To most people, angler or not, the word ‘eel’ is a somewhat disgusting word and pulling one out of the water when the expectation was that a fish would be on the end of the line can cause some anglers serious anxiety. Many anglers do not like eels and want nothing to do with them. However, for some anglers this is a very sought-after fish that commands a significant following.
Eel (Anguilla anguilla)
The average length of an adult eel in the UK is between 20-30 inches (60-80cm) with an average weight of between 2.2-4.4 lbs (1-2 kg).
The females grow larger than the males and in optimal conditions can reach impressive lengths of up to 4 feet (1.2m) and weigh up to 20 lbs (9kg).
Also known as
CR – Critically Endangered
The eel is a long, slimy, snake-like fish with a small head, it requires very little description as it is hardly ever mistaken for anything else. Apart from the very small pectoral fins, found at the gills, all the other fins have been merged together to produce one long fin which runs along the top and underside of the eel’s body.
Very young eels, known as elvers, are very small and have an almost translucent body, these elvers grow into ‘yellow eels’, which are brown-yellow in colour and are darker down their backs. Fully mature eels migrate to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and never return, by this point they are silver in colour.
So how do we catch one?
Eels are exclusively bottom feeders, surviving off pretty much anything of animal origin, alive or dead. As such, baits such as worms, clusters of maggots or small dead baits work particularly well when eel fishing.
Eels will go for most live baits often used by anglers such as maggots and worms. Larger eels will take dead baits of whole or sectioned coarse and sea fish.
As eluded to earlier, the eel has an unusual but interesting life cycle. Beginning in the ocean, the larvae drift towards Europe over 300 days, as they approach Europe, the larvae transform into small ‘glass eels’ and enter estuaries across Europe and start to move upstream.
Once further inland, these glass eels transform again into elvers, smaller versions of the adult eels, which then grow and become ‘yellow eels’ due to the brown-yellow colour on their flanks and bellies. Finally, after 5-20 years, they become sexually mature, their eyes become larger, their flanks become silver and their underbelly changes to a shade of white. At this point the eels are referred to as ‘silver’ eels, and begin their migration back to the Sargasso Sea where they will spawn and never return.
Some eels never make it to freshwaters and will instead remain in brackish waters or in sea water. Those which find themselves in land-locked freshwaters will be forced to wriggle across land to find their way back to the sea.
Eels can be caught year-round but are generally considered to be summer feeders, July to October are the best months to catch them. They usually start feeding as night falls, making the best times to catch them dusk, through the night and at dawn.
The eel can be found throughout British waters, but is most commonly encountered in larger numbers in slow-flowing rivers and still waters. If you’re after big eels, don’t waste your time with rivers, instead, go for land-locked still waters which are close rivers or canals. Older eels which have been able to take advantage of all that the lake offers will be lurking in such lakes.
Favourite Feeding Places
Eels feed virtually exclusively on the bottom and like to feed in areas where there are underwater obstacles or amongst reeds.
An ideal Eel habitat
Large eels are typically fished for with ledger tackle, using dead baits or bunches of large worms.
Once hooked, eels have a habit of curling up and wrapping themselves around weeds or obstacles. The result of this is that they can put up a tremendous fight, comparable to fish which are two or three times their weight. As such, a strong rod is necessary when fishing for eels, if you’re after big specimens, a 2.5-3 lb rod is recommended. It is, however, possible to land smaller eels on lighter rods, so don’t panic if you only have a 1.5 lb rod.
Use line that is between 10-15 lbs and use a wire trace if you’re after big eels as their teeth will slash through softer hook-lengths. The eel’s eye is found particularly close to its mouth, a size 6 hook is perfect. Anything larger could damage the eels eye, anything smaller and you could have a different fish on the line.
When fishing the bottom for eels, a simple ledger rig is pretty much standard.
When fishing loosely presented setups, eels have an annoying tendency of backing up a couple of inches and swallowing the bait without it registering. To prevent this and to lower the chance of hooking the eel deep in its throat, keep the hook length short and the line tight. Striking quickly will also lower the chance of the eel swallowing the bait.
Basic Ledger Rig
This rig is used to lay hookbait on the bottom. The distance between the hook and swivel can vary, but should be at least 300 mm (1 ft). This rig works so well because your line is able to pass through the weight’s “eye”, meaning that shy or suspicious fish can tug the bait without instantly sensing the resistance.
The eel is also known to vacuum up food that it takes, this can lead to them swallowing the hook beyond the reaches of a disgorger. In this situation, cut the line as close to the mouth as possible and let the fish go, hopefully, it will wriggle the hook free over time, this is more likely to happen if using a barbless hook.
If you are fishing the bottom around dusk for other species and you know that eels are present in the area, it is worth using a bait which is less attractive to eels, such as bread, cheese or sweetcorn. As hooking an eel in failing light and having to re-tackle is particularly frustrating.