could swim up to gain access to the fishery. I was over the moon to catch my first three that year finishing with four 3’s to 3.10 from a reservoir in Cornwall.
It wasn’t until 1996, that Pete or I even got to see a really big eel. It was our first night on a water we knew little about. We didn’t even know if the water held any eels. It was starting to get light and we hadn’t caught any eels during the night. Prior to this we had been fishing waters with a big population of eels and we were used to getting a few runs and catching a few boots every night. We were just agreeing that there must be no way for eels to get into this water when Pete got a run, then another. He landed two massive eels of 6.12 and 5.04. The biggest one was an awesome creature, looking really old with cataract growth over each eye. We were both absolutely stunned by the sight of these eels which were the two most incredible fish that either of us had seen in a lifetime of angling. Pete the pike angler could hardly believe the sheer force and fighting power of each eel. The whole experience has seen him completely, utterly and totally converted to eel angling.
The Challenge Remained:
Once we had cracked the 5lb target, the bug really got a grip and the challenge remained to try and catch another. Since then the best part of every summer has been spent hunting big eels and I’ve been fortunate to catch quite a few. During eel angling trips there have been just so many night-time encounters and unusual incidents with badgers, foxes, owls, bats, rats, mink, coypu, deer, carp anglers, dog walkers and police that I haven’t room tell such stories here. What I remember best of all is the peace and tranquillity of some very calm-inspiring atmospheres encountered during the still of the night. Such as fishing on a windless, calm, mid-summer night when it’s so still that you can hear, so loud it seems as though amplified, the collective rustle of insects crawling around the surrounding woodland. Nights like this get your nocturnal instincts at a peak. The silence shattered by the sound of a screaming run, the fact that you have waited days for this run only increases the excitement and intensity of the moment. Peaking senses are further increased by the adrenlin rush. The faster the run: the greater the rush. This run is so fast the line is sizzling off the spool and through the rod eyes (a real pissballer as they say in Birmingham eel angling slang). Then the unmistakable feel of a big eel, as it bucks the rod so violently, with such power, that it can lock your rod round to its full 3lb test curve making it creak and the line sing. Fighting eels is different because you don’t generally give as much line to an eel as you would to another species. I will never forget that moment. Leaving me shaking with excitement as the long, snaking shape of a massive 7lb+ eel breaks the moon’s reflection on the calm of the oil slick surface. Its still 30 yards out and I’m on full adrenalin boosted rod-lock when the eel lifts its tail into the air and slaps it on the surface. These are heart stopping moments. More nervous moments follow as the eel can be felt to bump against snags during that last tackle testing 30 yards. In the excitement of the moment you can be forgiven for thinking that it’s a double and you have broken the record. That is usual and it still gets me nearly every time. The anxious moments at the net as you just can’t seem to get the tip of its tail over the landing net drawstring and the eel goes under rather than into the net. I’ve been there in a sort of shit or bust situation with a 7lb eel (which at that moment seemed a lot bigger) underneath the net in margins full of snags and tree roots. I’ve never forgotten that desperate feeling – thinking the eel of a lifetime is about to escape. It was a final resort to wind down and brutalise the tackle by applying more pressure than the tackle is meant to take, even 15lb line has its limits. I really thought the tackle would give but somehow the pressure moved the eel, which ended up in the net.
Trying to catch an eel over 5lb never seems to get any easier and every big eel I have caught has been the result of sheer persistence and hard graft. Since those first few years we have gone on to fish many more waters often spending long periods exploring very hard waters which test your staying power. Now, many years later, we have managed to find quite a few big eel waters. Many of these waters have limited access for eels so that few eels actually get in; very few eels usually means very big eels. In fact the best waters for big eels are often those where the local anglers have never seen an eel and they think you’re mad when suggesting that some eels may have lived there for years – secretly. You really need to have confidence in yourself here.
In 2004 I targeted a new water, a claypit used by a small match orientated club. On my first visit there some regulars told me quite angrily that I was off my trolley. One of them said that he had fished there for nearly 50 years, seen it netted, stocked, watched the fish grow. He told me the pit holds roach, perch, bream, rudd, tench, carp, even a few chub, ide, trout and golden orfe but definitely no f---ing eels. That first night I got one run on a dead rudd and landed a 5.04 eel. It was an impressive looking eel. Beauty. The match orientated anglers fell over backwards when I pulled the eel out of the sack the following morning. It was one of the best looking fives I have ever seen and they would probably never have known it was there if someone hadn’t come and fished specifically for eels. It was quite satisfying to show the matchies that I’m not off my trolley, there are eels in there. It’s not madness just an obsession. You really do have to focus on eels and specialise so to speak. It is possible to catch big eels by design and with sufficient effort it is possible to catch quite a few.
Ideas, adaptations, rigs and indicators:
Pete and I work together as we endlessly bounce ideas off one another and combine our heads to think about the sport. Over the years, as well as searching for new waters, we seem to have upgraded, altered or modified all the original tackle as we have adapted to eel angling. We have also experimented with or invented many new ideas, gadgets and rigs. Like most eel anglers do, we have often tinker with various versions of a modified dyson rig for fishing off-bottom. To fish one particular difficult swim we devised a rig that shields the point of the hook so it can be retrieved through sunken branches without the hook point snagging in to the wood. Various complicated bite indicators and clips were tried before we realised that there were no indicators we could go and buy that suited our style of fishing. We settled for using simple free-hanging lightweight bobbins (curtain hooks) which I fished with by preference for about ten years until one particular night when bats kept hitting the line and knocking off the indicator. I sat up all night in the bivvy and came up with a new idea for an indicator that rests on the line rather than gripping it. The indicator then lifts off as some ball bearings roll down a tube, past the pivot. This has since taken more than two years to develop and manufacture and I am actually marketing them this year 2008 as The Rollover Indicator. Many ideas fell by the wayside; other inventions worked and are part of our eel fishing to this day. We are presently thinking about a rig for fishing the bait in an area we have always wanted to fish – anchored in the upper waters near the surface, in deeper water, far from the shore where depths exceed 30ft. This is for using at a lake where we have noticed shoals of baitfish out in the middle where they dimple the surface on moonlit nights. It can so often pay to place a bait into previously un-fished areas. Eel angling is a sport for the pioneering, watchful angler that is bold enough to go where no angler has been before.
Even when you have found a water that holds plenty of big eels it is not easy. Sometimes you can go days, weeks, or even months without catching an eel even though you know they are there. It can feel as though the eels know you are there so they have gone on a hunger strike. Eels are capable of doing without food for two years. NAC member Steve Rickets once spent a whole season at Broadwater to catch just one small eel. The next season started with 19 blanks then, just as he started to wonder if there were still any eels in there, the eels decided to feed. During the next two days he had his best ever catch of seventeen eels including three 5’s and three 4’s – wow.
Camping and cooking on the bank enables long sessions, long enough to get that gut feeling about when the big eels will once again start to feed in their world of timeless pace. The mental approach to survive so many blanks requires a certain applied persistence, to quote Noel Coward, ‘The secret of success is the capacity to survive failure.’ Spending such a long time on the bank becomes addictive and I never cease to enjoy doing lots of long sessions. There is time enough to watch the season progress and fade. Enough time to study the eels’ world. To see if their feeding habits form any sort of pattern in relation to different weather patterns or moon cycles. On the road to success the eel angler will develop a fine-tuning of watercraft and gain knowledge of aquatic life sufficient enough to give him insight into the world of a big specimen eel. He will need it too, if he is going to pitch his wits against this old, rare and elusive creature that fills its predatory niche so secretly. His task is to firstly learn where they are hiding and then to work out when they will feed.
The age of eels is interesting. Most eels return to the sea before they are 15 years old so the massive majority of our eel population never reaches 3lb in weight. The small number of eels that remain in our waters for longer periods will often become very elusive as they age into maturity. They will lurk in quiet areas and may hide away in a lair, often landlocked for many years, before returning to sea and further in order to keep regenerating their population. Larger eels are often very, very old eels over 60 years old. They look old too many have huge saucer eyes often blinded with cataracts, whilst their back will become sort of buffalo humped with age and the top of the head dome shaped like a dolphin. Their ageing features seem to convey a sort of wisdom. I have caught eels older than me and I’ve always had respect for my elders. Such big old eels seem planets away from the small olive coloured immature eels I had encountered when fishing for other species prior to specialising in eels.
The colour of the eel is incredibly beautiful. The first time I closely studied the colours of a big mature eel I was amazed at the metallic shimmer coming from the iridescent multitude of colours within the eel. When viewed from a distance the eel may look a copper, bronze or green colour overall, yet when studied at close quarters you can see many colours and hues such as pink, blue, purple, bronze, black, white, silver, gold, olive and pearl.
Today – 2008 – little has changed and the obsession has probably strengthened as I benefit from the knowledge and understanding of watercraft gained from spending so much time on the bank. I now enjoy a new confidence in my own ability to read the water. I’m not sure if it is sort of a gut felt thing or just sheer pig-headed confidence, but nowadays I seem to know where to cast. The number of big eels that I’ve caught never ceases to amaze me, especially when I think back to the first two years spent trying to catch an eel over 4lb. The thrill of landing a big eel hasn’t diminished and as for the challenge factor, well that remains so hard that at times it seems impossible. I wouldn’t have it any other way, it keeps you thinking. Pete and I continue to bounce eel theories off one another as we plot some interesting trips. We have now caught good specimen eels over four and a half pounds from many different waters such as a remote highland loch north of Inverness, a gravel pit in Kent, a reservoir in Cornwall, a fen drain in Norfolk, a claypit in Wales, a tiny farm pond and meres in Cheshire and Shropshire, a canal feeder reservoir near Birmingham and several different canals throughout the North-West of England. We have even been to New Zealand and Australia searching out a variety of unusual venues where we have caught more than forty double figure eels along with countless 7’s, 8’s and 9’s during some extreme angling adventures. Pete caught the two biggest at 22.10 and 23.04.
Our latest venture is fishing into very deep water in glacial lochs where the drop offs go to over 30 metres. This is too deep for normal fish (I think) and it seems that we have discovered an ecological niche which is filled by the eel which will still feed down at these depths. This pioneering eel angling is even challenging science itself as the eels are feeding in very cold water – constantly between 4 and 6 degrees centigrade - which scientists reckon is too cold for eels to feed and thrive; and nowhere near the warmer optimum temperature required for rearing eels in captivity. Here in the glacial depths we have discovered some very big eels and I feel it is only a matter of time before we catch something extra special. It is an ongoing mission and we are really keen this year (as ever) so watch this space.
Not so obsessive:
Before I finish writing it seems necessary to point out that you don’t have to be the obsessive type to fish for or have an interest in eels. I am only writing about how I perceive the lure and challenge of eel angling as I try to target big specimens over 5lb. You could say that fishing has ruined my life but then again you could say that fishing is my life, which sounds fine to me, I can’t improve on that. Plenty of anglers with a great love for eels and eel fishing are less eager to suffer the consequences of letting an obsession unbalance their career, social and family life. Such anglers may choose to do shorter sessions often on easier waters where they can catch a few eels; or they may spend their spare time involved with the political or conservation side of eel angling and eel welfare. For them there is more to eel angling than endlessly targeting big, old, rare specimens. They may never catch an eel over 5lb yet the allure of the eel is strong enough to be a lifelong interest. Long live the eel.
The National Anguilla Club:
Eel angling can be a solitary sport. Since my angling nickname is ‘Only the Lonely’, I should know. Not a lot is written about eels in most angling circles and there aren’t many eel anglers on the banks so I joined the British Eel Anglers Club (which folded soon after), then the National Anguilla Club in order to meet eel anglers and to receive magazines and articles on eels. What a good move that was. The club consists of a small bunch of anglers with a collective interest who take eel angling and conservation matters seriously. Thanks to the NAC I now know plenty of eel anglers and I have learnt plenty about eels from the club members while also enjoying some good social sessions on the bank. Just look at some of the nicknames adopted by members, some past and some present. The Eeling Hedgehog, The Bait-swisher, Dances with Eels, Spac-e-man, Ooh-Aah, Golden B******s, B.T., The Anguilla Guerrilla, The Burglar, The Whisperer, The Jockey, Big Eel, Lucky, Sad, Snigger, Snickers. What an amazing bunch of colourful characters and what an amazing mix of a few beers along with the dialects of Wales, Wigan, Birmingham, Manchester, London, and more. The social fish-ins are always in good humour with great banter. You would have to see to believe the gags and gunge that goes on. There is even a secret writer called the Mole. No one knows who he is and he slags us all off and rips us to bits with great humour. Without this club Pete and I would be out there on our own. Long live the NAC
I doubt if I will find a more interesting or challenging species beyond eels. Since spending so many hours of my life fishing I have developed a greater understanding of the eels’ underwater world. Somehow it’s all come together for me these days as though it was my destiny. Since landing my first eel over 4lb in 1996, in UK waters, I have now caught forty one 4’s, seventeen 5’s, seven 6’s and two 7’s. There is no other branch of coarse angling with sufficient lure and challenge to feed my obsession. I will never run out of this interest in eels nor will I tire of the excitement of landing a big eel, or from this passion for living outdoors for long angling sessions. In the end I will just run out of time. Life really does seem too short for the specimen eel angler.
And - Finally – The End.
P.S. - To The Mole whoever you are, wherever your underground lair may be. Before you start, I would like to say, yes, I know this article is way too long , almost an autobiography and I got a bit lost here and there but I did excuse myself at the beginning when I said that this is quite a hard one to answer in short - and I never mentioned zander. And while I have your attention I would like to say - don’t go thinking you’re a new idea in action. I used to be in another eel club the British Eel Anglers Club and they had a bottle-less, anonymous, rat of a weasel, slime-ball, eel angler like yourself in their midst called Mr Nasty Scandal Eel Monger. He was a sly one too. Don’t forget to look over your shoulder – we are looking for you.