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- Conservation Status: Critically endangered
- Habitat: Marine - Freshwater
The Eel is a complex and often misunderstood fish, seen as nuisance by some anglers. But this much maligned species has a life-cycle, and many traits that make it a special fish to catch. Pound-for-pound it is one of the hardest fighting fish, and, coupled with its ability to swim backwards, a specimen eel will give even the most accomplished angler a run for his money.
The eel is a long lived species. Starting life, it is thought in the depths of the Sargasso Sea, tiny elvers make their way to our shores where they infiltrate our rivers. They reside there for up to 50 years before returning to the spawning grounds to mate and die.
Eels can be found in most waterways all over Europe. Once numerous, the species is sadly in decline and this has led to the creation of management plans and legislation to conserve the species.
NB: Recreational angling for the species is at the moment prohibited except under licence from the Scottish Government, although it is hoped this law will change as long as catch and release is practiced.
Eels are powerful fish and due to their liking for snags often need to be bullied. Therefore tackle needs to match these conditions. 2lb – 3lb test curve rods coupled with 12lb – 15lb mainline will cope with most situations. Traces should be wire as a large eel will have no problem biting through mono or braid.
Hook sizes range from 2’s down to 10’s. Smallest hooks as possible should be used and these should be of the barbless variety to alleviate any damage should deep hooking occur, something which eels are notorious for. However, there are a number of ways that can reduce this. Striking early is imperative, and do not let runs keep going.
Good bite/run indication also helps and there are a number of products available allowing runs to be seen immediately. Most specimen eel anglers now use the roll-over instead of bobbins or monkey climbers as these are seen as being resistance free. This indicator was designed by eel angler Barry McConnell and is simple to use.
A large specimen landing net is vital. Eels are notorious escape artists and trying to land a 5lb specimen in a small shallow net is virtually impossible. It is advised to also use a good quality unhooking mat once a fish has been landed no matter how big or small. Other items include a good head torch, forceps, sacks/nets and of course a camera.
The eel it is thought does not like resistance or changes in resistance, therefore rigs etc are designed to overcome this. Even line being pulled from a run clip may result in bait being dropped.
The two most used rigs are described here. The JS rig (named after the late great John Sidley)
This is basically a modified running leger rig which can be tied to suit the conditions. A run ring is first tied to a length of line for this purpose say 6 inches. To the other end attach a snap swivel and attach a lead, say 2oz/3oz. This is the lead link.
Mainline is threaded through the run ring and a bead or cork ball can be added. Next, a good quality swivel should be attached.
Next tie a length of line around 2 inches longer than the lead link; this is important because should the mainline and lead link become tangled on casting, when a fish takes it will unravel. The wire trace should then be attached to the free end.
The run ring coupled with a heavy lead means when the eel takes line it is free running and the weight does not get dragged allowing for a confident take. This allows for baits to be fished on the bottom.
Eels do not solely feed on the bottom and so an off bottom rig is often used and has accounted for a number of specimens lately.
The CD or Dyson rig (Devised by Colin Dyson, initially for Perch and Pike)
Although this may sound complicated it isn’t and is an excellent way of presenting a bait off the bottom and in most cases reduces deep hooking.
Firstly, a run ring is attached to a length of line say 3 ft, followed by a bead and a sub surface float. A sliding stop knot should be tied to the line between above the bead and can be set at a required depth. Attach a snap swivel and a lead, 3oz is recommended, to the other end.
The mainline should be threaded through the run ring and a bead/cork ball added. To this attach the trace. When cast, allow everything to sink and slowly tighten up until the lead is felt, once the rod is placed on the alarm, slowly release line so the float rise to the required depth. The beauty of this rig is that once the eel has come off the bottom to grab the bait, it has to do something with it, either run with it or swim back, resulting in an instant indication, quick strike and a lip hooked eel.
This is particularly effective on bright nights, daytime fishing where the bait is silhouetted against the surface. These are just simple versions and many anglers modify them to suit.
The most popular bait by far is the humble lobworm either fished singly or in bunches; dendrobenas are also just as effective. Deadbaits freshwater or sea fished either whole or in section are also deadly when fishing for eels. In fact eels have been caught on most baits ranging from maggots to boilies and pellets.
They are a totally opportunist feeder with a sense of smell akin to a dog. The eel angler can use this to his/her advantage, broken worms, oil injected baits, cut baits and pre-baiting all account for specimen eels….the most important aspect is all bait should be as fresh as possible.
Another aspect of bait choice is dependant on the types of eel present in given water. Two types occur, although the same species the head shapes are different. Narrow-heads tend to be invertebrate feeders whereas Broad-heads are real predators and feed mainly on fish. A two rod approach is often best fishing worm on one and fish on the other in order to see which type dominate.
When fishing for eels, the most important factor is location. Eels love snags so sometimes its best to think of Conger eels; if there are snags there are likely to be eels. Fallen trees, weedbeds and undercuts are ideal locations to place baits.
Marginal areas should not be overlooked as they may patrol these areas looking for dead or dying fish and food items that may be washed up or windblown. Areas where fry or prey fish congregate or where fish spawn are excellent hotspots.
On waters where there are no obvious features such as many of our lochs here, then a bit more work is required. Leading around to locate drop offs, slopes and shelves is good starter.
I have found that at night smaller fish come into the margins and eels work up and down these shelves/slopes looking for food, in fact my biggest eel so far 6lb 2oz ( equalling the current Scottish record) was taken on a slope in 15ft of water which dropped down to a depth of 60ft.
Eels are generally nocturnal feeders, with poor eyesight and a keen sense of smell. They will feed through the day in some cases especially if no other predators are present.
This subject is the bit that concerns most anglers and also causes most damage to the fish. On landing if the eel is deep hooked then on no account should it be retrieved, the vital organs are situated directly behind the head and so any poking or probing will result in a dead eel.
Simply cut the trace as close to the hook as possible. Eels are good at shedding hooks, especially if barbless and more often than not the hook will be found in the sack or net after a few hours.
Eels are seen as impossible to handle but believe me with a little care and attention can be handled with a minimum of fuss. Simply lay the eel on the mat, cover its eyes, and with wet hands gently stroke it from head to tail for a few minutes.
The eel will remain calm like this enabling hook removal, measuring and if required photographs. If it starts to struggle simply repeat the process. These are delicate creatures and gentle handling is of utmost importance.
As mentioned previously, the eel is in decline, elver stocks are thought to be reduced by over 98% since 1980’s levels, through exploitation, habitat loss, pollution, parasites and barriers. It is imperative that all eels be returned alive.
Various mechanisms are now in place to conserve the species. There are many myths surrounding the eel and often to its own detriment, these are exactly that ….myths. The eel deserves respect as does any other fish.
The National Anguilla Club are a conservation angling group specialising in eels, not only in their capture but also their conservation, it is the longest running single species club established in 1962. There is an active forum and website packed full of tips and information on the species, including tackle, handling, links to Barry’s rollovers and other sites.
There are a few Scottish members but we’d love to see more. Everyone is helpful and only too willing to offer advice.
So get out there and give eels a try.
Note from SFCA Chairman: In an attempt to conserve and protect the eel population in Scotland, the SFCA has ruled that eels do not count in SFCA matches and are not to be placed in keepnets.
Beekay’s Successful Angling Series ‘Eels’ By John Sidley
‘Eels The Final Frontier’ By Steve Ricketts
By Chris Daphne – National Anguilla Club Environment Officer