It was once usually bream or bust in summer on the slow rivers and drains of eastern England. Then came the eels. Champion snake charmer Edgar Purnell explains all.
Fenland matchmen used to detest eels, but now they adore them. Why? Quite simply, because they have learned how to win money with them on the lower reaches of rivers such as the Witham, Welland and Nene, and on drains like the Forty Foot. The method used also works well on similar venues elsewhere in Britain — the slow rivers and drains of Somerset, for instance. Given a good draw, experts can catch 50 or 60 eels in five hours. How much they weigh depends on the venue. For example, on the Coronation Channel and the North Bank of the Nene, where the eels average around four to the pound (0.45kg), 50 of them might weigh 12lb (5.4kg). However, on the Welland, where they go as many as eight to the pound (0.45kg), 50 might only weigh in at about 6lb (2.7kg).
Wrigglers on the waggler
It all started in the late 1970s, when the fishing in the Fens went into decline and matches were won with only 7-12lb (3.2-5.4kg) of bream. Some anglers — notable among them Keith Lidgett from Bardney, near Lincoln – began to realize you could frame or even win with a bag of eels.
The method then was the waggler and loosefed bronze maggot, with bronze maggot on the hook. Because only a handful of anglers in a match set their stalls out for eels, once you started feeding you drew eels in from several pegs on either side of you. Constant feeding was needed to hold them, and it was common to get through five pints of maggots. At some point the eels usually started rising in the water to compete for the bait. The answer then was to shallow up and catch them on the drop. Masters of the method regularly weighed in 10lb (4.5kg) or more of eels.
Today it is rarer for the eels to come up in the water—not because there are fewer eels around now, but because nearly everyone fishes for them, so you have to share them with your neighbours. With fewer eels in your swim, there is less competition for the maggots and the eels tend to stay down. This means you usually need less bait for an eel match – two pints of bronze maggots at most. (The exception to this is if you practice on your own, when it can be just like the old days!)
The waggler was the method in the early years, but now long pole/short-lining reigns supreme, because a pole allows you to hold your bait dead still – the way eels usually want it – and to hit more bites. It was Tom Pickering who pioneered the method.
The stiffer the pole, the better. Rig it up with strong elastic – No. 6 or 7 – through two sections. Then, when you hook a bigger than average eel — one of, say, a pound (0.45kg) – there is ample power and stretch to cope as it burrows along the bottom, taking as much as 2m (7ft) of elastic out. With lighter elastic, even through two sections, you can get broken up. You want the elastic quite tight – to get the right tension when fitting it, cut it approximately 15cm (6in) shorter than the two top sections of pole.
The best place to fish is usually just past the near shelf, where the bottom levels out. Plumb carefully to find this spot – usually it is at 9.5-llm — then set your rig to fish 5-15cm (2-6in) overdepth to begin with, and bait your hook with a single bronze maggot.
Start by feeding a pouch of bronze maggots and a pouch ofcasters in a tight cluster around your float. Then spray a couple of pouches of bronze maggots over a wider area beyond your float – the idea being to draw eels in quickly to your main catching area. Continue by feeding about 20 bronze maggots around your float every drop in. If you are catching well, stick with this amount, but if it’s hard going cut back to half a dozen each cast.
The type of bites you are looking for are the ones where the bristle slowly sinks out of sight – you don’t usually miss these. Often, though, you get a lot of fast bites as well. Some might be line bites, but others are proper bites on the drop, so always strike them – if the eel has the hook in its mouth you have a 90% chance of hooking it. If you start getting lots of fast bites on the drop, simply shallow up without altering the shotting of your rig or the way you are feeding. Sometimes you end up catching them in mid-water!
Occasionally an eel just grabs the maggot without taking the hook into its mouth. Your float goes, you strike and there’s nothing there, or you feel just a slight bump. This happens most often when the eels are dashing about up in the water, but it can also happen when they are down on the bottom. There’s not much you can do about it except persevere, trying slight alterations of depth, a little farther out or closer in, and different baits. Double bronze maggot, caster and red maggot are all worth a try, but you have to accept that you are always going to miss a proportion of bites.
When you hook an eel, pause a moment to gauge how big it is. If it feels small, just zip the pole back to the unshipping joint and let the elastic do the work. If it feels like a good one, feed the pole back slowly then unship the pole one section lower down, to allow for the extra length of elastic pulled out. Don’t take the extra section off until you have full control over the eel.
The easiest way to unhook an eel is to grip it lightly through the mesh of your landing net – the harder you try to grip an eel, the more it struggles. Small eels especially sometimes swallow the hook right down. If so, it’s better to cut the line close to the eel’s mouth rather than poke around with a disgorger.