HANDS-ON CON­GER

They grow big, can be caught right now, and are found in most ar­eas. So what is there not to like?

Sea Angler (UK) - - BOAT ANGLER - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy by MIKE THRUSSELL

Catch re­ports used to be dom­i­nated by big con­ger eels, but not so nowa­days. It seems to me we’re miss­ing a trick here. As a boat­caught species, they’ve be­come a for­got­ten fish, even though skip­pers tell me that, when they do go for eels, catches re­main good and their over­all size is in­creas­ing steadily too.

From an an­gling view­point, what also sits nicely in the eels’ favour is that they of­ten feed when other fish seem less in­clined to do so.

On reefs and wrecks, this is typ­i­cally ei­ther side of slack wa­ter, mean­ing you can mix in a bit of con­ger fish­ing be­tween work­ing lures for pol­lack and cod, or bait fish­ing for other species.

Con­gers grow big, too, eas­ily top­ping 30lb off­shore, and they reach 80lb on some south­ern reefs and can be any­thing from boot­lace straps to full-blown 100lb-plus tele­graph poles on the deep-wa­ter wrecks.

Can we re­ally ig­nore fish of this cal­i­bre?

WHEN & WHERE

Con­ger eels are avail­able all year. Win­ter will see fewer catches, but it’s of­ten the time when the big­ger fish turn up. Much de­pends on the sever­ity of the win­ter and the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture, be­cause these eels are not tol­er­ant of very cold wa­ter. A mild win­ter will see con­sis­tent catches, but when it’s re­ally cold, fish­ing is hit-and-miss.

Spring is a good time, but the best of the fish­ing, gen­er­ally speak­ing, is from June to Novem­ber. Part of the rea­son is that this is when the weather tends to be best, and boat an­glers are more ac­tive.

An­other plus point with con­gers is that they are found through­out the UK and Ire­land. There are noted hotspots, such as the English Chan­nel wrecks, the reefs and wrecks off Ply­mouth, and the reefs in­side the Bris­tol Chan­nel, for ex­am­ple. What makes con­ger fish­ing unique is that there are nu­mer­ous ar­eas and in­shore marks and wrecks that never re­ally see any tar­geted eel fish­ing, and sit well un­der the radar.

This is proved by the ex­ist­ing UK record at 133lb 4oz com­ing from a rel­a­tively lit­tle­fished and gen­er­ally ig­nored in­shore wreck off Brix­ham, Devon. I re­mem­ber fish­ing with Malc Jones aboard Sea An­gler 2, out of Ply­mouth, a few years back and it looked set to be a re­ally bad weather day. Malc went for a tight-to-shore wreck in shal­low wa­ter, just so I could get some pho­tos, and I pulled out a 30-pounder.

It’s a fact, then, that con­ger eels are right on your doorstep in most ar­eas, in­clud­ing the North Sea, an area that looks very ne­glected when it comes to big con­ger fish­ing.

It’s also in­ter­est­ing to see that the Ir­ish record, set at 72lb, has lasted since 1914. There are con­gers on the Ir­ish wrecks that would eat that for a snack, but it would need tar­geted fish­ing to set that record bar higher. I un­der­stand a cou­ple of skip­pers are look­ing at this op­por­tu­nity as we speak, so we’ll see how things de­velop.

TOUGH TACKLE

A lot of good con­ger eels have been caught on 30lb-class tackle, which is fine for reef fish­ing, even for big eels. That said, if you hook a log when wreck fish­ing, then more power may be needed. A step up to a 30/50lb rod, or a 50lb-class, makes a lot of sense.

Mod­ern 50lb-class rods are few these days and tend to have a sup­pler tip than of old, but with loads of power in the mid-sec­tion and butt.

This ac­tion is ideal for con­gers, as the sup­ple tip bet­ter pro­tects the line and hook-hold, as well as ab­sorb­ing some of the pow­er­ful lunges and dives a con­ger eel makes dur­ing the fight.

Big eels need bul­ly­ing away from the wreck as soon as you can, and this is where a two-speed reel with a low gear comes into its own. I fish for them with the reel set in low gear so I can pile on the pres­sure as soon as the hook goes home, and then inch them away from po­ten­tial snags.

Reels such as the Penn Fathom 30LD2 (be­low), with a high pres­sure (33lb max­i­mum) lever-drag sys­tem and the op­tional low-speed gear, can re­ally put the heat on big fish and get them mov­ing when stan­dard reels strug­gle.

There’s noth­ing wrong with a sin­gle-speed reel, but in the ini­tial stages you’ll find it harder to bully a re­ally big fish out of its home with a high gear. Shift­ing a big con­ger eel is an inch or two at a time game, which is why low gear­ing is so ef­fec­tive.

LINE CHOICE

There is a de­bate about whether mono line or braid is best. Mono has stretch and cush­ions the fight, but is prone to abra­sion, and be­cause of the stretch does not put as much di­rect pres­sure on the eel. With stretch, an eel may feel less ten­sion on tak­ing the bait, giv­ing a bet­ter hook-up.

On the other hand, more stretch means the eel has more lee­way to back into its hole when it takes the bait or feels the hook.

Braid, though, with no real stretch, means you have full con­trol and can feel ev­ery lit­tle nib­ble at the hook end and re­spond ac­cord­ingly. No stretch also means full pres­sure can be ap­plied to the fish in the early stages, help­ing us to get it away from the wreck. Be­ing thin in di­am­e­ter, braid al­lows us to use less lead weight to hold bot­tom, which can also be a mas­sive ad­van­tage.

I pre­fer braid, and never use mono for con­ger fish­ing. I find 50lb braid is enough, but some an­glers pre­fer 80lb for ex­tra abra­sion-re­sis­tance and more in­sur­ance. It doesn’t make too much dif­fer­ence, other than the added tide pres­sure on the heav­ier di­am­e­ter line.

I try not to use shock­lead­ers when con­ger­ing, but they do have a place. If you’re fish­ing tight to a wreck sur­rounded by clean­ish ground, but not ac­tu­ally in the me­tal, then elim­i­nate the leader. It does noth­ing and adds no real pro­tec­tion.

If the wreck is sur­rounded by a large de­bris field, then fish a short leader no more than the length of the rod, just to add a lit­tle pro­tec­tion. I do the same when fish­ing di­rectly into a wreck, which ac­tu­ally is a rare thing. I also use short lead­ers on rough reef ground where line abra­sion can be a ma­jor prob­lem.

My leader pref­er­ence is 80lb fluoro­car­bon, sim­ply be­cause it takes ma­jor abra­sion be­fore weak­en­ing ap­pre­cia­bly. Knot-wise, I opt for an Al­bright, snug­ging it down slowly and neatly and ap­ply Lip Sol, not spit, as a lu­bri­cant. The Lip Sol is far bet­ter. The Al­bright is neat and very strong when tied cor­rectly.

KEEP THE RIG SIM­PLE

The best rig is a sim­ple run­ning leger. To the end of the braid or short leader, slide on a zip slider boom, then an 8mm bead, and tie on a size 2/0 rolling swivel. Use only qual­ity rolling swivels rather than cheap bar­rel swivels.

Us­ing a three-turn grin­ner knot to the free end of the swivel, tie on a 30in length of 200lb com­mer­cial mono. Tie on the hook, again with a three-turn grin­ner. I also bulb the tag ends of both knots with a lighter, just so the tag end is fully se­cure.

The tried-and-tested hook I rely on is the bronzed Mus­tad O’Shaugh­nessy 3407. It’s an ul­tra-tough pat­tern and needs to be a size 8/0 for av­er­age-sized baits, but go up to a size 10/0 for big­ger baits. I also sharpen the hook point a lit­tle with a file, but not to a nee­dle point, as this can turn over on the strike and re­sult in lost fish.

The fin­ished hook trace needs to be no more than two feet long, which gives the eel enough room to swal­low the bait but keeps things tight to send in­for­ma­tion up the line and into your hands.

BEST BAITS

The most used bait is a fresh mack­erel flap­per, but they will cost you fish. Putting the hook just through both jaws of the mack­erel, as is nor­mal, can see an eel take in the flap­ping fil­lets, feel ten­sion, then chomp off the fil­lets, leav­ing you with just the head.

I pre­fer to cut the tail off a whole mack­erel, flap­per it for just the bot­tom third of its length, leav­ing the rest of the body whole, then pass the hook in through the mouth, out through the gill cover, then stitch it in down the length of half the body. By ‘stitch­ing’ I mean putting the hook point into the body, push­ing the hook down as far as it will go, bring­ing the point back out, then mak­ing a sec­ond stitch back in through this hole, fi­nally bring­ing it out lower down again, and pulling the trace tight. This leaves the hook point well ex­posed and the trace hid­den, and it forces the eel to take the whole bait and hook.

Other top eel baits are mack­erel head, two or three squid or, bet­ter still, a whole cut­tle­fish. Big pout fil­lets or whole pout with the hook stitched in also work.

A method that works very well when eels are very shy biters is to use a me­tal pirk with a heavy-duty swivel link added to the end, and then clip on a size 8/0 O’Shaugh­nessy hook. Bait with the head half of a mack­erel.

The pirk helps the bait sit tight on the seabed. As an eel takes the bait, the pirk slides along the bot­tom and its weight acts like a bolt rig, in­stantly telling you what’s go­ing on, and au­to­mat­i­cally set­ting the hook.

CATCH TAC­TICS

Reef fish­ing is fairly sim­ple and done at an­chor. Choose a lead weight that is just heavy enough to keep the bait on the bot­tom and let the flow­ing tide take the scent of the bait to the eels.

When wreck fish­ing, the boat is usu­ally an­chored above the wreck and rope is let out to set­tle the boat so that it sits up­tide of the wreck. Your baits will be fish­ing just up­tide of the wreck, with the scent pulling the fish out of the wreck and hope­fully away from snags. What works bet­ter is to choose a lead weight that will just hold on the seabed, but when lifted will trot a few feet fur­ther back to­wards the wreck. This al­lows you to keep drop­ping the bait back and po­si­tion it tighter to the me­tal, where you get those big­ger eels that are re­luc­tant to leave their home. Braid, hav­ing more feel, is per­fect for this.

Con­ger bites can be very gen­tle and feel more like small fish pulling at the bait. Let these de­velop and see what hap­pens. If an eel tries to take a lit­tle line but seems un­sure, re­lease a foot of line, no more, and see what hap­pens. When the rod tip starts to pull over fully, hit the fish hard and keep it com­ing.

It’s im­por­tant to get the eel away from the wreck and up in the wa­ter. They are prone to swim­ming back­wards and will turn and dive, so be pre­pared to ap­ply as much pres­sure as you dare – but don’t overdo it. I used the word ‘bully’ pre­vi­ously, and this is the per­fect de­scrip­tion of what you need to do in that very early phase of the fight. Once the fish is well up in the wa­ter col­umn, it’s usu­ally just a case of slog­ging it out, giv­ing a lit­tle line if need be, but keep that pres­sure on as much as you can.

Fish­ing for con­ger eels is what I call ‘Hands On’ fish­ing. It’s di­rect, tough, and can be phys­i­cally bru­tal at times, but it’s in­fec­tious too, and can eas­ily be­come an ob­ses­sion.

Con­gers are a spe­cial fish in the eyes of many, so don’t ig­nore them.

The rod needs to be up to plenty of pres­sure

An eel may need bul­ly­ing away from its hid­ing place

The tried-andtested Mus­tad O’Shaugh­nessy

Tar­get shy-bit­ing eels with a me­tal pirk

Use heavy mono such as Ul­tima Seas­trike XT (left) and Max­ima Big Game Leader (right)for hook­lengths

The best rig is a sim­ple run­ning leger

Small eels scrap too!

A baited pirk for shy-biters

Mack­erel flap­per is a pop­u­lar bait

A fine reef con­ger for Mike Thrussell

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