Seek­ing out big eels in the flat­lands of the Som­er­set Lev­els


RU­RAL Som­er­set is a peace­ful place where the Mendip Hills give way to low-ly­ing and flood­prone plains known as Lev­els.

A dy­namic net­work of wa­ter­ways shapes and en­er­gises the land­scape be­fore emp­ty­ing west­wards into the Bris­tol Chan­nel. Here the sea takes con­trol, and this is where my story be­gins, of a fish born in mid-At­lantic that chooses a life in fresh­wa­ter. It’s one of the planet’s great mi­gra­tions.

The eel, once fa­mously de­scribed as ‘a crea­ture of slime and im­mor­tal­ity’, is viewed by non-afi­ciona­dos as noth­ing more than a nui­sance fish that makes a mess of your tackle.

Yet no fish has a more re­mark­able life cy­cle than An­guilla an­guilla. When it leaves its Sar­gasso Sea birth­place, chang­ing from a leaf-shaped larva to an al­most trans­par­ent elver, sig­nif­i­cant num­bers head for Som­er­set, where the par­ent fish may well have lived out the bulk of their lives.

Ash­mead Fish­ery is a favourite des­ti­na­tion. In all prob­a­bil­ity eels were one of the first fish to colonise this wet­land site, long be­fore a carp called Sin­gle Scale and weigh­ing well over 50lb was even born.

Of course, it’s carp and owner Mark Wals­ing­ham’s won­der­ful fish­ery man­age­ment that has made Ash­mead so spe­cial, but aside from the huge mir­rors and com­mons, the much-ma­ligned eel plays its part too.

How big do they grow in here? I in­tended to find out... but my visit wasn’t based solely on blind faith. Friend and af­fa­ble Welsh­man Terry Theobald had alerted me to Ash­mead’s eel po­ten­tial and passed on to me Mark’s kind in­vi­ta­tion to fish for them. Both men greeted me as the gates swung open to re­veal an oa­sis of na­ture... 14 acres of chan­nels, bays, is­lands

and weedy corners.

I could tell im­me­di­ately that Mark has a true pas­sion for the lake and its sur­round­ings. Fish are only a part of his job as a wet­lands con­ser­va­tion­ist. He was ea­ger to see what our visit would yield, and saw no rea­son why we wouldn’t catch a spec­i­men eel or two.

As al­ways, Theo was brim­ming with con­fi­dence and was con­vinced eels as thick as your wrist were on the cards!

Choos­ing where to fish was dif­fi­cult, for no other rea­son than there was such a wealth of pos­si­bil­i­ties. Where to start?

A good call is al­ways to lis­ten to a lo­cal, so when Mark sug­gested we tar­get the orig­i­nal me­dieval part of the lake I went along with that. Here a small is­land is the fo­cal point of a bay, and eels can use two en­try points to make their nightly feed­ing for­ays.

It says a lot for Ash­mead’s un­spoilt char­ac­ter that I had to flat­ten grass to pitch my tent and part some mar­ginal reeds to squeeze two rods in.

Perched on the edge of the bed­chair I made up some rigs. I be­gan by thread­ing a buoy­ant boom sup­port­ing the lead on to my 18lb Syn­cro XT main­line. A large run ring at the end of the stem of­fered min­i­mal re­sis­tance.

The hook­length, at­tached via a bead and a swivel, was made up from 2ft of clear 30lb Am­ne­sia, a size 11 swivel and 8ins of 50lb braid end­ing in a size 5 E-S-P Rap­tor hook. Had pike been an is­sue the braid would have been re­placed with 15lb soft strand wire, but there are no pike in Ash­mead.

Nor­mally on a new venue I would fish a worm on one rod and a dead­bait on the other, but hordes of tiny rudd ruled out the worm op­tion. Cut in half, though, these small fish would make per­fect baits, and soon Theo and I had caught more than enough for both of us. Now it was time to sit, chat and be pa­tient. The moon would rise in its own good time, and when it did the eels could go on the hunt.

Be­fore sleep beck­oned, an eel picked up on the scent trail given off by the bloody head sec­tion and writhed ser­pent-like to­wards it be­fore grab­bing hold. My alarm sounded pos­i­tively but alas, this and two other takes later in the night failed to pro­duce any­thing of note. In­stead, three boot­laces not long ar­rived from the sea left a slime trail down the hook­lengths.

Theo fared no bet­ter, and by day­break we were dazed from lack

of sleep and dis­ap­pointed that there were no pythons to show for our ef­forts.

Big eels, how­ever, are fickle crea­tures and no two nights are the same, so we de­cided to spend the morn­ing rest­ing be­fore mov­ing to ex­plore fresh ar­eas.

As the sec­ond night ap­proached I was glad I had made the ef­fort to re­lo­cate. My po­si­tion on a spit gave me a wide choice of places to cast to and, im­por­tantly, it felt like the in­ter­sec­tion of the lake and a per­fect am­bush point.

As be­fore, two blood­ied rudd head sec­tions were low­ered into the gloom, and as the first mosquito bit, so did an eel. The magic mo­ment was in­ten­si­fied by the dark­ness and close, op­pres­sive at­mos­phere – what would it be?

The hoop in the car­bon gave me the clue, and if I still needed con­fir­ma­tion the clutch yielded a lit­tle. I could feel the sway­ing ser­pent on the other end try­ing its best to re­verse back into the weedbed, but my tackle was stout and soon a long white belly spun on the sur­face as the eel did its damn­d­est to loosen the hookhold.

A 4lb eel is an im­pres­sive beast, and I can only imag­ine what an eight-pounder would look like, so as the land­ing net en­veloped my prize I was gen­uinely ex­cited. Later that night another eel weigh­ing a few ounces less than the first crossed my path. Now I was happy I’d sac­ri­ficed my sleep.

The eel, even a big one, is not ap­pre­ci­ated as much as it de­serves to be, but as I ex­am­ined my two more closely and con­sid­ered how far they had come I con­cluded that they – and Ash­mead – were some­thing very spe­cial in­deed.

A 4lb eel is a fish to reckon with and re­spect!

Mark Wals­ing­ham (left) is proud of his Ash­mead work.

Size 5 Rap­tor hooks are ideal for eels.

Am­ne­sia and braid for the hoolink.

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