A Beginner’s Guide to Eel Fishing

How would you like to try your hand at angling for one of the world’s most mysterious fish? You’ll have to stay up late to bag an eel, but it’ll be well worth the effort because they’re ferocious fighters.

Tempted? Read on as the author of The Eel Angler, Barry McConnell gives the lowdown on this most slippery of customers.

My largest UK eel to date at 9lbs 2oz
Image courtesy of Barry McConnell

Perhaps it’s because they resemble a snake as much as a fish, that so few anglers target eels. But wriggly and slimy though they are, they’re also a fascinating creature about which we still know relatively little.

Scientists are almost certain the European eel breeds over 4,000 miles away in the Sargasso Sea – although to this day, nobody has ever actually witnessed them spawning. The tiny elvers drift to the UK on the ocean currents and once here, follow flowing water upstream, taking them inland. They venture up streams, rivers, canals, and ditches exploring every tiny rivulet as they strive to populate our fisheries. Eels even find their way into stillwaters by wriggling through trickling overflows.

A 6lb 12oz eel
Image courtesy of Barry McConnell

The eel is a wild fish that manages its own stocks, populating every type of water including gravel pits, reservoirs, meres, ponds, and glacial lochs. No other species of fish inhabits such a diverse range of habitats making eel fishing an exploration or an adventure into the unknown. While the new age of carp angling has trended towards managed, stocked fisheries which name the biggest fish and tell anglers how many 20s, 30s they can catch, eel fishing is the exact opposite. There is rarely any information available, and often the local anglers don’t even know if there are any eels around or not.

Into the Unknown

My first ever 3lb eel
Image courtesy of Barry McConnell

From vast, 200ft deep, windswept glacial lochs to shallow, muddy, little farm ponds choked with weed, the excitement of the unknown inspires me to fish a wide variety of venues in search of eels. I started on easier waters with a high population of eels and it took me two years to break the 3lb barrier. By that time I had the eel fishing bug, a.k.a. slime fever. My biggest eel in the UK is 9lbs 2ozs.

If you’re a beginner, it’s best to start on waters that are known to hold eels. Here it will be possible to catch a few and learn as you progress. Very big eels are extremely rare and pursuing them may involve targeting waters with no history of any eels ever being caught. Specimen eel angling is only for the select few who pursue this branch of the sport with a level of dedication that borders on obsession. But while not for amateurs, you never know, perhaps (like me) you’ll get the bug…

Identifying eels

4lbs 7ozs
Image courtesy of Barry McConnell

The UK rod and line record for the European Eel is 11lb 2oz, but most eels are less than 3lb in weight. I was happy catching two pounders when I started. The eel is slow growing and takes ten years to grow to 1lb in weight. Eels of 4lb and upwards are regarded as specimens and may be 40 years old. A 3lb eel may be 36 inches long and eels over 9lb can be over 45 inches long with a girth like a drain pipe. Young eels are generally an olive-green colour and have small eyes. Larger, mature specimens have a purple-pink-silver hue. As the eel reaches its time to migrate back to the Sargasso Sea its pigmentation turns to a silvery sheen and the eyes grow large like saucers. These are known as silver eels.

There have been problems with a decline in the eel population over the last 20 years. Because of this, in England and Wales, the European Eel is now a protected species and it is no longer legal to take or to kill one. All fish must be returned to the water alive. Scotland has banned fishing for them altogether and so too have parts of Ireland.

Feeding habits and baits

Upon populating a water, eels have the unique ability to develop different head shapes according to the type of food available. If there are lots of invertebrates present, the eels develop narrow heads to enable them to feed on tiny items. If there are lots of fish and fry present, the eels develop wider heads suited to preying on fish. Both types of eels may be present in the same water.

The common lobworm is an effective bait for eels
Image: Shutterstock

Lobworm is the most popular eel bait, and broken lobs (cut one lobworm into six or seven short pieces and put on the hook) is the most effective. Dendrobaena and other types of redworms are also a good bait for eels; they are easier to get hold of than lobs and will keep better in warm weather. Small, 3-5-inch-long fish are a very good bait. They can be used live, dead or cut up into sections. My preference is a dead one, freshly killed with its head snipped off to release more scent trail into the water. The eel has an incredible sense of smell and will scent out the bait.

Eels will feed on a wide variety of food and other baits like luncheon meat, cheese and squid. Mussels and prawns work well too. I find that the pre-cooked frozen ones are best as they are firmer than uncooked ones which helps them stay on the hook. Sometimes they can be just as effective as the old favourites – worms and dead-baits. Many eel anglers bait the swim with dead maggots, but I have been successful without any baiting-up.

Eel fishing tackle

The joy of fishing for eel is that it is a powerful fighter. It will swim backwards and pull strongly against the rod in a tug of war. A strong rod is necessary to move a big eel and specimen hunters prefer 2 ½ and 3lb rods. It is possible to land eels on lighter rods and so don’t despair if you only have a 1.5lb rod. That will do for starters.

Lines of 10lb to 15lb are matched to the job and a wire trace is necessary for big eels and wide-mouthed eels as their teeth will slash through softer hook-length materials. The eel’s eye is very close to its lip and because of this, hooks size 6 is the best size. Any bigger and the gape of the hook is so wide that the point can penetrate the eels eye and cause damage. Any smaller and you risk pulling out of larger, hard-fighting fish.

A size 6 hook is the perfect middle ground for safe eel fishing
Image: Shutterstock

Barbless hooks are used with fish baits and a piece of elastic band can be added to keep the bait on the hook. With worms I prefer a micro-barb hook because having crammed a barbless hook full of worms, they keep wriggling off as I try to put a piece of elastic band on! A large landing net is necessary as eels are long fish. To land an eel with a smaller net you have to get its tail into the net first the eel will back into the net. This can be difficult but is achievable with a bit of practice.

Bottom bait rigs

A basic free-running ledger rig
Image courtesy of Barry McConnell

Simple free-running ledger rigs are standard when fishing the bait on the bottom for eels.

On loosely presented set ups, eels have a habit of backing up a few inches and swallowing the bait without the take registering. To deter this, and to reduce the chance of a deep hooking, it’s best to keep the hook length short and the line tight to register each movement. An instant strike will also reduce the chance of eels swallowing the bait. Even after taking all these precautions, some eels will still be deep-hooked when using a basic free-running ledger rig.

The basic ledger rig converted to a semi-bolt rig
Image courtesy of Barry McConnell

Further steps to reduce deep-hooking include the semi-bolt rig. This is a basic link ledger with an extra bead and a stop knot added. The principle is that the eel has a short distance of free-running, low-resistance until the stop-knot butts up to the bead, hopefully pricking the hook into the fish before it has swallowed the bait. It is fairly successful but not 100%. Other anti- deep -hooking systems currently being field tested by National Anguilla Club members include the use of circle hooks, semi-resistance rigs, and of T-bars or gobstoppers fitted to the trace just above the hook, to preventing the eel gorging the bait.

Mid-water rigs

The Dyson Rig for fishing in mid-water
Image courtesy of Barry McConnell

Another popular and very effective method is to present the bait in mid-water using an off-bottom rig. The Dyson rig is preferred by most eel anglers. This resistance-free and adjustable rig presents the bait above the lake bed, and can present it abovevoiding weed growing on the bottom, it is also resistance-free and adjustable. A rotten bottom is essential with this rig, so that if the lead gets stuck, the weaker line will break and the rig can be retrieved.

Eels tend to shy away from resistance and may eject the bait if things don’t feel right, therefore free-running rigs, along with lightweight, resistance-free indicators are preferred. A simple lightweight bobbin hanging on the line between reel and butt ring will suffice, or better than that is the purpose-built, resistance-free, adjustable indicator, The Rollover Indicator, as used by most of the leading eel anglers today. Available from www.zandavan.co.uk where a video can be viewed showing how it works.

Handling and unhooking eels

A 5lb eel
Image courtesy of Barry McConnell

The eel should be handled gently so as not to stress the fish. An unhooking mat and damp hands are the order of the day. Calmly lay the eel on the mat; treat it gently so it stays calm and is easier to unhook. If an eel has swallowed the bait, do not shove a disgorger or forceps down its throat. The throat is obviously narrow in such a thin fish and the eel has all its vital organs and main arteries at the back of its throat where any poking around may injure the fish which may then bleed to death. The best option is to cut through the trace, leaving the barbless hook in the eel which will usually be able to work it loose and spit it out.
The eel is largely a creature of the night and though you can also catch one in the day-time, it is best to stay on into the hours of darkness to get the better sport, to get the ‘feel of the night’, and to enter the world of the true eel angler. Those of you that get the eel angling bug may care to join the National Anguilla Club where you can meet like-minded eel angling fanatics who strive to improve eel angling techniques and conserve the eel.

Further reading: The Eel Angler

The Eel Angler by Barry McConnell

If you want to read more on this subject I have written a book The Eel Angler, published in 2012. It tells the story of my eel angling learning curve, the progression from beginner to specialist. It’s a big book and includes chapters on Australia and New Zealand where eels over 20lb were landed. It is a full-colour book with lots of photos and has received some top reviews. The last few are still available from www.zandavan.co.uk. Also available is my latest book, Channel Zander, published in 2017.

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