For many years knowing anglers have suggested that the longstanding 8lb 10oz record held by Alan Dust was not really representative of the growth potential of the eel. This belief was substantiated in 1978 by the ‘surprise’ new record eel of 11 lb 2oz caught by Stephen Terry from Kingfisher Lake in Hampshire.
This will be an exceedingly dif-ficult record to beat, even though there is little doubt that bigger eels exist: a 20-pounder is certainly within the realms of possibility.
It is much more difficult to single out waters that do not hold eels than it is to find water that do. Nearly every stretch of river, canals, lake, gravel-pit, and even the tiniest village pond will have, with cer-tainty, an eel population.
If you are happy to catch quan-tities of medium-sized eels, say from 1lb to 3£lb, your best bet will be to concentrate on slow rivers, drains and canals. Slow rivers such as the Great Ouse and the Fen Drains have a big eel population, and such waters provide an ideal training-ground for the angler who eventually intends to hunt the really big ones. When I was in my teens I certainly spent quite a number of exciting and invaluable nights catching eels on the river Ouse at places like St Neot’s, Offord and Little Paxton.
The search for big-eel waters Finding a big-eel water where there is a chance of fish of 4 lb upwards is more difficult, and searching out a water with record-breaking poten-tial is a virtual impossibility – unless of course you know they are in there. The reason is that they hardly ever show themselves, for eels are very sensitive to light. They are also extremely sensitive to vibrations from the bankside and there is no doubt that they can detect these from a great distance. If you have serious intentions of catching a big eel you must have a contant awareness of these two factors.
In all the hundreds – if not thousands – of hours I have spent fish-watching, there are only a few occasions when I have been able to watch eels in their natural habitat. So going eel-spotting in the late close season as the carp or tench angler does is just not on: you will not see any!
I cannot over-emphasize the im-portance that leg-work and research play in the eventual downfall of a big fish. The only sure way of locating a big-eel water is to find one that has produced good fish consistently for a few years. By consistently I mean half a dozen fish of 5lb-plus in a season, but even two or three such fish should be a good indicator of ex-
Frank Guttfield considers a 4 or 5lb eel to be of specimen size. But a new rod-caught eel record of lllb 2oz was established in mid-1978. The author feels 20 lb eels are probable.
Tackle, Bait, Techniques Rod 10 -1 1 ft stepped-up carp-type rod in hollow glass, with a test of lf-2£lb.
b.s. 8-13 lb
Carp hooks, sizes 2-
Small deadbaits – bleak, rudd, gudgeon – lobworms, foot of freshwater mussel, all threaded on to hook.
Chopped deadbaits, worms, freshwater mussels.
Ledgering, freelining cellent prospects.
Nevertheless, catching several medium-sized eels does not guarantee a specimen. The greatest difficulty in pinning-down a big-eel water is that a high percentage of really big specimens are taken completely out of the blue from waters without a big-eel history. The new record eel comes into this category. Why are big eels caught so rarely? First, big eels feed infrequently and you need a great deal of time. Second, they are extremely powerful and ruthless fish when hooked, so when he hooks one by accident the inexperienced angler does not stand a chance.
While there is little doubt that rivers carry the largest head of eels, it is fairly well recognized that the biggest eels are barren or landlocked females in stillwaters. Rivers do, of course, hold huge eels and many of them, such as the Avon, Severn, Great Ouse and Stour, have produc-ed the odd six or seven-pounder over the years, but statistically your chances of singling out such fish in rivers are very low indeed – they are simply outnumbered by the hordes of smaller eels.
Make for the lakes
So once you have practised on the rivers or canals (most canals are pretty slow) make for the lakes and pits. It does not have to be a big pit; several big-eel waters that I know of are between one and five acres. Useful pointers to look for when selecting your water are the close proximity of canals, sluices, feeder streams and ditches, and rivers that flood regularly. The presence of a good head of small or even stunted fish is another useful indicator.
Assuming you have found your big-eel water, the next important task is to pin down the territory and hotspots in that particular water. The two factors of light and bankside disturbance predetermine to a large degree the likely areas. Eels fight shy of light and bankside movement or disturbance, and in my experience they do most of their serious feeding in the deeper, if not the deepest water.
In the depths it will be darker and quieter, and if it is snaggy so much the better. Underwater snags, such as trees or cables, help to give the monster eel a feeling of security. In some respects you can relate your quest to that of a conger fisher-man – eels hide on the bottom in the same way as giant conger hug the wrecks in the depths.
Eels are scavengers as well as predators, but I know of few eel specialists who have applied this knowledge to their practical advan-tage and caught big eels where dead and rotting fish have drifted into the windward margins of a lake. John Sidley, the Birmingham eel king, is the only exception I know of, but then he puts in a phenomenal number of hours per season.
Most of my big-eel experience was gained on my old home waters in Bedfordshire brick pits, artificial lakes and small ponds. Much of this was one particular water – Arlesey Lake, a deep, disused brick pit of approximately nine acres. Although it has a wide range of depths from 2-50ft, it is the deeper water that invariably produces the eels. In most swims there is 20ft of water only 15 yards from the bank, while the deepest holes are some 70 yards out. Over all the years I have fished there, I can recall only one or two eels that were taken less than 20 yards out in the shallow water.
What is more, I can recall only the odd eel or two that was taken during daylight, and those rare fish were taken a long way out where the water was deep and dark. On Arlesey Lake, and on several other waters in that locality, the evidence in favour of night fishing in deeper water (not necessarily the deepest, as one couldn’t always ge.t a bait out there) was quite irrefutable.
Productive thundery nights
In my experience, warm, clammy, thundering nights are the most pro- ductive. Avoid clear and moonlit nights: they are uncomfortable and cold to fish in and the eels do not like them either.
If you can, choose a night with plenty of cloud-cover – in my opinion the darker the better. Again, analysing my own records and those of others, the darkest period of the night is the most productive. For carp, tench and bream there is often a ‘dead’ patch of an hour or so in the very middle of the night – in July and August usually between lam and 2am or thereabouts. It is this very dead spot that has so often produced a spate of eel runs.
Having established that night fishing is essential for big eels, ledgering in some form or other is the most reliable and effective technique. On small lakes and ponds or canals where the eels can be tempted at close range, it will obviously pay to keep the terminal tackle as simple as possible, so freelining should be used if possible. However, nearly all my eeling is done at a reasonable distance – between 20 and 60 yards – so a lead of some kind is essential.
What about the basics such as rods, reels, and lines? Depending on the snagginess or clarity of the water, the rod has to be pretty powerful and I would suggest a ‘stepped-up’, hollow glass carp-type rod with a test curve of between If and 2 lb, and between 10£ and llfft in length. Accordingly, line-strength will be in the 8-13 lb b.s. Range. I use a Mitchell 300 for most of my Stillwater fishing, and it is important in this case not to skimp but to buy 200 yards of line (in one length, of course) and fill the spool to the top of the lip.
Whether I fish with worms or deadbaits, I stick to two basic terminal rigs. For medium-distance casting – say, up to 40 yards – I use a lead direct on the reel line stopped by a small swivel 12-16in from the hook. For longer-range ledgering where one has to ‘whack’ the bait out, the lead tends to overtake the bait in flight which sometimes results in twists or tangles. Here I use a lead, paternoster-style, on a fairly long link attached to a swivel, and again stopped on the reel line by a second swivel. I find that this rig reduces considerably the chances of a twist-up – the lead draws the bait in its flight-path.
Arlesey bombs every time
In all cases I use Arlesey bombs ranging from £-loz. Experience has also indicated that in the case of the link-paternoster the link strength should be slightly greater than that of the hook line. For example, if a 10 lb b.s. Line is used, then I attach my Arlesey bomb to 18in of 13-15lb b.s. Nylon.
Some people question the use of a swivel as a ledger-stop on the grounds that it will marginally reduce the overall tackle strength. This is true, but when you are using lines of 10 lb b.s. Or more, it is not such a critical factor. However, a swivel is an almost 100 per cent efficient ledger-stop and as such is difficult to better. My fishing time is precious, so I cannot afford to have a bait out for hours with the lead wedged hard against it – it would reduce my chances somewhat!
Other than the basic items of comfort such as chair-beds, brollies, waterproofs and so on, it is essential to have a large and deep small-mesh landing-net. I would suggest a minimum diameter of 24in and a minimum depth of 3ft 6in, more preferably 4ft.
Bite indication is straightforward. If you are the keyed-up stay-awake type you need no more than a loop of silver foil over the line between the butt-ring and the reel; but if, like me, you prefer to nod off, or at least relax, then an audible indicator is re- c quired. Most eel fishers use at least two rods, so a pair of Heron-type antenna electic bite alarms are 1 almost essential. Whichever indicator you use, it must put up the absolute minimum of resistance to a taking eel. Contrary to popular belief eels are very sensitive to resistance and have a very acute sense of ‘feel’ – even though they can very easily drag in the rod!
The golden rule is to leave the pick-up of the reel in the ‘open’ posi-tion so that a running eel can peel off the line without feeling any resistance. Also make sure the rods are rested above an area that is free of undergrowth or twigs that can interfere with the line running off the spool. Play it safe and use a pegged-down plastic g sheet below the reels.
There are all manner of recipes and concoctions for hook baits and groundbaits, but after a great deal of experimenting I am afraid I still have most confidence in the well-proven text-book baits. These, for me, in order of preference are: 1. Small dead fish, 3-5in long, freshly killed or sometimes frozen. Bleak, rudd, or gudgeon, I am not fussy. 2. Two lobworms – again fresh, not ‘off. 3. The ‘foot’ portion of a freshwater mussel.
For deadbaiting I usually thread the fish on the line with a baiting needle before tying on the hook, the hook protruding out of the mouth. I then place an AA shot on the line ad-jacent to the vent to prevent the bait slipping up the line in flight.
Some eel experts prefer to thread the bait on the other way with the hook coming out of the vent; it makes little difference providing the bait is small. There have also been a S few occasions when I have been very £ lazy and just lip-hooked my dead-bait (usually in the middle of a spell of runs) and eels have been hooked just as effectively.
If I am fishing over a fairly hard bottom I pierce and deflate the swim bladder first, but if there are signs of a thick layer of soft bottom weed or mud, I leave the swim bladder intact so that the bait tends to float above this. In the past I did quite a bit of experimenting with baits injected with pilchard oil and other ‘smellies’ but I do not feel that this made a significant difference to my catches.
I have also carried out a lot of ex-periments to evaluate the use of wire traces. Various types of wire were tried and I came to the conclusion that eels can feel wire, as there were more abortive runs when using wire than when using hooks attached direct to nylon.
The occasional fish may be lost because the nylon is rasped away, but on balance I prefer to do without wire. Strong carp hooks, No 2 or No 4, are ideal for most big eel irrespective of the bait.
The ‘natural’ lobworm
Although I like lobworms as a hookbait, I tend to use them mainly for medium-distance fishing. This is because I like to present them naturally, and ‘natural’ to me is as they come out of the ground – nice and soft and juicy. Worms to be cast great distances have to be tougher; they get tough by being kept in moss. To keep them natural, they should be put in moss only for the duration of your eel session, then put back into a box of damp soil. Tough worms stay on the hook well, but they are also too lively and twist around the line, pulling the hook out of alignment and ruining your chances of hooking that big eel. Some big-eel specialists inject their lobworms with air with a hypodermic syringe to keep them out of soft muck or bottom weed. I am afraid this is an area in which I cannot claim to have experience. If you have the strong desire to pump up live lobworms like balloons and then drown them it is up to you. I do not feel that my tackle box is the right place for a hypodermic needle.
The question of groundbaiting is again a matter of personal preference. If you have located eels at close range – in a canal or small pond for example – then I am sure that groundbaiting andor baiting up in advance with minced offal or fish will pay dividends. However, groundbaiting at a longer range than 30 yards does present problems. It can be a bit messy, too. If you are able to catapult out accurately free offerings of chopped-up deadbaits (or worms, mussels, etc), this could well help concentrate the eels in a particular area. On balance, though, I am of the opinion that the effort involved in groundbaiting at long range is disproportionate to the dividends it brings in terms of fish.
Perhaps the most important thing to master when eel fishing is how to strike an eel ‘run’. Basically, there are two types of run and two ways of striking when they happen.
Striking the run
First, when you are fishing with worm or mussel or other non-fish bait, the eel normally picks it up and runs off with it steadily. It does not stop to turn the bait, but swallows it as it travels. This type of run can be struck with a solid, steady sweep as soon as a few yards of line have been peeled off the open spool. The spool should be set tight, and immediately following the strike I wind and pump hard.
Secondly, when an eel picks up a dead fish, there are usually a couple of preliminary warning ‘bleeps’ on the buzzer, after which the line peels out steadily. The eel usually takes between five and ten yards before it picks the bait up, then there is often a pause for up to a minute, when the eel ‘turns’ the bait, after which the line often hisses out from the open spool. Strike when this second stage of the run gets under way.