Conger Fishing: Baits, Tackle and Fishing Methods
Traditionally the conger fisherman is advised always to use fresh bait, and many conger experts would not dream of going fishing with stale bait. Stale bait has no advantage over the fresh stuff, apparently, so the best advice is to use bait as fresh as can be managed, though the fact that it is unobtainable should not be taken as ruling out all possibility of fishing.
Oily fish like herring and Mackeral make attractive conger baits. Congers seem to hunt by smell, and the traces of oil given off by the fish mentioned will undoubtedly draw the eels into the vicinity. In Cornwall another oily fish, pilchard, is much in use.
Of the other fishes likely to be available as bait, a small Pouting or poormakes a very good bait indeed. In fact, a small pouting fished whole is the bait that I prefer above any other for conger. Conger take small pollack, but not, I feel, so readily as the other fishes mentioned. Rockling can be used, and if squid is plentiful in the neighbourhood it can be a deadly bait. Conger have been caught on such unlikely baits as rabbits’ guts, but it will probably pay the angler to be more orthodox than this.
There is a strong case to be made out for using nothing but a handline for big conger. The fight is usually one of brute strength, and the rod, unless it is very strong, tends to be more of a hindrance than a help. But since it is one of the basic tenets of sporting sea fishing that a rod should be used, we had better start thinking in terms of one that will do the job. A short boat rod of the toughest kind is the only one to use where big conger are expected. A big conger is a much tougher proposition than a blue shark, but usually a shark rod is heavier than one used for conger. In my opinion, a big game-rod, test curve somewhere around 12 kg (25 lb) or even more, is the only weapon that will give you half a chance with big conger fished for over an off-shore reef.
The line should be 46 kg (100 lb) b.s. of Terylene or Dacron, not monofilament, for a reason which will emerge in a moment. The trace should be in proportion as regards strength, and of cable-laid steel wire. The swivels must be carefully tested for strength before being used. The hook should be very sharp — many conger are lost quite mysteriously at the boatside when they spit the hook out. The lead, arranged to run on the line above the, should be heavy enough to hold bottom in the kind of tide you are fishing. A pear-shaped lead is less likely to foul in the rocks than one of any other kind. Some anglers use several swivels on the trace since the conger has a habit of round. This tactic, without the relief of a swivel, can weaken the line. The head should be very strong and lashed on firmly. A -head gaff is not of much use in conger fishing, once again because of the twisting tactics of the fish. A big-game belt with a socket for the rod butt is an advantage in fishing where congers run big.
It should be realized that in these directions I am visualizing the possibility of a 23 kg (50 lb) plus fish turning up. Most congers, of course, will be below this weight, and sport with them will be largely lost on heavy tackle. But it is the really big fish that have always fascinated sea anglers and there is no chance at all of landing these unless really formidable tackle is used. If you are daylight fishing some harbour or pier where only small conger are expected, then it would be sensible to scale tackle down, but for serious conger specimen hunting only the toughest gear will do.
Congers very often mouth the bait a good deal before taking it properly. Some conger fishermen strike on the first knock, on the grounds that if the fish is hooked it is easier to keep it clear of the bottom, but most judge it better to wait for a positive, slow run and hit that.
Hit the fish hard, and try to gain as much line as possible in the first few seconds, knocking the fish off-balance, as it were. The instinct of every conger is to regain its lair in the rocks, and once it has managed to get its immensely muscular tail around an obstruction it becomes almost impossible to move.
That is why a plaited line, rather than monofilament, is recommended. There is a measurable amount of stretch in monofil nylon which may be all that the conger needs, especially in deep water, where several feet of stretch may be involved. If you can keep the conger away from the bottom for the first few minutes of the fight, the worst is over and the remainder is an up-and-down fight. A big conger is immensely strong, but eventually a continuous strain will tell, though there will be moments when it will seem problematical whether you can outstay the fish.
Once you have the conger on the surface, it is desirable to get the gaff in as swiftly as possible, and to keep the surface splashing down to a minimum. In the case of a really big conger, two gaffs are better than one; in any case be prepared to put the rod down and go to the aid of the gaffsman to haul the fish inboard as swiftly as you can.
Once in the boat, the conger can still be a menace. A heavy blow over the vent will keep it quiet for a time, but do not try to regain the hook until the conger is certainly dead — it’s better to put on a new trace and recover the other at your leisure much later on. While the fish is still stunned, get it into a sack, where the harm it can do is minimized.
A big conger can turn up almost anywhere, but the rocky Atlantic coasts of the south and south-west seem to be the most productive of big fish. By and large, the east coast of England, sandy and low-lying for the most part, is not a particularly good area for conger. Off-shore wrecks, however, are clearly an exception to this rule. Devon and Cornwall provide good conger fishing from the rocks and harbours; the best harbours are those that still maintain a fleet of small trawlers and where fish may be gutted on the quayside, or fish waste thrown overboard. The sea inlet at Dartmouth, in South Devon, offers good conger fishing. The west coast of Britain generally is good for conger, particularly where there are rocks. There are huge conger in Milford Haven, but they are difficult to fish because of the big tides. When the big holes can be fished, however, a really monster conger — ie. 23 kg (501b) plus — is always a possibility. The hazards of landing a very big conger on rod and line from a characteristic rocky conger haunt are pretty intimidating, however.
There are excellent possibilities of specimen conger on the Scottish coast, particularly on the west coast, and the species is present in most Irish waters. There must be some huge conger lurking, for instance, around the wreck of the Lusitania, from which such splendid catches of ling have been made.
Fishing for specimen conger offers great scope to the keen sea angler at the moment, especially in view of the possibility of a new record. One day, perhaps when you are fishing well off shore, the pouting will stop their nibblings and there will come a long, powerful draw at the rod tip that will announce the first one of 46 kg (100 lb) to be landed on rod and line.