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!!


Unlocking the mystery of the eel

Unlocking the mystery of the eel

Wistlandpound Reservoir was created in an enduring feat of engineering by building a clay core dam  across Bratton Stream during the late 1950’s. It supplies water to a large area of North Devon and has become a popular area for walkers and is used by the Calvert Trust to provide adventure holidays for disabled adults and children. The lake is managed by The South West Lakes Trust who also control angling at the venue which has a long history as a trout fishery.

My good friend Steve Dawe is a keen eel angler and member of the National Anguilla Club and we got talking about waters that contain eels and in particular large eels. I recalled how twenty or more years ago eels had become trapped in the inlet of the local water works and that these eels were of a good size.

Wistlandpound had never to our knowledge been fished for eels and it is a well-known fact amongst eel anglers that venues that have not been fished and have limited access for eels can hold the eels of dreams. The European eel has been known to live to over 100 years so it is possible that any eels trapped within Wistlandpound when the dam was constructed could still be present.

Steve and I spoke with Ben Smeeth who is head of angling at SWLT and after due consideration Ben agreed to an exploratory session to investigate the lakes eel potential.

Steves credentials as an eel angler are well documented so it was a welcome opportunity for me to join Steve and learn more about how to catch specimen eels. Whilst I have caught many eels over the years I have never caught a specimen of over 3lb and this target is now firmly in my sights.

Eventually in mid-June I met up with Steve and struggled to the banks of a depleted Wistlandpound with an array of tackle, bivvies’ and provisions. The weather forecast was a little ominous with a weather warning in place for thunderstorms and possible flash floods! This did little to dent our enthusiasm as eels are reported to become  more active during thunderstorms.

With the reservoir at around 60% capacity we had a good choice of accessible bank and selected a swim that gave access to deep water.

Steve gave me useful advice on the rigs to use and how to mount the small dead-baits to give a good chance of hooking an eel. Fortunately, we arrived before the rain and managed to get set up before it arrived in spectacular fashion accompanied by a very long resounding  rumble of thunder.

The rain beat down on our shelters and I looked out the rods hoping that a run would not come at this time. After a couple of hour’s, the rain eventually eased and we brewed a hot drink and began chatting about fish and fishing.

Suddenly Steve’s alarm burst into life and he was at his rod in expectation. To our disappointment he failed to connect and reeled in to find that his bait was gone.

We didn’t have long to wait though for within minutes my alarm sounded and I hoked into the culprit. It was no eel but a stunning wild brown trout of around 1lb 8oz.

Within half an hour Steve was in action again and connected this time to bring to the net a stunning wild brown trout that must have been over 3lb. I wondered just how big these wild browns grow to within the lake. I suspect there are a few surprises as there is now an abundance of silvery rudd residing in the lake perfect prey the lakes wild browns to grow to a large size.

Recent seasons have unfortunately been blighted by an abundance of thick green algae making fly Fishing difficult at times. Whilst trout are no longer stocked into the reservoir there is a good head of wild brown trout present and I am sure that Fly Fishing during the autumn could produce the goods as these large browns feed on the lakes abundant fry.

As the evening descended Steve and I talked extensively about our fishing lives and the many places  that we have visited and plan to perhaps visit in the future.

As we chatted we frequently cast our eyes upon the rods perched beside the lake their tips pointing into the green water. As the light faded expectation grew as this was surely the eels meal time?

After last hot drinks we both retired to our shelters to catch some sleep. Occasionally an alarm would give a single bleep and I would tense in anticipation. On one occasion I looked out to see a shadow flit away from the rods, an inquisitive fox I believe.

Just before light some type of bird gave a repeated cry that echoed around the lake in a strange almost stereo like mode. I spoke to Steve later who thought it could have been a type of hawk. Thinking back, I should have recorded it on my phone.

I snoozed intermittently as a grey and misty day dawned. I took a look at the weather forecast that told of heavy rain from 8.00am. The rods remained poised at the waters edge but by now our expectations of catching the mysterious eel had faded. After a rushed brew and breakfast we packed away our gear to escape before the rain. The question remains unanswered for now. The problem is that life is short and big eels can take time to find.

Fortunately there are plenty of other SWLT waters that have proven big eel potential. Upper Tamar lake, Lower Tamar, Melbury and Jennets all hold eels of over 4lb with far bigger eels likely to be lurking in the mysterious depths.



Once again as you may not have access to a shop for your Journal here is last weeks report.


            Whilst angling is on hold the natural world in which we normally cast our lines continues in all its glory. The first swallows and martins have now started to arrive after their epic journey and will be swooping low over the waters we normally fish. Less obvious to many will be the migrations that take place within our waterways as equally wonderous migrations occur.

The elver run should now be underway with many thousands off these small eels arriving in our rivers to forge upstream and populate ponds, rivers, lakes and canals. The eels begin their journey as larvae drifting the ocean currents from the eels mysterious breeding grounds in the Sargasso sea situated within an area of the renowned Bermuda Triangle. It is a sea located within the Atlantic Ocean and is unique in that it has no land boundaries. It is formed and bonded by four currents that form an ocean gyre. Within the sea grows a characteristic brown sargassum seaweed. The waters are renowned for their clarity and yet the spawning of the eels has never been witnessed.

The mysterious life cycle of the eel adds a fascination that has entranced a minority of anglers who seek to catch the large eels that lurk within many waters. The adult eels live in freshwater until they develop an instinctive urge to return once again to the mysterious Sargasso many thousands of miles from our shores. Some eels can remain in freshwater for in excess of fifty years and grow to a weight of over 10lb. A quick search on that wonder of modern times revealed that one European eel was reported to have lived to the grand old age of 155.  Specimen sized eels of over four pounds are an angling challenge that can become an obsession.  They can be found in a vast variety of waters and as they are not stocked and feed mostly at night their presence is only to be ascertained by actually catching them. There are documented cases of eels over 10lb in Devon waters and there are undoubtedly eels present that could shatter the existing British Record of 11lb 2oz.

The eel population has sadly plummeted over recent years and the species is presently classified as endangered. There is a fascinating section on eels in Charles Rangley-Wilsons fascinating book; Silver Shoals, a book that is well worth obtaining during this time of lockdown.

It is now several weeks since any substantial rainfall and the regions rivers are dropping quickly. I spoke recently with Ivan Huxtable who has managed fishing on the popular Weir Marsh and Brightly day ticket salmon fishing beats on the Taw for around thirty years. Ivan has reluctantly decided to hand over the reigns to his good friend Chris Steer who will now issue permits once this pandemic is over. Chris will be contactable on 07761285169. Ivan has eagerly reported many salmon catches to me over the years and always shared in the joy of angler’s success. He told me that he values the many friends he has made within the angling fraternity. Ivan is known to many for his valiant Exmoor Rambles to raise huge sums for local causes including valuable equipment for North Devon District Hospitals Cardiology, Seamoor – Chemotherapy Units and the North Devon Hospice.

Whilst angling is a very low risk activity in relation to COVID-19 the angling community has totally embraced the government guidelines. The message to stay home and Stay safe is clear. Fortunately angling will hopefully bounce back as the waters we fish await largely unaffected.



BIg Eels at Stafford Moor

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Steve Pinn ( Above) landed this big eel at Stafford Moor using Pepperami.

Eel specialist Alan Jump landed this fine 4lb 6oz specimen at Stafford Moor.

Big eels can turn up in many different waters and Stafford Moor is gaining a reputation as a water capable of showing up some really big specimens with eels close to double figures a real possibility.


There is more than carp and catfish in Paradise!

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Trevor Walker, 61 from Wakefield landed this gorgeous 6lb 3oz Koi from the Koi Lake – An awesome picture of colourful fish.

William Leonard, 18 from Harlow, Essex had a very successful week catching a variety of exoctic species including this stunner!
William caught this very rare and unusual 3lb 8oz Two Tone Golden Tench from the Specimen Tench and Orfe Lake using the traditional lift method with an Allcock Aerial Match Centrepin and handmade float. The bait of choice was sweetcorn fished in the margins.

Jacob Wise in this picture is an Angler who does love to catch eels, this one was from the Octopussy Lake, there are eels the Lakes up to 6lbs may be more!

Anglers Paradise

Really Good eels – At Stafford Moor

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(Above)Ian Philimore with his eel catch from Beattie’s lake this weekend , Ian didn’t know the weight as he didn’t weigh it but fabulous catch !

(Above) Eddie Baldwin with a fine eel of 7lb 3oz!

Carp anglers at Stafford Moor sometimes get more than they bargain for ! The above eels were accidental catches but I know of eels to over 8lb caught by design. The attraction with eels to some is the mystery that surrounds them for these are wild fish that live hidden within our waters and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that eels in excess of the British Record live in waters in North Devon.