Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Eels - Handling and Conservation

It's been very quiet on the eel fishing front over the last couple of weeks. I've caught tench and bream along the way but no more eels. It doesn't surprise me too much as the moon has been in it's full phase and the nights have been very lit up. I always found that eels prefer the dark, warm, muggy nights, as do catfish.

I also managed to catch this when I saw it in the margins (albeit in a net. :-) ).... a perfect predator in miniature..

I'm still fishing my way around the lake and with the nights getting darker I'm hoping the better conditions bring a fish or two but yesterday evening was a complete bust despite good conditions.

In the absence of anything happening I thought I'd write down a few things so here goes:-

So, you've decided on tackle, bait, rigs and everything else you can think of and your bail arms are open, you have a sensitive indicator set-up, and you're fishing. Eel takes can differ but quite often they go off on a steady run, assuming there is no large or change in resistance. After watching how my pet eels behaved after taking food I think they move away from where they picked up the bait to stop other eels from stealing it.. pure speculation of course but it seemed that way to my juvenile brain after spending hours and hours watching them.

Exactly like the outdated view of leaving a pike to run with the bait before striking, eels suffer badly from the same practice and the need to leave the run is complete nonsense. It is very important that a run isn't allowed to develop, or worse still wait until the run stops then starts again, as that is when deep hooking occurs. When you get an indication of a take and a run develops just calmly close the bail arm, wind down fast and lean heavily into the fish when you feel the weight.

A tactic used by some eel anglers to reduce deep hooking is to affix an inch long or so piece of tubing near the hook eye so it sits at 90° to the hook shank. It looks a bit like a cross but the theory is that as the eel tries to swallow the bait the "T" formed by the tubing jams in the corners of the mouth, and so stops it from going any further. I've never tried it to be honest as I've never had a problem when striking immediately. If in doubt whether a full blown take is occurring then it must be investigated, as in all predator fishing... they don't all run off.

You've now had a take, hit it and you feel the typical side to side headshaking of an eel. Fish on! Eels can swim backwards, which I believe makes them the only fish in the UK, apart from wels catfish, capable of doing so, but they can also move very fast and can be very powerful. I've had fights with eels where they have come to the top and shot across the surface at incredible speed, like a turbo charged snake... very impressive, if slightly unnerving. :-)

If they do stay deep then try not to give too much line... this is where the soft through actioned rods come into play as you can exert lots of pressure without ripping the hooks out. When you draw the eel to the landing net, which has been sunk almost down to the spreader block, bring the eels head right up to the spreader and keep the pressure on while you lift... if the tail isn't over the net cord they make it look easy to swim straight out, backwards.

Success! But what the hell to do with it now? This is the point where most anglers start to dislike eels immensely and if they were all small eels then I'd probably agree with them, as I don't think there's any known way to calm down a bootlace. We've all been there I'm sure.

If it is a decent size though things all change and it's relatively easy to handle them. With the eel in the net I usually cut the mainline close to the swivel as this helps if the eel does start to writhe. Lay the eel on the mat and place a wet cloth or weigh sling over its head. That should start to calm it down but if it's still active there is a neat trick that can be used. Wet your hands and gently stroke the eel along the flank and belly, and it will go into a state of tonic immobility, similar to how sharks react when turned on their back and/or their snouts stroked. I think it may be related to sensory overload but whatever it is, it works, and the eel will lay there pretty much motionless and allow you to unhook it and handle with ease. If e eel is still writhing, then place it on it's back, cover it's head and stroke it again. Turning them on their backs and stroking them always calms them down but it is important not to leave the eel on it's back for very long as it will lay there and die. The thing that wakes them up is gripping the fish... if you grip the fish hard it will fight you, if you treat it gently it will keep calm. It's a defence mechanism and years ago I witnessed a heron grab an eel from the margins of a flooded river Avon where it wrapped itself around the birds head and neck.

Once it's calm take a look where the hook is. If it is visible then, without touching the eel if possible, take a pair of forceps or long nosed pliers and try to get it out in one go. You may have to calm the eel down again if the hook is awkward. If the hook has been swallowed then do not try and unhook it by using a disgorger or forceps as you risk killing the eel. If you cut the hooklink just outside of the mouth the eel has a good chance of getting rid of it by itself.

Again, calm the eel down if it has woken up and for weighing and photo's gently support the fish underneath without holding it.. remember, as soon as you fight it, it will fight you! Savour the release as big eels are rare creatures and to catch one is a privilege. Once it goes smoothly for you, you may view eels a little differently and have a deep respect for their lifestyle and abilities.

Well, that's pretty much it for the technical aspect and handling of eels. I'd hoped to include a few photo's on how to handle them but the lack of action recently has put a hold on that.. it's difficult when you fish on your own though so we'll see.

I'll finish with just a few facts and thoughts about eels:-

Eels can take 10 years to reach 1lb in weight and don't exceed that pace by much throughout their life. That means very big eels can be over 80 years old.

European Eel (Anguilla Anguilla) numbers have plummeted in the last 3 decades and they are classified as "Critically Endangered" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The Fisheries Byelaws require that all freshwater eels in England & Wales are to be released.. to clarify; it is illegal to kill eels.

Eels die once they have spawned in the Sargasso Sea so it is easy to see how important it is for every female eel to complete it's lifecycle in order to maintain sustainable stocks.

The good news is that eels seem to be making a comeback and the last few years has seen a good increase in elvers, or glass eels, returning to European rivers. The Eel Management Plans that were put in place across the EU have no doubt played a part, and there are a lot of good people fighting to protect the eel, but whatever the reason, as anglers we all owe it to the eel to treat it with the utmost respect and release them unharmed.

Waffled on a bit there (as usual) but there's a lot to compress into a blog. Any following eel posts will most likely be limited to tactical and strategic changes so that should keep them a bit shorter.. right then, I'm off fishing for eels again. :-)

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Contact Apologies

To those that have tried to make contact with me through the blog, I must apologise for not responding. For some reason my emails weren't being forwarded but that has now been resolved. It was probably something I did or didn't do. Once again, sincere apologies as it is nice to know that someone actually reads my ramblings. I'll be in touch.  :-)

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Rigs, Baits and a Plan

Throughout the eel posts, particularly this one, I'll tell you what I'm using and why I'm using it. This will develop as I try or learn things but I'm about 12 short sessions in so far so have a bit of backtracking to do. This may not relate to anyone else's situation, and some might have reason to disagree with what I say, but hopefully my thought processes might help decide what could suit them best and what to adapt to their own fishing. Fishing for eels is simple... catching the big ones is the hard part.

For my rods I'm using my old and trusty North Western Rodcraft 12ft, 2¼lb tc rods.. these were the first set of three rods I ever bought back in the 80's and they're still going strong. They're perfect for eels as they have a nice soft through action which helps stop the strong headshakes from pulling the hook. Although I've used braid for virtually all of my fishing for 20+ years there are a couple of situations where I prefer mono and one of those is eel fishing. This is because the stretch in mono also helps alleviate hookpulls. Some eel anglers actually use a length of powergum in their rigs for the same reason but I've never been confident in the knots I get with powergum and dismissed that a long time ago. So, I've loaded 12lb mono onto my old 4000GT's, which is plenty as I'm fishing at very short range in a water with relatively few snags.

Onto rigs; when it comes to eel fishing, in fact most fishing, I'm generally in the "keep it simple, stupid" camp. I see no reason to complicate things unless you have a specific need. Start off simple then change and adapt as you need to. In reality there are very few eel rigs per se but which cover 99% of eel fishing; The JS (John Sidley) Rig, The Uni Rig and the Dyson Rig. Personally I rarely get past the JS rig and prefer it to the Uni rig but the Dyson Rig can be a very useful to present a suspended bait or livebait. It might surprise some to know that eels can be caught well off bottom and some anglers think that it can single out the bigger fish.

When approaching a new water after eels then the first thing to do is find out whether they are crustacean or fish feeders. When eels enter a new water they soon decide what is their best food source and as a result their heads and mouths develop to suit. If they choose crustaceans, snails, grubs etc they develop a pointed head shape and a small mouth with small teeth. If they choose fish as their main diet they develop bigger and wider heads, with bigger mouths and teeth. Both types are perfectly suited to how they feed so it is important to find out which they eat. Quite a neat trick really and one which very few fish can do to the same extent. It's like evolution speeded up, which is ironic seeing how slowly the eel grows.

So with these things in mind I started off with the JS rig on both rods.. it's the simplest rig and would be ideal to use with a bunch of lobworms on one rod and a roach head on the other... the only difference being that I used 15lb Caliber Wonderwire for the fish bait as there are a few pike in the lake.

Simple really; a low resistance buoyant ledger boom on the mainline to a protector bead which covers the top swivel on the boom section, which is made from 7-10" of 20lb fluorocarbon. It doesn't need to be fluoro, amnesia is just as good, I just had a big spool of it to use and like the fact that it is heavy when compared to mono. As in the photo, this is how the rig actually sits on the bottom and the heavy FC and bottom swivel fall parallel to the buoyant stem. This boom section helps lay the rig out and keeps your hookbait close to the swimfeeder if you use one. The hooklink is 5 or 6" of 35lb Quicksilver to a size 4 ESP Raptor T6 which is a short shank, wide gape pattern with the barb squeezed flat. Baits are kept on with a small piece of rubber band. Keeping both the boom and the hooklink short is important. It enables the earliest indication of a take as the eel has less distance to move before it pulls line through the low resistance ring, and so minimises the chance of a deep hooked fish.

So, I started off and it soon became apparent that the recent revival the perch are having on this lake, after being virtually missing for 20 odd years, was going to be a problem. The deadbait rod was largely ignored but the worm rod lobbed 10m out was constantly going off in short pulls as the perch pulled at the ends of the 3 big lobworms. I caught one about 6oz and it seemed to scare the rest off but since then they have become a real pest, sometimes getting through 30-40 worms in 3 hours! I also got fed up replacing tin foil rings that ended up in the lake so thought I'd revisit my indicators.

I looked around for a 2nd hand pair of Fox swingers to convert into mini, clip-on, rear arms but after tinkering at home found that I couldn't get them to work as I'd like as I wanted to do away with any line clip. I came across the Matrix Cheeky Monkey climbers which would have been ideal except for the silly price. Only one thing for it, make my own, so with bits and bobs from my lure making kit and tackle boxes I came up with a prototype rear arm swinger and so far it seems perfect for the close range fishing I'm doing. With the Delkim sensitivity turned up it is an incredibly sensitive set-up. I've rested the end of the arm on scales and they only register 2g so are very light. The next version might have a weighted arm but I've no need for it yet as the prototypes are holding up well. The line is just laid under the bent section of the swinger arm which just falls off when it lifts up, thus totally getting rid of any "bang" as the line exits a clip.

Jump now to a couple of sessions forward. I'd been fishing roach heads with mashed fish in the feeder on one rod and lobworms with chopped lobs in the feeder on the other. One evening about an hour before dark a steady run developed on the worm rod. I wound down and struck immediately, and knew straight away that I'd hooked an eel. The wild, side to side headshakes is a dead giveaway. After a short tussle I drew the eel's head right up to the spreader block and with a quick heave the eel was in the net. I didn't weigh it but she looked 2½-3lb. Not a monster but a decent start. A quick inspection of the head showed that it was most definitely a crustacean feeder.. a very pointed snout and small mouth.

That was the first stage of the plan complete; I'd had a bite and caught an eel so what, if anything, had I learnt? I've learnt that worms are most probably the best way forward and I've learnt that the perch are a real problem so loose feeding or prebaiting are not options. I've also learnt that although I'm at a disadvantage by not fishing nights, catching them in the evenings is viable.

With any sort of baiting programme impossible I've taken to the "rifle shot" approach. This means no free bait in the swim but a concentrated attraction in the swim feeders. Both rods would now be fished on worms but as far as rigs go I doubt things will change much. I'd expect a bunch of lobworms suspended off the bottom would attract even more perch and pike so a Dyson rig is out for now. I've modified the swim feeders and blocked several of the holes and have started using a fishmeal based groundbait I put together along with dead maggots... thawed at least once and left out to make them really stink. Any used worms are chopped and added. I don't want to leave any bait in the lake as it will just attract perch etc but just use the eel's strongest sense, it's smell, to attract it to the feeder.

This standard set-up allows me to have little experiments going on, which I always try to do in all my fishing. I'd fish one feeder with a bit of groundbait but mostly dead maggots and in the other I'd use a few dead maggots and more groundbait, but adding a chopped worm liquid attractor. It'll be interesting to see if one outscores the other.. if it does, I'll change both rods to that option.

Move forward a few sessions again; I've caught a couple of tench and a tiny jack on the worms before one evening a steady run starts. I wind down and hit it and again knew it was an eel straight away. Bit bigger this one at 3½lb...

So far I've concentrated all my efforts in one corner of the lake to try and draw them to me but the perch have made that difficult. Now I know that the bait and rigs are working I'll start moving around fishing likely areas and hopefully the next eel will be a bit bigger. :-)

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

A Mini Quest for my Dream Eel

Eels! Some people love them, most people hate them, but whatever side of the fence you stand on there's no denying that freshwater eels are one of, if not the, most enigmatic and mysterious fish we have in the UK.

Apart from a few single overnighters and a bit of daytime fishing I haven't seriously eel fished since the late 80's so this local opportunity has given me a chance to review my gear and tactics and bring them up to date.

There are a lot of myths surrounding eels and many people struggle to handle them but any fish with the lifecycle like theirs deserves huge care and respect so hopefully along the way I'll be able to help people safely fish, catch and return them to carry on with their unseen life.


There's nothing special required for eel fishing; I'll start off with my current set-up which is about as light as I'd comfortably go but will mention the heavier end of eel fishing. Somewhere in between is what most people should use depending on the venue they are fishing.

Rods: I generally use 12ft, 2¼lb tc rods as most of my fishing is done at close range but for heavy duty eeling in snags, rocks etc then heavier rods upto 3lb tc are the better choice. The fighting ability of eels shouldn't be underestimated and a 4lb eel will put a serious bend in a 2¼lb tc rod. Rods should be through actioned as the headshakes of an eel will often result in a hookpull if the rod is too stiff.

Reels: any 4000 size, or bigger, reel can be used but I prefer baitrunners, purely because I find it handy when setting up the indicators. Loaded with mono - minimum 12lb, upto 20lb.

Nets, mats etc: You want a triangular landing net with a minimum of 42" arms.. any smaller and you will struggle to get the eels tail in and it will reverse out. Mats need to be long enough to comfortably lay out any eel in a straight line. For unhooking tools I'd suggest both long nosed pliers and forceps, along with hook cutters. If you really have no other option then eels are pretty good if kept in a carp sack, but as ever, not for too long and not in shallow weedy, water. Make sure there are no holes in any nets! You have been warned. ;-)

Indication: Most, if not all, eel fishing is done with open bail arms as they are prone to dropping baits if resistance is felt. Over the years I've used anything from 2p pieces on the spool, tin foil rings, bottle tops, ping pong balls, monkey climbers and rear drop arm indicators but whatever you choose they need to be very sensitive and light. I've made myself a pair of indicators specifically for the eel fishing I'm now doing and will elaborate later in the series.

Even more so than most of the UK's predators, eels can swallow a bait if the bite is not seen or left too long, resulting in deep hooking and possibly death. This is an important point when it comes to predator fishing and one which I will most likely refer to several times over the course of the eel blogs. I apologise if it offends, or more likely bores, the more experienced but if it helps anyone to safely catch and release an eel then it is juice worth squeezing in my book. All predators are a resource we need to protect and preserve.

Well, I'm off on a short evening session after the eels again now but next post will show the business end and the reasons for using it, along with some bait talk, as they are sometimes very closely related.

See ya! :-)

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

End of Season Blues

The end of the river season came to an end and the finale had been disappointing on the big fish front. I caught decent pike upto 16lb on most trips but on two of the stretches I couldn't find more than the odd fish, typically this size..

Went to a completely different area one day and had a few fish to 18lb.... in t-shirt weather!

The fish had obviously moved to their spawning areas getting ready for their yearly romp.  I'd found a group of fish on another stretch but it is easy to get to and so very popular. Getting on them was proving difficult; they were moving around the area and were only occasionally feeding. You were either on them or you weren't! To show how tightly grouped they were; one day I'd taken my Dad along bait fishing. In the morning he had a 19lb something on the first stretch but on the afternoon we went to the second stretch and found the three main consecutive swims free. My Dad chose the middle one and I started in the downstream swim... to cut a long story short he had a 6lb'er, a 12lb'er and 2 x 20's. I fished just below him then moved above him and only had one take late on, which I missed!   He's caught a few bigger pike over the years but it was his best ever day's piking.... and I'm still hearing about it on a regular basis.

Well that was the end of my river season. As I do every year once the pike have spawned I give them, and me, a rest to recover after spawning. This year I'd decided to pretty much leave the pike alone everywhere as warm water temperatures after the mild winter and the extending daylight hours meant that most pike in the lower part of the country had spawned.

I must admit, although sometimes I would like to fish a bit longer into the year on the rivers in cold years I do quite like the break. I fish long and hard on tough ground from October to March and it's quite frankly exhausting. A typical winter on the rivers for me usually includes walking at a guess about 300 miles in mud, at least one trashed landing net, a couple of twisted ankles or wrists, cuts, scrapes, bites, stings, 10 faceplants in the mud, 20+ slips on my ass, a couple of sideways slips (which really hurt your ribs), several barely controlled slides down to the waters edge and a couple of close shaves which nearly ended up with me wet, or worse. It's hard going and I welcome the rest.

So, when the rivers close and pike fishing is done for a month or two I often end up dabbling for small zander down the local canals for short evening sessions. Always the chance of a decent pike or perch as well down the cut. No monsters but a few hours on a peaceful, warm evening quietens the soul and any memories of the tough winter fade almost immediately... lure fishing therapy.

This spring has been very tough down the local canal. Numbers and size of zander and perch are way down on recent years and after having a chat with an old fella I often speak to, who lives on the canal bank, it became evident why. He told me that the section had been electro fished about a month or so ago and they, I assume the Canals & Rivers Trust, removed the zander and a handful of decent pike. He didn't know about the perch. I guess the zander were killed. Now I don't know if this is true or accurate but it would explain a lot and this section has been electro fished several times over the years. A sad state of affairs and an issue that the authorities need to seriously reconsider. Zander aren't the monsters they are made out to be by some and the numbers in canals are usually well overestimated.

With the real lack of predator fishing locally, this has left me with nothing to target but while having a couple of hours fishing recently a chap showed me a photo on his phone of an eel he'd caught when float fishing. It was a bad photo but it was a big eel. In my teenage years I used to be a member of the British Eel Anglers Club and do a lot of eel fishing locally. I even kept two I'd saved from being eaten by my neighbour in a garden pond, hand feeding them worms and baby frogs. The biggest I caught back then was 5.6lb along with several 4lb'ers. Where I was fishing at the time a 6lb eel would have been an unheard of monster but it was an unlikely ambition of mine.. although I used to dream of catching a 7lb eel on the quiet, knowing that I'd most probably never even see one.

Well, the eel this chap had caught was that big! Hard to say exactly due to the poor photo but I'd say an absolute minimum of 6lb and more likely 7lb+.. maybe even bigger! It was BIG! I've geared myself up again for eels but just for short evening sessions.. it's local to me and I don't want it to become an obsession like it can get with these enigmatic fish.

That's where I am now. I'm quite excited about fishing for eels again and have already been a handful of times. It'll also give me something to add to the blog so I'll be doing a few posts about how I go about it... it's not likely fishing 3 hour sessions but you never know, a monster just might make a dream come true. He who dares, rodders!