Conger demand respect. Tenacious of life, many are as dangerous after a couple of hours out of the water as when fighting the angler, as is borne out by the number of commercial and sporting fishermen who have been injured handling fish they thought to be dead.
Even when thought safe in the bottom of a boat, congers will try to escape, and I have seen three fish – the biggest being 42 lb – fling themselves back over the gunwale.
The largest authenticated conger ever caught weighed 250 lb and was captured in a trawl off the Westman Islands near Iceland. It is probable, however, that some fish grow to as much as 350 lb. So the angler has few fiercer adversaries.
Specimen conger weighing over 50 lb are commonly found in wrecks, and on rocky ground. Both types of mark produce heavy fish, although most specimens are taken from wrecks. In the period 1966-72, many thousands of large eels were caught by anglers fishing off Brixham, Plymouth and, to a lesser extent, near Mevagissey.
The latter port was developed as a wreck fishing centre after 1971, and although excellent fish have been taken, its full potential for congering has yet to be exploited. Older marks include the dozens of wrecks lying under 40 fathoms of water in Lyme Bay off the Dorset coast, which continue to produce outstanding fish.
Wrecking for conger
Wrecking for specimen conger is a rough game and there is no room for inferior tackle. The slightest weakness in any part of your equipment, from the rod to the hook, will be exploited – and not only by fish weighing over 50 lb!
Ferruled rods are quite unsuitable for congering, as the metal spoils the action of the rod and represents a weak spot.
Nevertheless, it is unnecessary to use a rod over the IGFA 50 lb class, even though many manufacturers and retailers often describe rods in the ‘80 lb-to-unlimited’ class as perfect for conger.
A two-piece, hollow glass or car-bonfibre rod, 6-7ft long, and with the glassfibre running right down inside the butt rather than incorporating a removable butt, is ideal. It should have a fast taper, against which large fish can be played to a standstill, and lifting power in the butt section is of paramount impor- tance for getting the eel away from the bottom and tangled wreckage before it can find purchase with its tail. If it manages to attach itself securely, the sheer strength of its muscles will defeat the strength you pit against it.
Depending on the locality, conger of 50 lb to 20 lb are considered specimens while boat fishing, and 25 lb to 10 lb from the shore
Tackle, Bait, Techniques Rod 6£-7ft hollow glass or carbon-fibre, no ferrules
Multipliers, 40 to 60 Line b.s. 30 lb-60 lb Wire trace, short Hooks
Sea Master 80-120 offset barbs
Mackerel Squid Red bream
Ledger, running trace am
Your reel must be matched to your rod. Most conger experts use a 40 or 60 multiplier, but a few diehards still stick to a heavy-duty centrepin with a slipping clutch. The 40 multiplier is best with a 30 lb rod, the 60 with a 50 lb.
Penn Senator reels have proved their worth and, at an estimate, 75 per cent of conger men use them. The secret of their success lies in their clutch mechanism, which is extremely tough and very smooth. One of the author’s – a 60 – has been in constant use for 15 years and has winched up hundreds of big conger. Apart from regular oiling, it has required no maintenance. Penn International reels, which feature a lever drag, have come into use, but they are very expensive when compared with Senators.
The Tatler range of reels, produced by Grice and Young, have also acquitted themselves well, and must be second choice after the Penn Senator for the conger specialist. Tatler 4 and 5 are the appropriate sizes, both are rugged and have substantial winch handles that im-part confidence when you are pumping a big fish up to the surface.
Reels for use with 50 lb outfits should be fitted with rod clamps to prevent them moving when the pressure is on. It is also important that the rod’s top grip should be of the right thickness to suit your hand. There is nothing worse than getting hand cramp when you are trying to play a big fish.
Which lines to choose? Most wreck congering is done in water between 30 and 42 fathoms deep; therefore the minimum amount of water resistance on the reel line is essential. Until fairly recently nylon monofilament of 50-60 lb b.s. Was usual, but wire line is used more frequently. With its small diameter, even in high breaking strains, it offers minimal resistance to tidal flow, allowing the use of small leads.
But avoid braided lines, particularly in fast tide runs. They hold a tremendous amount of water and belly out, so making the detection of bites almost impossible.
If you use wire line, your rod rings must be capable of standing up to its cutting edge. Rollers were one way of coping with this problem, but now technology has produced rings of diamond-polished aluminium oxide which are completely unaffected by the cutting edge of wire.
Conger traces are usually made from tough wire to withstand the fish’s powerful jaws and sharp teeth. The ideal trace is quite short, not more than 12in, and should be connected to a stout 100 or 120 hook with an offset barb – Mustad’s ‘Sea Master’ range of hooks with forged eyes are a popular choice – with 50 crimps. Brass crimps are neater and stronger than knots and you can purchase a crimping outfit containing all the necessary equipment to fix them yourself.
A growing trend is to make conger traces from heavy-duty commercial nylon instead of wire, as this considerably speeds up trace making. Nevertheless, while many outsize conger, including a 102 lb 8oz specimen, have been caught on nylon, it is in my opinion an unnecessary risk when wreck fishing. But a nylon trace, breaking at around 150 lb, is ideal for rough ground elsewhere.
Conger are normally found on the bottom, and the trace is fished as a running ledger. The weight, up to lib, depending on the run of tide, can be attached to the reel line with an expensive single boom, but a small swivel is just as good. Attach the weight to the boom or swivel by a ‘rotten bottom’ of light nylon, which will break easily should a snag occur, and save losing costly traces.
Mackerel and squid catch the majority of conger, but almost any fishbait will serve. Many record fish in recent years have been taken on red bream, and wherever red bream live in profusion – over the Long-ships Reef, for instance – they are taken readily.
The use of fillets encourages unwanted medium-weight conger and hordes of ling, and should be avoided by the specimen hunter. A whole mackerel, or red bream weighing about a pound, mounted with the aid of a baiting needle, is a perfect bait. Mackerel are taken into a conger’s mouth headfirst, so the hook should rest in the head. Really large mackerel can be sliced diagonally in half and hooked either through the head or the tail.
Mackerel as soft bait Since eels are also partial to soft bait, mackerel with the backbone removed will be taken greedily. To prepare these, remove the head, cut upwards to within an inch of the tail, keeping the knife close to the backbone, turn the fish over, repeat the cut on the opposite site, and then simply separate the bone from the fillets. The tail keeps the fillets in position and makes a firm hold for the hook, while, on a flowing trace, the bait moves flexibly.
Experts can identify the bite of a conger, even at a depth of 40 fathoms. It seldom engulfs the bait first time, although this can happen during rare periods of feeding frenzy. IThe largest fish are often the shyest feeders, and will mouth a bait for some time, getting the feel of it. It is thus sound policy to do nothing for half a minute. When further knocks are felt through the rod, slack line should be very slowly wound in until the weight of the fish comes on to the rod and it is certainly hooked.
If the eel has swallowed the bait well down, it will back away, and within the next five seconds the fight can be won or lost. If it is to be won, maximum effort must be put into pumping the conger away from the bottom.
Raising a conger
The element of surprise is a tremendous help to the angler, as it takes a few seconds for a fish to begin to fight back. If it is pumped away from the bottom during this time, you stand a better chance of bringing the fish in safely.
Once the fish is in clear water, the clutch can be slacked away and line given under as much tension as it can stand, to tire the fish. If it weighs around 50 lb, three good dives can be expected, while conger of 70-80 lb have the strength to make a dozen bids for freedom.
When raising a fish, use your slipping clutch to the full. It is folly to try to bring the fight to an early conclusion, and you must be prepared to give line through the reel’s clutch at the maximum strain it can stand. If fish are too strong when they reach the surface they are very difficult to gaff and bring aboard.
Heavyweight conger fishing should not be attempted without the aid of a butt pad, which protects the stomach and groin from injury. It also provides a solid platform for the butt end and, without it, pumping the fish is quite impossible. Many anglers dislike the tightness of a single belt, and prefer the belly cup to be incorporated into a shoulder harness. With this, you can also clip the reel to the harness, which allows a lot of the strain to be distributed across your back and shoulders.
Gaffing a conger
There is no doubt that the easiest moment to lose the fish of a lifetime is when gaffing. It is also as well to remember that when dealing with eels in the 80 lb to 100 lb class, a skipper is risking serious injury, and thus his intructions should be obeyed instantly.
Avoid the temptation of trying to see the fish as soon as it reaches the surface. Instead, back away from the gunwale, leaving plenty of room for gaffing. It is vital for the angler to be alert to the skipper’s commands and instantly throw the reel out of gear as soon as the gaff makes contact. If slack line is not available, it impedes the skipper bringing the fish over the gunwale, and should the conger writhe free of the hook it could result in a broken gaff.
If the trace is connected to the reel line with a light swivel, the trace can be detached and left in the captured conger’s mouth. Charter skippers use specially made stainless steel disgorgers, and have the knack of employing the fish’s weight to remove the hook cleanly in seconds, so if you are in the least inexperienced, leave well alone and let the skipper do it.
My favourite boat fishing mark is Longships Reef, one and a quarter miles west of Land’s End and three miles north west of Tol Pedn Pen-with (Gwennap Head). In perfect weather it is an angler’s paradise, not only for conger, but also for pollack and coalfish. But it takes only a moderate breeze from the south or west to turn it into a maelstrom of white water.
From the main rock, the reef extends half a mile to the south east and to the north east, with pinnacles above and below the water. Between Kettle Bottom (a rocky ledge about 40 yards east of the Carn Bras Lighthouse) and rocks lining the shore at Land’s End, there is a channel roughly 800 yards wide with 9-13 fathoms of water. In the middle of this is the Fillis pinnacle, a steep rock showing 7ft above the surface. Another prominent rock is the Shark’s Fin, lying two-thirds of a mile to the north east of Carn Bras. This has steep sides falling away into reasonable depth and rises 16ft clear of the water.
The maze of underwater canyons around the reef is the home of large numbers of conger. Good fish can be taken from all over the reef, but I have found that the two best spots are the rough ground around the main Carn Bras rock and another spot 400 yards to the south east where the bottom drops away sharply into much deeper waters.
Longliners who work Longships regularly take fish of 70 lb and more.
But anglers have never really been able to exploit its true fishing potential, because of the dangers of night fishing in treacherous waters.
The main step-off point for fishing Longships is Sennen Cove, just over two miles to the east. While no charter boats, as such, are available, it is possible to hire the services of a local fisherman when one is on the spot. Alternatively, fully licensed charter boats operate from Penzance, the journey out to the Longships taking about an hour.
A moderate tidal run can be ex-pected during neap tides and 3-4 knots on spring tides, but best fishing occurs in slack water bet-ween tides. It is high water on the Longships Reef at +0050 Dover, venture out of their lairs to feed in daylight, although I have seen a 50-pounder come out of its hole in bright sunlight at low water to take a bait. Some people advocate groundbaiting to bring them out, but I have found that this is just a waste of time. It is simply washed away before it can be effective.
Groundbait can however be stuffed into a weighted can, which is then thrown out as a point of attraction that will last several hours. It should be pierced several times to let the oil and fish particles flow out.
During the winter, conger remain close inshore, so that is the time to fish for them from beaches. When the temperature stays low for a long time, the fish are reduced to a com-atose state and do not feed. In the prolonged winter of 1973, many thousands of large and small eels were killed by the extreme cold and washed up on the shore.
In An appropriate rod for shore a anglers fishing from piers or harbour in walls is an lift beachcaster. The ke smallest of multiplier reels is te suitable, although the narrow and it, not the wide-spool type is needed.
A Fixed-spool reels are a mistake for ed this kind of angling. ff- Hook sizes m Hook sizes should be 80, 90 or 100 )n to a short trace. While the boat It angler will do well with deadbaits, et the shore man can enjoy better sport by offering a livebait such as small in pollack or pouting hooked through to the tail. When offering a livebait, 3n you cannot afford to wait as long lg before striking as you would when n- boat fishing a deadbait. The conger lie will take the live fish head first, vy often without hesitation. So you :1s should strike quickly when the rod tip gives a series of distinct, quick ‘knocks’. If you do not, you may only succeed in feeding the conger the bait fish, retrieving just the hook and the vestiges of a tail. Pump strongly as soon as the fish is hooked, to get it away from the bottom. Conger are not averse to brackish water and big populations inhabit tidal rivers with muddy bottoms such as Devon’s River Fowey, where they are commonly found lying under bank edges.
When Robin Potter caught his record 109 lb 6oz conger from a popular mark off Plymouth in 1976, it was the last of a succession of records set in the early 1970s. This spate probably resulted from heavy fishing, which removed many medium-weight conger and thousands of ling from the wrecks. With less competition from bait robbers there is more time for the larger, slower-moving eels to take bait. Therefore, continued heavy fishing promises nothing but good for the conger specimen hunters.