The Conger Eel: Fishing Advice
The conger (Conger conger) is one of those fish, like the pike, that assembles legends around itself. For one thing, unlike most sea fish, conger tend to keep to one place, so that the presence of a monster in a local reef or in the crevices of a harbour wall may be known to anglers over a number of years.
Naturally, the fish’s fame grows in proportion to the amount of tackle that it smashes. Fearsome tales are told of the power of congers, how with a blow of the tail they smash the thwarts and gunnels of small boats, and how their jaws are capable of reducing to pulp the unwary hand or foot.
It has to be admitted that the conger is a dangerous and tough customer to have in the boat. It is a very strong, muscular fish, and when one considers that conger of more than 36 kg (801b) have been landed on rod and line, and that many bigger fish remain unlanded, it is easy to believe the strangest stories. Many anglers have developed a healthy fear of the conger.
This aura of evil which congers seem able to produce is intensified by the kind of place where it is necessary to fish for them, particularly from the shore. One spot I know, very productive of good conger, is near an old hulk, far up a deep inlet of the sea, where there is scarcely ever any rough water, and where the sea seems to take on a hue of deep bottle green from the trees on the shore which overshadow it. The water is very deep, and at night the atmosphere of this ‘conger pit’ is almost palpable.
There is little likelihood of mistaking a conger for any other fish, even the common eel. Proportionately, the conger is very much thicker than the common eel, its eyes are much bigger, and above all its jaws are plainly much more formidable, both in size and muscular power. They are equipped with a fearsome set of cutting teeth, and once the fish has made up its mind to hang on they are almost impossible to separate. If you catch a conger over rocky ground he is likely to be a darker fish than one which is taken on sand, brownish-black as opposed to a slaty tinge in the latter case. The belly is usually whiter in the case of a conger caught over sand.
Most authorities state that the conger migrate to deep water once the hard weather starts, and this is probably true in many localities. However, in south Pembrokeshire, where most of my conger fishing has been done, the fish seem to remain inshore right through the year. This might well be true of other localities where mild winters are experienced — the West Country for instance, or the west of Ireland. A spell of very hard weather may possibly drive the fish off shore. There are many recorded incidents of conger being washed up dead in very cold weather.
This lack of seasonal movement may be due to the fact that congers make a spawning journey only once in their lifetime. This is a formidable undertaking, for the goal is the abyssal depth of the Atlantic where the spawning ground may be more than 480 m (1,600 ft) deep (Travis Jenkins). The behaviour of congers ripe for spawning has been observed in aquaria. The development of milt and doe is accompanied by deterioration in the fish itself, affecting the teeth and bones, as calcium is withdrawn from the body. Male congers seem to become sexually mature when they are around 60 cm (2 ft) in length; all big congers caught are female. The females may be twice this length, or very much larger, before they begin their spawning journey. It is an interesting fact that the biggest fish to be found inshore — fish of more than 46 kg (100 lb) in weight — are unspawned maiden fish. The conger does not return from its spawning journey, but dies once it has been accomplished.
As far as fishing is concerned, late autumn is the best time of the year for congers. Possibly this is due to the fact that they feed extra well at this time against the leaner time to be expected in the winter and the spring. Settled weather seems to induce them to feed with confidence, and the traditional idea that eels are stirred up and ravenous during thundery weather seems to be borne out by experience.
Congers are certainly night-feeding fish for the most part, and the angler must fish at night if he hopes to get among the big ones. Small congers up to 4.5 kg (10 lb) or so will feed during daylight, however, and it seems possible that when very deep water is fished there is no significant difference between daylight and night fishing.
There has been little modern investigation into the growth rate of congers. However, it would seem that the fish is very fast-growing and short-lived — an idea rather at odds with the traditional one that these mighty congers are ancient fish. J. T. Cunningham, a nineteenth-century authority on marine fishes, declared that a conger in Southport aquarium reached a weight of 41 kg (901b) in five and a half years.
Congers are chiefly found on rough ground, wherever there are crannies where they can lie up during the day, and from which they can ambush passing fish. Harbours and piers usually have a few resident conger, particularly where fish are landed and possibly gutted. These harbour conger will often take up residence in a cranny in the harbour wall which dries out at low water of spring tides, but they don’t seem to mind. Conger are also left high and dry occasionally amongst the rocks of the foreshore, where they are sometimes come upon by men out for crabs and lobsters. Once you have observed how congers can conceal themselves in the rocks you will be reluctant to put a hand ‘blind’ into a rock crevice.
Although most congers spend all the daylight hours concealed in rocks or stonework, at night they will often venture out across the sands in pursuit of fish. Sometimes it is a good idea, when night fishing, not to fish right on to the reef itself but to drop the bait a short distance away on to clear ground. As we shall see, this gives the angler a considerable advantage in landing the fish.
Sometimes congers will venture far up estuaries, presumably in pursuit of shoal fish, but they are unlikely to take up residence unless there is rocky ground for them to lie up in.
Although quite large conger can be taken close inshore —specimens of up to 28 kg (60 lb) have been caught in harbours —the bigger fish seem to prefer off-shore reefs where there is a good depth of water, and presumably a better food supply.
The conger’s diet is mostly made up of fish. I do not know what species form the basic diet of conger, but presumably fish that frequent the rocks are the most likely. Rockling, Pouting, and. Pollack clearly comprise a good proportion of the conger’s food supply, and at night, when the big eels venture out over the sand and mud, they undoubtedly eat other species such as Dabs and gurnards. Crustaceans must figure in the diet as well, and many crabs fall victim, as do squid and cuttlefish when they are available. Conger usually feed at the bottom, but there are times when they will cruise in search of food along the weeds which skirt the rocks. This is particularly true of harbour conger, which sometimes patrol the walls near the surface.