THE HUNT FOR A HUGE EEL
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.