Catching Eel: Anguilla anguilla
The eel (Anguilla anguilla) is a true fish, having gills and scales. Its scales are not readily apparent, being small, oblong in shape, and embedded in the skin. They are arranged in little groups placed obliquely and at right angles to each other. The scales show rates of growth clearly; they suggest that male silver eels ranging from 30-50 cm (12-20 ins) in length have spent 4-1/2 – 8-1/2 years, and female eels of 35-65 cm (14-26 ins) 6-1/2 – 8-1/2 years in fresh or brackish waters.
There is only one kind of eel in British waters; variations in colour simply indicate different stages in the eel’s remarkable life-history.
The eel is a wonderfully mysterious fish. Only in comparatively recent years have we found out much about it. The final evidence of the eel’s extraordinary migrations came to us only after the First World War.
Many years ago, a tiny fish was discovered on the surface waters of the Atlantic. It was shaped like a willow leaf, transparent, tiny-headed, and with a flattened body. In the first instance it was not connected with the eel, but in 1893 two marine biologists, Calandruccio and Grassi, finally proved that it developed into the young eel or elver.
The final solving of the mystery was left to Dr Johannes Schmidt, of the research ship Dana. He found one specimen of the young eel off the Faeroe Isles, a second specimen off the west coast of Ireland, and then more in the north-east Atlantic. His discovery induced him to make a systematic search for very young eels. Eventually he found them in large numbers, above the 500 fathom line to the west of the British Isles, and then all along this line from the Faeroes to the north of Spain.
It was thus established that eels need deep water for spawning purposes. Investigating further he found that as he travelled west from where the 500 fathom line began, he caught the larvae in larger numbers, but smaller in size. Finally his search ended with the discovery that the largest concentration of the smallest larvae lay in the northern area of the Sargasso Sea. This was in the year 1922.
The results of the investigations showed that when eels are almost adult they change to silver, leave their freshwater haunts in Britain and Europe, and make their way to the sea. This happens in the autumn; by the spring of the next year they have reached their breeding ground in the Sargasso Sea. After the laying and fertilization of the eggs it is assumed that they die, as there is no proof that any adults come back.
It is reported that transparent eggs, thought to be those of the eel, have been found in the top 180 m (600 ft) of the Sargasso, floating up from the deep spawning waters. The tiny larvae grow slowly and as they do so are carried, not far below the surface, in the prevailing Atlantic currents towards the coast of Europe. The geographical distribution of the eel is due to these ocean currents, which flows eastwards and north-eastwards from the middle of the Atlantic. It takes the larvae until the second summer to reach a length of 5 cm (2 ins) and by the third they are full grown at 7.5 cm (3 ins). By this time they have reached the
European coast. By the following autumn and winter they have reached the elver stage and in the spring they commence their run up the rivers.
Some of the details of this migration are still uncertain. There is a body of opinion which believes that the male eel usually stays in the estuaries while it is the female that runs up the rivers and streams to inhabit the ponds, ditches, and lakes.
There is also considerable doubt whether British eels ever succeed in getting back to their South Atlantic spawning grounds. The currents are thought to be against them on the return trip. If this theory is correct, it is the North American eels that return to perpetuate the species.
Where to find eels? They exist in many waters, but some are favoured by them more than others. Generally speaking you will find them in quantity in those areas where the rivers have a good elver run. Somerset, for example, has a big eel population thanks to the fact that there is a large elver run up the Parrett during the spring. As most waters in the country are interconnected, every water gets its quota of eels.
Eels are to be found in disused clay pits, ponds, drains, canals, and rivers. They are also found in reservoirs, where, from the trout point of view, they are a menace. Strange to say, although big eels do undoubtedly exist in many reservoirs, they are usually extremely difficult to catch. In the reservoir at Durleigh, Somerset, for example, quite a number of eels up to 2 kg (4 lb) or so are found at intervals in the sump, yet a number of attempts by anglers to catch them in the reservoir itself has met with little success.
Canals, as a rule, hold quite a large eel population. The Bridgwater and Taunton Canal is an example. The canal supplies the Bridgwater Docks with water and elvers work their way into it in considerable numbers from the Parrett via the Docks. This canal, like most others, has a series of locks to overcome the difference in ground levels. Although eels are to be found in many sections, they seem to concentrate more in the region of the locks, especially on waters that no longer carry any boat traffic. Usually they are on the lower side when both gates are shut but if the lower gate is open they can be found in the lock itself.
The largest eels prefer waters which have a mud bottom. Where the bottom is of rock, stone, or gravel they tend to run smaller. They prefer static or slowly moving waters to fast-running streams or rivers.
Stone walls that have crevices such as those under bridges or tunnels are a great attraction to eels. A local angler fishing for roach hooked and successfully landed a 6 lb specimen from such a location. Disused brick-yard ponds often hold some outsize specimens and if I were going to try for an eel to beat the existing rod-caught record I should give some of these a trial.