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