Many people who see a big conger for the first time can’t believe that it’s a fish. The brown-grey, elongated, scaleless body is a curious sight, impressive in its sheer muscular power. The serpent-like head, large eyes, pointed mouth (lined with rows of small, triangular teeth) and lack of pelvic fins also don’t help the conger look like a fish. Doubts aside – despite its deceptive appearance, the conger is a unique migratory fish.
Conger were once widespread all round the British Isles coastline. In the 1990s they are found mainly around the south and west coasts, in the Irish Sea and along the west of Ireland. Limestone reefs and rocky bottoms which contain many cracks and crevices offer ideal hideouts for them to set up home. Some wrecks and debris such as pipes also provide excellent shelter. In fact, wrecks attract many other species of fish and supply the conger with food in addition to shelter.
Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic (between the Azores Islands and the Bahamas). On the way its bones lose their calcium and become very soft; its stomach shrinks; and it stops feeding. A female conger sheds up to eight million eggs in depths up to 13,000ft (4000m).
The eggs develop into leaf-shaped larvae which drift in the surface layer of the sea and feed on plankton. The North Atlantic Drift distributes the larvae randomly. As their bodies continue to lengthen, they begin to resemble their parents and establish lairs until it’s their turn to begin the journey to the Sargasso Sea.
Conger are remarkably adaptable fish; they can survive (and even thrive) in depths from 10ft (3m) to 13,000ft (4000m).
The dream fish
Many anglers dream of catching a large conger from a wreck. Fighting against this muscular giant is a formidable task – the fish undulates and swims backwards as you reel it in. And be careful when handling one because it has been known to bite!
Legering mackerel on heavy tackle is perhaps one of the most popular and effective ways of catching a big conger.
Octopus, squid, crabs, rockling, pollack and flatfish are the conger’s main prey. But it isn’t selective about its food – it scavenges, robs lobster pots, lies in wait to ambush unwary prey and chases shoals of fish in the open.
In shallow waters a conger often hides in its lair or crevice during the day. Under the blanket of night it searches for food along the bottom, usually in slack water. The conger tries to avoid strong tides becauses it’s harder for the eel to swim. In deep water where light doesn’t penetrate it comes and goes without waiting for the cover of night.
All fish living in shallow water are at risk from sudden temperature changes. Prolonged severely cold weather can kill a conger. Many dead eels have been found along beaches after a bitterly cold spell.
The conger has a unique and complicated spawning process. The fish migrates to the