Fishing for big eels

Why deliberately fish for eels? This question is often asked by anglers who have only caught ‘bootlaces’ – small eels that tangle your line into an awesome slimeball. Brian Crayford has the answer – and tells you how.

Only when you have caught a really big eel — a ‘snake’ of 2lb (0.9kg) or more — can you understand the attraction of this extraordinarily powerful fish. Other fish like carp and barbel fight long and hard but eventually they tire and can be steered into the landing net. With eels there is no such surrender – they battle every last inch of the way.

Finding big eels

Though they are seldom caught and often not even known about, there are big eels in most waters. However, of the 50 biggest eels landed in England, only seven came from rivers and only two from canals. The rest were all caught from still waters, including the present British record, an 11lb 2oz (5.046kg) monster taken in 1978 by S.Terry from Kingfisher Lake near Ringwood in Hampshire.

Whatever sort of water you fish, big eels feel safest near some kind of feature, such as islands, rocks, weedbeds, undercut banks and fallen trees. They also like to bury themselves in soft silt, gravel or sand.

Timing your attack

Most big eels are caught between June and September, usually in the evening from about an hour before dusk to 11:00pm or midnight and again in the morning from around an hour before dawn until the sun comes up. However, the occasional very big eel is caught by pike anglers on deadbaits in winter, like the 8lb 1 oz (3.657kg) beauty taken by D.Boyer in November 1988 from Broadlands Lake in Hampshire.

Almost any conditions are suitable for eel fishing, from hot and humid weather when the sky is overcast to bitterly cold, starlit nights. But whatever the weather, generally speaking the water temperature needs to be from 10-18°C (50-65°F) – no more and no less.

Where in the water

Over the years it has been found that when the sky is clouded over and visibility underwater is low, eels always feed on the bottom, using their acute sense of smell to scavenge for food. But when the sky is clear – especially when the moon is full in the sky – they often actively hunt in mid-water and near the surface, looking for the shadows of fry silhouetted against the sky.

Eeling armoury

A big eel is an immensely strong animal and you cannot afford even the slightest weakness in any part of your set-up. Rods Any carp or pike rod is suitable for eels. Ideally, for distance fishing you want a fast taper, tip-action rod for firm setting of the hook at range. For margin fishing you want a much softer, more through-action rod to cushion the line when striking and to absorb the pull of a big eel at close quarters. In both cases the rod should be ll-12ft (3.3-3.6m) long.

Reels There is a vast choice of suitable fixed-spool reels in tackle shops today. Go for one with a rear drag so that if you want to adjust the setting while playing a fish you can do so without having to fumble around at the front of the spool.

Another worthwhile feature to look for is the facility to put the reel into free-spool so that a biting eel can run with the bait without feeling any resistance while the bail arm is shut.

Finally, the spool should hold a good 200m (220yd) of 10-12lb (4.5-5.4kg) line. Line Choose a top quality, supple brand and change it at least once a season – more often still if you fish waters with lots of snags or gravel bars, since these fray and weaken line.

Traces Wire traces are essential when deadbaiting for eels as there is always the chance of a pike picking up your bait. But you should also use wire traces even when worming, as the rasping of an eel’s many small, sharp teeth can quickly wear through even thick nylon line. Hooks and baits The baits that account for most big eels are lobworms, brandlings and sections of dead fish. Always match hook size to size of bait — use forged, eyed hooks in sizes 2-10.

Into action

Big eels are wary creatures and drop the bait if they feel any resistance. Therefore your rigs and bite indicators must allow them to run freely with the bait. Bite detection Have the reel on free-spool (or leave the bail arm open if your reel has no free-spool facility) and use a monkey climber and an electronic bite alarm. If it’s windy, or there’s tow or flow on the water, use a line clip to prevent false bites. Rigs The terminal tackle is the most important part of your set-up. The simplest and most often used rig, for fishing on the bottom, is a straightforward running leger On waters with a carpet of thick, soft mud or weed, incorporate a 30cm (12in) length of garden cane so the trace isn’t pulled into the mud or weed by the weight of the bomb – if it is, a biting eel feels the resistance and usually drops the bait before you can strike .

When fishing for eels in mid-water or near the surface, a proven rig is the Mid-water to surface rig. This incorporates a buoyant float body on a plastic tube, as well as an adapted block-end swimfeeder. You can fill the feeder with cotton wool soaked in the flavouring of your choice.

You can adapt any of these rigs to create a bolt rig by adding a swivel to the main line above the bomb link. This is worth trying if you are getting twitchy bites from eels dropping the bait before you have time to strike. It’s also a good ploy when fishing close to a snag, as it increases the chance of hooking a fish before it can reach the sanctuary of the snag.

Timing the strike

If you are set up correctly, a biting eel feels no resistance and runs with the bait. This gives you plenty of time to strike, but any eel angler worth his salt makes a point of always striking immediately, to prevent deep-hooking the fish – even if this means some bites are missed.

Let battle begin

When you first hook an eel, pause a moment to assess its size, then slowly lower the rod, winding in line as you do so. Stop winding and lift the rod up again. Continue this pumping action until the fish nears the bank. A big eel often makes sudden lunges for cover, but only give line as a last resort -if it reaches cover and gets its tail round a snag, all is usually lost.

It’s at the net that many a big eel gets away. It’s not enough to get just its head over the rim, or even most of its body — you must submerge the net and wait until the whole of its tail is over. Then lower the rod a bit to let the eel swim backwards and downwards. On feeling the mesh with its tail it thinks it has found a snag and goes deeper into the net.

You’ve won! Or have you? Eels are the original escape artists, so get right away from the water’s edge before laying the net on the ground, or your prize could be back in the water in a flash.

Keep the eel in the net to unhook it. If it’s a bootlace, grasp it in a damp cloth and use a disgorger or forceps. If it’s big, turn it on its back to quieten it down before using the forceps. If you can’t see the hook, cut the trace – never poke around or try to pull the hook out.

Finally, put the eel in a carp sack or fine-meshed keepnet for a while to give it time to recover, before releasing it in shallow water. Don’t worry if it doesn’t swim off straight away – it will do so in its own good time when ready.