In October 1990, Chris Martin took seven anglers from Guildford Deepsea AC some 45 miles out from Newhaven in Sussex to an unmarked, virgin wreck. They returned with a conger weighing 96lb 3oz (44.4kg), a new port record – and two anglers had their rods smashed by even bigger eels! Today the Nikaria is going back to the same wreck…
The sea is calm and there’s understandable excitement in the warm July morning air. But there’s no rush, and Chris, Norman, Norman’s brothers-in-law Bob Edwards and Tony Kirrage, and friend Kevin Cordery enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the harbourside Sheffield Arms hotel. As you would expect, the talk is of big congers. Norman has had them to 64lb (29kg), but he’s hoping to catch a new personal best today. Even if he doesn’t, there should be plenty of smaller eels. ‘It’s a snot-box down there,’ explains Tony. Chris agrees: ‘When we broke the port record, we returned loads under 30lb.’ All congers over about 25lb (11.3kg) are sterile females, according to Chris. Males are smaller anyway, while fertile females die when they breed off the Azores. Most really big congers come from off the West Country or the Beachy Head to Rye area. The reason is that the slacker the water, the heavier they grow, because the less energy they expend. In the Isle of Wight area, the tide is stronger, and the congers smaller.
After fuelling and loading up with boxes of cuttlefish and mackerel (in case not enough fresh ones are caught), the Nikaria heads out into the haze. A mile or so offshore, everyone sets to work feathering for mackerel. ‘They’re right under the boat,’ says Chris, watching the screen in his cabin. ‘Now they’re down deep.’
There’s much frantic winding and lowering to keep up but eventually Kevin makes contact with the shoal and swings in three thrashing, live-wire mackerel.
What happened to the sun and calm sea? The farther out the Nikaria goes, the cloudier the sky and the choppier the water, and now it’s raining steadily. Everyone is below deck, huddled over steaming mugs of tea. Norman blames Bob for putting sun tan lotion on before leaving harbour!
The Nikaria reaches the wreck just as it stops raining. ‘We timed that right!’ grins Norman. The tide is still flooding, so the four anglers drift with pirks for pollack. The screen shows fish over the wreck, but no-one catches. The pirks are swapped for artificial eels – still nothing. ‘If we don’t catch today you’ll have to call this The Brothers-in-Law Grimm!’ jokes Bob.
The tide has slackened enough for Chris to drop anchor. But first he marks the wreck with a large weight on one end of a rope and a series of dahn buoys on the other. The buoys line up over the wreck, showing you the direction of the tide. The number of buoys submerged, meanwhile, tells you the strength of the tide. So guided, a skipper can judge exactly where to drop anchor – at least, a skilful one can.
This is what sets Chris apart from so many skippers, reckons Norman. Many just anchor directly over a wreck regardless. Anglers then lose rig after rig and conger after conger in the wreckage and strong tide run. But by anchoring in just the right spot uptide, you can fish where there’s little wreckage and where there’s a buffer of slacker water created by the deflection of the tide down the sides of the wreck. You then rely on the scent trail of your baits drawing congers out.
Kevin and Bob do their best to add to the store of fresh mackerel while Norman, Tony and Chris prepare cuttlefish and flapper baits. The drifting gear is put aside and everyone starts fishing for congers.
It’s almost high tide and there’s no sign of any congers yet. Pouting are a nuisance, rattling rod tips and stripping baits. ‘I don’t believe this,’ says Tony. ‘We must have a Jonah on board. We’ll throw him over the side if we find out who it is!’
Norman is using cuttle guts, Tony mackerel flapper, Bob cuttle flapper, and Kevin a whole pouting caught on a feather baited with mackerel strip. Surely one of these baits is on the congers’ menu today? ‘They’re as scarce as marlin today, eh Kevin?’ teases Norman, referring to a trip they made to Mauritius earlier in the year, when everyone except Kevin caught marlin.
The tide starts to ebb, and Chris repositions the Nikaria. The four anglers fish with renewed keenness, willing a change of fortune. Bob thinks he might have a bite, but nothing comes of it. ‘Secret wind in to check there, Bob!’ ribs Tony.
Suddenly everyone’s watching Norman’s rod tip intently. It nods almost imperceptibly, then again. Each time a little line is taken. No-one dares breathe as the bite develops. Finally, confident the fish has the bait well inside its mouth, Norman engages the reel and slams home the hook. ‘That’s a conger. Definitely,’ says Tony
Pumping and winding, Norman gradually gets the upper hand. Eventually the conger surfaces some way out from the boat, spiralling in the waves like the sign outside a barber’s shop. It struggles to swim backwards, but its efforts to get back to the safety of the wreck are in vain, and Chris expertly chin-gaffs it first time.
Back in port, the conger is weighed in at 52lb (23.6kg) – a splendid specimen, but everyone’s disappointed it was the only eel caught. However, being experienced anglers, they accept it philosophically.
Chris thinks the congers didn’t feed today because the air pressure was too low —1007 millibars, according to the barometer in his cabin. His records show the best catches are taken when the pressure is 1015-1025 millibars. Any higher or lower, and the plankton drops in the water to form a thick band near the bottom. The fish rise above the band and go off the feed.
This could explain that well-known old saying, ‘when the wind’s in the east, the fish bite least’, as very low or high pressure does tend to mean an easterly. (Of course, Sod’s Law had it that when Chris took another party out the very next day, to another wreck, they enjoyed fine weather – the air pressure was 1017 millibars – and caught some forty congers, topped by a giant of 92lb (41.7kg) – and that’s no fisherman’s tale!)