Growing up in the North East, Conger fishing was not something I had known much about, save the old fisherman tales you would hear on the quay about “Huge serpents from the deep that could bite through a fish box”. Ha! Ha! I remember seeing my first proper Eel as a teenager taking fish out of a salmon net on the rocks in Whitby, Yorkshire - the fascination had begun . . .
Since moving to the South Coast I have dueled with Conger from both boat and shore on many occasions but it wasn’t until fishing on a charter out of Falmouth where I began talking about Conger Eels to angler, and now great friend, Steve Dawe that I was introduced to the British Conger Club (BCC).
Last year was my first year fishing the BCC Annual Boat Competition out of Plymouth and I must admit that it was a very steep learning curve. I had possibly 5 years experience catching Eels, some of these guys had 45!!! As the days went on very quickly the weaknesses in my rigs and tackle were highlighted and exploited by these crafty and hard fighting fish. Fortunately on the second day I was drawn to fish on a boat with Andy Gouriet and his brother Matthew. That day he dealt me an absolute schooling on how to land Eels. I had reckoned that I had performed well with 11 Eels – I think Andy managed 19 and he went on to win most Eels overall. I had to know how. Looking at his rod and reel, there was no significant difference there, the rigs and bait. Almost identical, except the components, I had opted for rather basic, generic beefy O’Shaughnessy-style hooks, basic swivels and rather chunky sliders. The components in Andy’s rig were clearly of a higher specification, all from Cox and Rawle.
The following 12 months had me experimenting with the different pieces of terminal tackle and tweaking the rigs to try and find what worked best in preparation. Around came the BCC Competition 2018. The fishing was very hard, I’m unsure if it is because of fishing pressure or due to a lot of algal bloom in the water but every boat reported lower catches and very finicky fish. My chosen rigs were a basic sliding ledger rig and my own adaptation of a beefed-up Portland Rig. Components were Cox & Rawle Coastlock Snaps #6 (180lbs), Rig Sliders, Rovex 10X mono in 200lb and ending with an SCR25 10/0 Meat Hook.
The Coastlocks are practically indestructible and the hooks superb. Far superior in both hook-point and in holding their shape. The sliders as well in their shape somehow help prevent tangles – don’t ask me how, I just know that they do.
I drew the vessel Tamesis, run by Roy Strevens and his son, a new fast cat with a proactive skipper and crew – a great combination. We were quickly anchored on the first wreck around 15 miles out. A glassy sea and barely a cloud in the sky, this was weather made for fishing. Baits were sent down to the seabed and a few eels began making their way to the boat. I quickly learnt that the eels were being very finicky with the baits, some registering almost no bite at all. This year the BCC had elected for all hooks used to be with “crushed barbs”, this was to aid skippers in unhooking and minimize handling and stress on the fish. Eels are known for being able to shed even a strong hook hold with barbed hooks, and coupled with finicky feeding this was a situation where a good hook point was vital. Frozen Mackerel, Cuttlefish and Pouting were the baits of choice - I opted for a frozen mackerel flapper tipped with Cuttle. I looked around the boat to gauge what other anglers were using and from there I could hope to see what was the “best bait of the day”. No sooner had the baits hit the seabed than the rattling bites of ravenous Pouting and Whiting began. This told me that softer fish baits like Mackerel would not last long. I did manage a small Ling of around 6lb which wasn’t the target but good to get off the blank. I tried Squid / Cuttlefish Cocktail next but the same again. “Rattle, rattle” these Pouting were becoming a nuisance. I struck hard at one of the bites and managed to foul hook the culprit a chunky Pout of around 3-4lb. Time for a change of tack. Next bait I sent down was a medium sized pouting head and flapper. No more rattling bites. One small consolation from the feeding frenzy of the Pouting was that all this commotion and stirring up of the baits creates a lot of scent. In turn drawing the interest of the Congers. A very shy and tentative bite showed on my rod tip. I had opted for a Shakespeare GX-2 30/50, coupled with a Shimano TLD 20 2-speed loaded with 60lb braid. The rod has plenty of power in the blank but a bit too stiff in the tip for shy bite indication especially in 70m of water with a 1lb lead attached. I was faced with 2 choices, leave the bite to develop and guarantee a good hook-up, but risk the fish backing into the wreck. Or strike early and risk missing the fish. I waited patiently for signs of a further bite and struck hard, fish on. It must have only been mouthing the big bait as it dropped it after only a few seconds. I quickly dropped back down. Sometimes the eel will still be in the area and will have another go at the bait. As happened here. 30 seconds later another knock and a bite. I wound down and struck hard again this time properly connecting with the fish. When fishing in wrecks and hard ground for eels the first 20 seconds / 20 feet is crucial. You need to get the fish away from the snags. If you don’t they will back into them and it spells near certain failure.
At the end of the first day, I had managed to boat 7 eels to 35lbs – tying most fish on the boat with Dave, part of the “Essex Boys” team. Best fish of day was landed by another angler on Tamesis – Paul Maris at 40lb 7oz. Upon returning to port I learned the Gouriet brothers had wrangled 19 between them, a great tally in difficult conditions a true testament to the skill of these two and again, these were the guys to beat.
Much the same, stunning weather and finicky fish. Many different baits and presentations were being used to try and give that angler the edge. Fresh Pouting, Whiting, frozen Mackerel, Squid baits all seemed to be accounting for a smattering of fish, but I had opted for a very dirty small whole cuttlefish. A perfectly sized bait for the 10/0 Meat Hooks leaving the point very well proud. As the day progressed some great Eels were boated. I had a great battle with one that took me back to the bottom 3 times. All anglers aboard were surprised when it turned out to be only around 30-35lb – fighting well above its weight. My best fish went to 42lb and managed to escape out of the scupper before I could get the camera out. As the tide changed a large snag drifted up from the wreck, either a piece of lost net or rope. Several anglers lost fish and gear to this before the skipper made the call to up lines and head for port once more. I had boated 9 eels and top on the boat. I was happy but would it be enough?
Throughout the day, calls came over the radio of hard fishing and of lost fish but one Eel had been landed that would take the top spot. When weighed on shore it came in at 53lbs and better it was released alive after the weigh-in. A true testament to the modern mindset of catch and release and something that the BCC is very proactive about.
As the boats came in the scores were tabulated and much to my pleasure I had won the second day with 9 Eels. Better still was that my fair catch on the first day put my total tally to 16 winning me the Reg Quest Trophy for most eels landed over the competition by a single angler. Helping my 4-man team to win the Team Shield with 36 combined. A fantastic result that I really do believe was made possible by using the Cox & Rawle Meat hooks and swivels. The only limitation I can see with the Meat Hooks is that the shank length is relative to the gape, for the small to medium baits I used during the comp they were absolutely perfect. For larger baits I prefer a longer shank to either thread the bait up or lash it to. Cox & Rawle have just released their SCR 23 Sea Beast which I think will fit this bill very well.