The Mysterious & Enigmatic eel

Eventually a fascination with what lives in that dimension beneath the rippled surface took over. My early recollections are of sitting beside the river with my father armed with a spool of line and a tobacco tin full of hooks and split shot. Our wriggly worm bait was clearly visible in the crystal clear waters. An eel materialized from downstream and moved sinuously towards it. The eel with its resemblance to a snake held me transfixed and its image remains imprinted on my mind. I cannot tell you whether it took the bait; perhaps it did and I have deleted the memory, as there is nothing worse than a small eel impaled on a hook to create a horrific tangle of line and slime.

Extract from “I Caught A Glimpse” By Wayne Thomas Published

By the Little Egret Press in 2019

         I have always had a fascination with eels and have had a few half-hearted attempts at catching a specimen of over 3lb. Many of my friends in the Specimen angling fraternity have caught big eels and I have admired the images posted on social media and in photos in the days of old. Many waters hold big eels and many more are rumoured to hold big eels.

         I have seen huge eels during my years working with South West Water fish that were sadly trapped in sluice valves on reservoir outlets. At least one eel would have been close to the British Record of 11lb 2oz.

         The problem with catching a big eel is that they are truly wild and are seldom seen so locating them is not always easy. There are a dedicated few anglers who target the species and they are generally a secretive bunch who protect the waters that produce big eels. This is for two reasons; big eels are vulnerable to over fishing partially because they are relatively delicate and secondly because they seem to have an uncanny knack of learning quickly after being caught. My friend Steve Dawe explained a theory shared by many eel anglers that a virgin water will yield a few big eels and then suddenly switch off as if the eels have gone. A few years later that same water can again produce, yet as eels grow slowly and live for many years the eels are still the same fish.

         My eel fishing excursions over the years have resulted in a few blanks and  many encounters with tackle twisting bootlaces that are more trouble than they are worth.

         A big freshwater eel of over 3lb is likely to be a fish of over 30 years old though on commercial lakes this is possibly impacted upon by an increased food source that enhances growth rates.

          My good friend Steve Dawe is an eel enthusiast and over recent seasons I have obtained permission to fish waters that had never been eel fished. On both waters we caught brown trout on dead-baits and left after each session wondering if we had been chasing a fish that didn’t exist?

         Over the years I have invested in several books on eel fishing including, The Eel Angler by Barry McConnell, Fishing for Big Eels by Brian Crawford and Eels by John Sidley. Reading these book’s, it is apparent that eel anglers tend to be dedicated fanatics who are prepared to invest many hours in pursuit of the  mysterious and enigmatic eel.

         After two blank sessions on non-productive waters Steve suggested we visit a water that had produced good eels and a healthy population of medium sized fish in the 2lb to 3lb size range.

         I was now well versed in eel fishing rigs, tactics and waiting for a run all I needed was for an eel to take my bait.

Rollover indicator

         I met up with Steve at the chosen water a couple of hour’s drive from my North Devon home. It was 7.00am with light drizzle falling and a warm muggy atmosphere enveloping the lake that lay in a wooded valley. Steve was already in position with baits just cast out as I arrived.

         I set up in the adjacent swim and tackled up with Dyson rigs and small roach heads on each rod. After ten minutes Steve was into an eel of over 2lb that gave an exciting scrap despite its moderate size sending up plumes of silt as it gyrated in the water. I watched Steve carefully deal with the eel, I took a quick photo and watched it swim away.

         Within moments my own bite alarm sounded as the rollover released line allowing it to stream freely from the open reel spool. I picked up the rod and struck into nothing! I missed two more runs before Steve was once again attached to an eel. This eel gave an equally good account of itself before being netted and scaled 2lb 4oz.

         This was to prove to be Steve’s total eel haul for the day. I persisted with two eel rods missing a run or two every hour some of which were undoubtedly carp swimming into the line. On one occasion the line was streaming out and I struck to feel heavy resistance. There was a big swirl on the surface and for a moment we both thought eel! It was in fact a foul hooked carp of about 3lb!

         Steve left one eel rod out and enjoyed float fishing in the margins where he caught a nice roach and a few carp. It would have been easy to be distracted as large carp cruised under the rod tips and slurped down surface food. Bubbles broke the surface as fish fed hard upon the silty lake bed.

         I remained fully focused on an eel despite the continual frustration of missed runs. Some could be small eels or finicky eels whilst some could be carp nudging the baits and releasing the line from the delicate rollover indicator.

         As mid afternoon passed doubts began to creep in that another eel blank was looming?  Steve had to drive away to get a phone signal and wound his rods in for a while. Shortly after he left I eventually made contact with an eel; the type of eel I had often encountered in the past that probably weighed 1lb 8oz. A small eel for the venue but at least I hadn’t blanked.

         I showed Steve the eel when he returned and slipped it back into the lake. We planned to pack up at around 6.00pm but fish on until 7.00pm if I had not caught an eel over 2lb.

         At 5.45pm the indicator bleeped once again as the line was released from the rollover. I picked up the rod, paused as the line tightened and lifted into the fish. There was a big swirl and a cloud of silt as the rod was pulled over as something large pulled back in the murky water. The drag was set tight and I hung on as the rod hooped over. The eel shook its head and I felt  savage lunges transmitted through the line and well bent rod. Steve grabbed the net and after a few anxious moments the prize was secure. This was without doubt a new personal best eel and a magnificent looking creature. The eel was quickly unhooked, fortunately it was lip hooked, the barbless size 4 slipping out easily with the forceps. The eel was laid out onto a wet unhooking matt and admired before having a number added to its credentials. At 4lb 8oz it is a fish that will remain etched in my memory and will undoubtedly be the first of more eels as I explore my local waters more.

         Steve gave useful advice on photographing eels and I did my best to pose as I admired the eel. A truly magnificent fish that has fulfilled a long held desire that had been smouldering since that day with my father beside a summer river well over fifty years ago.

         Many thanks must go to Steve who guided me to success and quipped as we packed away’ That’s the second trip now that you have commented that “your fish totals as much as both of yours”. My last trip with Steve had been to Chew Valley Lake where I had boated a 38lb pike. Once again right place, right time and a big slice of luck!!



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Eel enthusiast Alan Jump tempted this awesome 6lb eel from an undisclosed North Devon Stillwater. The fish was tempted on a roach deadbait on a dyson rig.

Big eels are elusive fish with a big sense of mystery being totally wild they often lurk undetected within a water with no one aware of their presence. This mystery is the allure of eel angling a total contrast to the commercial side of modern coarse angling.