I have of late found something creeping into my mind, although creeping may be the wrong way to describe it! Wriggling, slithering or drifting may be more apt, as the protagonist has no legs. Often in moments when I find my mind free of day to day distractions I dream of a clear corner of some beautiful fantasy pond surrounded by ancient low hanging trees. The last of the evening sun illuminates only the thinnest strip of the silty bottom as tiny silver fish flash over it. Under the trees in the mass of tangled roots something stirs in its dark dank layer where it has laid still as the sun passed over head until the air cooled and the light faded. The pangs of hunger and a thousand nights of habit push it forth into the open water. Confidently it glides into view. In the last shadows it appears grey, but as its sinewy body moves towards that last strip of light, its true colour is revealed. It is green, like no other fish bar the Tench, but long and thin in shape, like a snake. Her eyes seem black as coal, but it is not sight that drives her on, it is something else… She can feel what she seeks somewhere and out there something panics. Under the round lily pads a small roach struggles to remain upright. The open wound on its side is fatal. Only a few hours ago it swam strong in unison with its shoal mates when from nowhere the heron struck! A fraction higher and it would have all been over as it became a tasty meal but as fate would have it, the sharp beak that had been the demise of so many others only stabbed instead of grabbed. In a moment of panic, survival had sent the little roach zipping into the sanctuary of the weed where death now stalked it. Time was always on the eel’s side as she meticulously searched the small pond until the telltale vibrations grew stronger. Smell now took over and the scent of fresh flesh filled her senses and belied the location of what she sought. Directly below she gently reaches up from the bottom before she snatches the roach in a single bite and sinks slowly back into the weed; the roach’s life ended.
My thoughts of eel are borne of something more than a simple want to catch eels, but of a more competitive need this year to behold a monster. I have for the last decade at least held more than a passing interest in this much maligned species. Up until my late teens our paths had never once crossed. But when they finally did I found myself not looking at that wriggling mass of slimy green entangled in my line with disdainful eyes, but with more a look of intrigue. As with most anglers, my first encounter came whilst fishing for something else, or rather anything else. Unlike others my reaction was not anger; I did not just cut my line leaving it to die, instead I took the time to struggle on and unhook this newly discovered oddity. As with most first experiences they are highly affecting and it was settled: through my life as a Brother of Angle I would be no hater of the eel.
It was deep in the cold winter when my research began. By night I trawled books and the internet. Even as I fished blankly through frosty and snow covered mornings waiting for single bite my mind harked back through hundreds of stories and sessions to try and find every tiny fragment of information of past captures and wondrous tales of lost monsters.
Like all anglers I have my own fables of big eels, be they my own experiences or others passed on by fellow fishermen. A good old friend once told me how on one of those club day trip fishing matches to an old estate lake over twenty years ago, one of his fellow competitors hooked what he described as ‘something huge’. After an age fighting the unseen monster he finally got it to the surface whereupon he laid eyes on an eel thicker than his own arm. His desire to land it and quite possibly win the match, were diminished somewhat upon the realization that it was only an eel, and he pulled for the break freeing it back to the depths.
On that most special of days, June 16th, some years ago I myself landed a rather large river eel whilst fishing for chub using lob worms at the end of a weir pool. My first thought of the unstoppable run was that I had hooked a good Barbel that had been lurking in the slack water. But after getting pulled from one side of the river to the other for a good while I finally slipped the net under a perfectly formed river eel of over three pounds. The same year I made a late September pilgrimage into Wales camping with a lifelong fishing companion. Three days in we found ourselves fishing the rarefied glacial lake Bala. Through the day we’d struggled to land even a couple of the tiny perch which frequented the shallows of this gin clear lake. Later that day whilst in one of the local shops chatting to elderly shop owner she mentioned that the lake contained plenty of eels. This was more than likely a ruse to get us to buy some of the many pots of red worms she had randomly stacked in a dusty corner of her shop; it worked for as the sun dipped below the mountains and the moon rose we both sat on what seemed like the top of the world and stared at the florescent lit rod tips waiting for them to tremble as an eel made off with our magic beans. It was a perfect tall story in the making if only she hadn’t been absolutely right. We caught plenty of small eels and as the last of the libations drained away I hooked a much larger eel of nearly a metre long, albeit rather slim.
If any place in England could lay claim to being the ancestral home of Anguilla anguilla it has to be the Norfolk broads, a place which holds a dear place in my heart. I have caught more eels here than on every other water way I have fished combined. On one of my first visits to the broads I fished a tiny reed lined bay on the river Ant at How Hill just after a horrendous summer storm. The ravenous Rudd couldn’t get enough of my maggots as I landed one after another from the shallow water. Upon striking one bite it seemed I had found an unmoveable snag, until it moved that was. My poor light float rod bent double for an age until I landed the culprit; the shortest fattest eel I have ever seen lay regurgitating my maggots in the bottom of the net. Weighing an amazing two pounds plus it was only as long as the cork handle of my rod, but was thicker than my wrist by far.
My favourite story of all came from a great friend whom is sadly passed. John, whilst fishing for carp on a very modern commercial fishery, struck into what seemed to be a massive Carp whilst float fishing luncheon meat on the bottom. The battle was one of sheer legend as for over an hour he followed the fish up and down the bank. Eventually he began to get the better of the fish but not before a crowd had gathered to watch, which included the bailiff of the fishery. Eventually it surfaced and what thrashed on the surface scared every angler that watched. It took two changes of net to find one big enough for it to fit in, but when it was finally landed the creature was a sight to behold. Eight pounds of eel as thick as a cricket ball lay on the grass. John himself referred to it as monstrous and others have since confirmed this. Upon asking the bailiff why a eel should turn up in a stocked carp lake, he came clean and admitted that the lake was not built originally for carp fishing but for the farming of signal crayfish and once the crayfish business had run its course the lakes owners decided to convert it to a carp pool. The only problem was how to get every last annoying crayfish out. The answer was to stock five small eels which in only a few years rid the lake of crayfish and then disappeared, until now.
It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that any of these eels still exist in the same waters where their tales were born. Although by now their instinct to breed or just move on may have driven them down some long forgotten stream back towards the sea, all that remains of them etched into the memories of the fishermen who encountered them. Chasing old stories may be a foolhardy endeavour but they still serve enough of a purpose to inspire me and drive me on.
With information collated, soon enough plans began to form and venues began to stick out. Though I feel on the verge of obsession I find myself unable to commit due to my yearly rotation through a long list of species of which I travel, as the year does through the seasons.
The criteria for possible targets were heavily influenced by that rarest of specific anglers, those who actively target the reclusive eel. These brave men dedicate themselves to what can only be described as the hardest specimen fish to catch in the land. They are like their quarry, secretive as ghosts and seldom seen; to catch a truly big eel you must seemingly fish like one, only coming out at night.
However, some generous anglers of anguilla have openly shared their knowledge and this is what has guided my choices, along with a few other factors of my own constraints. In its simplest possible form I have three types of water of which to choose my target.
Still waters seem to offer the greatest chance of a really big eel, however times have changed since the majority of eel fishing literature was produced. Nowadays any lake which has seen even a paltry twenty pound carp landed becomes the focus for carp hungry crowds, and ends up its banks lined with rod pods and bivves. Getting on a suitable lake with under a few months research is hard and costly. A few lakes for me fitted the bill but again the travelling distance only makes repeat visits difficult and expensive. So for me lakes were an ill fit if you would.
Rivers on the other hand, though accessible, are heavily populated by immature eels. These streams harbour relatively high numbers, but do not possess the means to entrap an eel for the length of time needed for the specimen to age, and thus attain weight I dream of. This leaves me only one true style of venue that suits my needs.
Strangely over the years canals have proved a perfect type of water for small eels to populate, and an even more perfect prison by way of their many locks which retain an eel long enough for their need to spawn to be hampered by winter. As I live in an area abundant with canals - which coincidentally just happen to be as far from the sea as you can get in England – these man made waterways are the forerunners as the most likely body of water to yield a good eel competition.
A venue chosen, it comes to this; how many hours of my life can I dedicate to the cause? Far better men than I have offered themselves whole heartedly to chasing this ghost like species and in their writings have openly concluded that a very low return rate is to be expected when searching for big eel. There is some common advice: firstly, nearly all waters in the UK will contain eels, whether intentional or not, as they have a mysterious way of appearing from nowhere; second, given that eel fishing is as about popular as going to the dentist, it is unlikely that the casual angler will be aware of their presence, save from the odd accidental capture; and finally and most importantly, the more eels you catch from one place the smaller they will be. So the theory is, the more blank sessions, the bigger the eel.
So into the darkness I go.
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