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Exactly like the outdated view of leaving a pike to run with the bait before striking, eels suffer badly from the same practice and the need to leave the run is complete nonsense.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. :-)

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