Hook one and it comes to the surface worrying the trace in its dog-like mouth and barking to rid itself of air. It could be 15ft long and might live for six hours in the well of the boat.
Research into the life cycle of the conger eel (Conger conger) has not been as thorough as that for other species. Only detailed research into sea species that are commercially useful has been carried out, and much of what has been written about the conger has yet to be proved. It does appear, though, that the conger eels seen in British coastal waters and caught by anglers are not in fact fully mature in spite of their large size. The British rod-caught record stands at 109lb 6oz, caught off Plymouth in 1976, but many larger fish have been recorded by British fishermen. There is evidence from deeper waters that the conger grows very much larger than was previously believed. In 1972 a fish of 220lb was taken in a trawl net off Denmark.
The conger is born in the ocean depths—spawning can take place as deep as 1,000 fathoms. Although it can only spawn once it is tremen-dously prolific, producing as many as 15 million eggs. These eggs are bathypelagic: they float freely in the sea at a great depth, and are carried on the slow-moving currents of the North Atlantic Drift towards the Continental Shelf. The larvae can take more than two years to reach the shallow coastal waters, and during that time they change, first to look like a narrow-headed leaf (lep-tocephalus), which is completely transparent and grows to a length of about 5in, and then to the familiar cylindrical eel shape. These structural body changes are common in many fish species.
No mistaking the conger The conger is first observed in British waters in the familiar eel shape and is sometimes mistaken for the common eel, but the differences are easy to spot. The dorsal fin on the conger starts level with its pectoral fins, that of the common eel starts much farther back along the body. The conger has scaleless skin and the upper jaw is longer than the lower one. The teeth are more pro- nounced in the conger and small congers stay mainly inshore and have a very fast growth rate. There is a well-authenticated case of a 3lb conger placed in Southport Aquarium and growing to 69lb in four years, and of another which reached 90lb in five and half years.
These smaller eels are voracious feeders, living on fish, lobsters, crabs and cuttlefish. They are not solitary fish, and tend to feed in groups. In the Bay of Biscay they have been observed hunting in packs when feeding on the octopus. When an octopus is found the group of con-gers will attack it and grip each of the octopus’s tentacles in their powerful jaws. The conger then spin backwards to dismember the octopus and consume the remains.
The conger is found off the coasts from the southern parts of Scan-dinavia to as far south as eastern Equatorial Africa, and the whole of the Mediterranean. Similar species can also be found on the Atlantic coast of America, the South Atlantic and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. As they grow in size, the majority retreat to deeper water, but many large fish live in convenient caves or holes close to a good food supply. Many harbours and fish quays have congers living close at hand, and some of them can grow very large indeed. Many of the very large shore-caught conger have come from such places, one of the most notable being taken by Albert Lander at Torquay in 1967. This fish, which weighed 67lb 1oz, lived among some large pipes that had been lost overboard from a barge.
In other areas the conger retreats to deeper water during the day and moves inshore at night to feed. These fish are very susceptible to changes in water temperature, and a sudden very cold spell can kill them. Generally, during the colder weather, they retreat to the depths where the variation in temperature is very small.
Male conger do not grow as large as females, and although most standard reference books state that the male fish seldom exceeds 15 lb, male fish have been caught weighing up to 35lb. The concensus of opinion seems to be that the male conger becomes sexually mature in about five years, but the female may take nearly ten years to develop. It would appear that the eggs need nearly a year to develop before they are fully ripe, and by this time the adults will have migrated to the spawning grounds, travelling and spawning in midwater, not on the bottom.
As the eels approach sexual maturity, they cease to eat, their jaws waste away, their teeth fall out and their bones decalcify and become soft. These physical changes are irreversible, and lead to the death of the adult eels soon after their first, and only, spawning.
Where do conger spawn?
Unlike the common eel (Anguilla anguilla) there is no set time for the conger to migrate to their spawning grounds, but it is during the summer months, and although spawning does take place in the Sargasso Sea region, the areas are never the same. It is known that the conger has more than one spawning area.
Large fish which are found inshore have already been mentioned, but the majority of big conger inhabit the deep water reefs and wrecks, and appear to be most prolific in the waters of the south and west coasts of this country. Certainly far more large congers are regularly caught from these areas than from anywhere else, but there is little reason to suppose that if the wrecks all around Britain’s coast were fished equally large congers would not be found.
The deep-water wrecks where the largest congers are found lie mostly on a seabed of mud or sand and give the appearance of large reefs rising from a featureless plain. The tidal currents run up channel, slacken off and then run down channel. During the tidal run many fish seek the shelter afforded by the wreckage. When the tide is at its strongest the conger bites are few, but as the tide slackens, fish begin to move around the wreck, and the congers emerge from their shelter and begin to feed.
The size of these fish is completely dependent on how much food is available, and the wrecks along the coasts of the West Country are larders for the conger. Opinions vary as to just how often the larger fish do feed, but when wreck conger do start to feed they are very voracious and will take nearly any offering that is presented to them. Even when hooked and broken free from a line, they may take another bait within a few minutes.
The tackle used by the conger fisherman has to be adequate to cope with a very large and strong fish, but need not be of the ‘broomstick’ pattern. Many excellent conger have been caught on light tackle—what is needed is well-balanced equipment and the patience to play the fish out thoroughly. A large conger can be winched to the surface before it has realized what is happening. Such a fish, full of fight on the surface of the water, is not a pleasant sight, especially to the person who has to gaff the fish and heave it on board. Large congers thrashing about in a boat are very distracting and there are many theories as to the best way to quiet them. A heavy blow just above the vent can stun the fish, and a knife driven into the skull between the eyes can kill it, but it is not always possible to get the fish into a suitable position to do either of these things. A heavy blow may miss the fish and do damage to tackle or to the floor boards of the boat. It seems that the best thing to do is either to transfer the fish to a box where it can remain unmolested or to throw a large sack or covering over the fish, when it will lie quietly.
Where conger feed
Although the conger is generally regarded as a bottom-living fish, feeding mainly on the seabed, this is not always true. There have been in-stances of conger being taken on baits fished in mid-water, and it is not uncommon to see a conger swimming on the surface in rocky inlets. The conger has its own method of avoiding the ‘bends’, the crippling result of the sudden change in water pressure that kills the majority of deep-water fish. As the conger rises to the surface it will belch, releasing gas from its stomach and equalizing itself with the water pressure as it rises. The bubbles resulting from this action are often seen on the surface when a conger is hooked. This is one of the reasons why a conger can be so full of fight on the surface, whereas other species, such as the ling or pollack, are not.