Snake charming with Moulton and Jordan

3 Debdale Wharf on the Grand Union Canal in Leicestershire

Some folk can’t see the attraction of big eels – writhing, twisting, slimy things that aren’t proper fish. But they’ve obviously never actually seen one close up — because when you do you can’t fail to be impressed by this lean bar of solid muscle.

Andy Jordan and Steve Moulton (youngest of the Moulton clan of Loughborough specimen hunters) have no such problems with big eels. One of their favourite pastimes is to spend dawn or dusk down at Debdale Wharf on the Grand Union Canal in Leicestershire after the big snakes. This season they’ve had them to well over 5lb (2.3kg), and this from a stretch that isn’t supposed to hold any!

You can fish at night with a season ticket and permission from the chairman of Wigston AS, but Steve and Andy don’t fish it often enough to get a season. However, they’ve had many fish at dawn and dusk, so who needs to night fish? And in early July the night doesn’t last long anyway.

The plan is for Andy and Steve to fish till an hou • after sunset. If the eels don’t cooperate, then plan B is to return for another session just before dawn, after a short kip.

They opt for two swims on either side of the first bend, half a mile south of Debdale Wharf. The canal is about 8m (26ft) wide, 60cm (2ft) deep on the near and far side shelves, and some 1.5m (5ft) in the central channel. So to fool wily snakes you can’t afford to pound up and down the bank once yo iVe set up. If you’re a restless angler, don’t fish for specimens at short range.

The far bank is a mass of features. Reed e A weed beds, overhanging trees and V ashes line the edge of the canal. Because of this, selecting a swim couldn’t be easier. Find a spot you fancy and set up there. Andy’s chosen a reedy swim, while Steve has a jungle overhanging the far bank.

With darkness falling in about three and a half hours, both set up quietly and efficiently. Steve decides to fish a freelined lobworm on one rod with half a gudgeon on a running leger on the other. Andy, on the other hand, hasn’t had any luck with fish baits at this venue so he sticks to two free-lined lobworm baits.

But no matter which bait and how presented, it’s essential to avoid resistance. Big eels are incredibly sensitive and spit out anything that feels funny – that’s why free-lining is often the best method close in.

Andy casts one worm into the central channel about 15m (50ft) to his left and the other across on the far shelf, tight against the reeds. Along the canal, Steve does the same, with the half gudgeon about 25m (80ft) away. Rods point straight at the baits — minimizing resistance to the run.

With everything ready, peace returns to the towpath. The sun dips towards the tops of the trees and the birds yammer away, presumably telling each other that it’s about to get dark. Steve warms to his theme. ‘You don’t want tip-action rods for this sort of work,’ he says. ‘There’s no need to cast a long way, and a soft action helps to absorb the struggling of a big eel.’

Despite the difficulties involved with leaving a swim (after all, the idea is to set up and then avoid all movement until you strike into that wriggling freshwater serpent) it’s time to check up on Andy.

Just round the curve in the canal he’s netting something. Could it be…? ‘Only a bream, I’m afraid,’ he says as he slips back the 2lb (0.9kg) fish. After he’s cast in, it’s back to the resistance-free theme. ‘It’s not just your rig —your bite detection has got to be free-running too.’

He gently tightens to the bunch of worms, checks the line is okay through the bite alarms, takes off the bail arm and clips the line to a light bobbin. The bobbin’s just to stop line from springing off the spool, especially if there’s wind or drag.

Andy also puts a fold of tinfoil over his line between the bite indicator and the next rod ring. The sound of the line rustling through the foil tells Andy how fast the fish is running, and perhaps whether it is in fact an eel. He prefers this to trying to guess how fast the run is from a continuous stream of bleeps from the alarm.

Darkness begins to fall. Out of the blue, a scream rends the evening tranquillity. Andy has got another run. Line rustles through the silver paper at a rate of knots. ‘See that run? That’s an eel, that is,’ says Andy, smiling. He doesn’t wait long. A few seconds later he grabs the rod and tightens into the fish. At such short range he makes quick work of it.

It’s an eel, but it’s not much more than a pound (0.45kg). Andy slips it back without even weighing it and settles down to wait for more. But that’s it for the evening. Steve has fared no better. He too had a small bream, and he lost what he thinks was probably a carp, but no eels.

Well, one small snake hardly counts as a result, and both Steve and Andy are disappointed. So it’s time to kiss dreams of a good night’s sleep goodbye – it’s time for plan B -the dawn raid.

After a couple of hours doze, it doesn’t seem quite such a good idea, but Steve and Andy are raring to go. It’s still absolutely dark when we arrive, but if you wait until it gets light, you’ve missed the best of the eeling.

Setting up in the pitch blackness isn’t that easy, and the conditions are doing their best to make it harder — the wind has got up and it’s raining. But Andy and Steve have obviously done this before and within a few minutes, the baits are in the water. ‘Although the weather has turned nasty, the clouds might help,’ says Steve hopefully. ‘It’s a bit cold, but eels prefer overcast conditions to clear ones.’ This proves to be prophetic. Not ten minutes later an eel screams off with his lobworm bait. He’s up right away and striking into it.

After a short tussle, an eel of around lVJlb (0.7kg) languishes in the bottom of the net. After he’s unhooked and returned it, Steve recasts and replaces his deadbait witli another freelined worm. ‘Worm’s usually the killer here, I just thought I’d give a fish-bait a try, but now I’m going back to worm.’

It’s still dark, but the first glimmerings of the predawn aren’t far off. Steve’s still confident though. Despite the rain which is really quite unpleasant now, he sits ready for action.

Just as well really, because barely 20 minutes after the last run, something else picks up his lobworm bait. Again he hits the fish early, and his rod tip thumps to a fish. ‘This is a better eel,’ he says, once he’s got the measure of it. ‘It’s not a monster, but it’s definitely bigger than the last one.’

It takes longer to bring it to book, but a few minutes later a snake writhes and twists in the water at Steve’s feet. There follows a demonstration of why a big net is vital for eeling. As the world’s foremost Houdinis, they make a speciality of avoiding the landing net at the last moment. You might think that the blighter is well and truly trapped. But lo! It has somehow managed to get the merest tip of its tail on the rim and sproing! It’s back in the water.

If your net’s smaller than 105cm (42in), and you’re a little less adept at bagging the twisted, scheming swine than Steve, it can take quite a few attempts. However, the youngest Moulton manages to make it look easy. Well almost easy anyway. It weighs 2lb 8oz (I.lkg). This is much more like it, but how’s Andy been getting on? ‘It looks as though I’m going to let you down,’ he says forlornly. The sky is beginning to lighten. ‘I’ve got about half an hour to come good.’ The news of Steve’s fish cheers him a bit, but it’s not the same as catching one yourself. Despite the lack of action, he’s still poised, ready for a fish. There’s no point setting your stall out for a specimen if you’ve stopped concentrating by the time you get a run.

Patience is a virtue, and eels are the best rewr -d. Andy’s just thinking about packing up v, I the buzzer on the bait under the far bo k goes wild. Andy strikes and smiles. It’s nojfc the five he was hoping for, but it puts his nji d at rest.

At 1 lb 13oz (1.3kg) it’s more than good enouc.:. Andy packs up his kit. By the time the ? im has recovered from the distur-banc it would be too light for a chance of another. We move back to Steve’s swim. He too ia -hinking of packing up and escaping the n. erable weather.

He brings in his first bait and puts it away. Allowed by the rest of his bits and pieces. Then there’s one of those runs you alwayp pray for but never believe will happen- Tie last gasp fish. Something picks up the b.dt and moves off up the canal. Steve strike and looks puzzled as he feels the weigl of the fish. ‘If this is an eel, it must be a monster,’ he grunts. The rod bends to the corks as Steve attempts to bring the fish to heel. As it nears the net, the excitement builds. Is it the fairy tale ending?

The sigh of disappointment that greets an 7lb (3.2kg) carp is almost too much. If only… Ah well, it’s another fish, and Steve treats it with respect. So nearly the perfect ending… but not quite. Still, the eels will be there next summer, and so will Steve and Andy. And who knows…?