Conger fishing, especially for the bigger specimens is often associated with the south coast of the UK, fishing into some of the big sunken wrecks in the English Channel. Many eels however are caught from around the north west Wales coast and from the wrecks in the Irish Sea and Liverpool bay.
The current British boat record for a conger eel stands at 133lb taken from Devon in 1995. Whilst the Welsh boat record pales slightly at only 62lb taken from Milford Haven in 1996.
The welsh record though is there for the taking, and with eels to 50lb coming aboard My Way last year, we have set a few days aside for a concerted conger expedition. With the WFSA not requiring the fish to be killed and brought ashore any longer, this has given added impetus for many anglers to look for bigger prey, plenty of good quality photographs against sizable objects are required, and the WFSA committee will then pass judgement on the catch.
It takes time and effort to target such fish, but can be equally rewarding in the photograph and massive sense of achievement, even if a record is not found, the bigger fish will be there.
Identification, Habitat & Feeding
There are up to 8 species of conger eel to be found in the sea. However the conger eel (conger oceanicus) as we know it is the largest with fish in excess of 200lb reported in commercial nets. The congers body is a slimy smooth skin, with no scales whatsoever.
With a large head and protruding lower jaw, the conger tends to have a dark grey top half and white underside. Both the dorsal and anal fins have a black tint to the edges.
There is often much confusion between small conger and a common eel, the best method to distinguish between the 2 is by the dorsal fin. On a conger this fin begins inline with the pectoral fins, where as on a common eel, the dorsal fin starts well back from the pectoral fin line.
Congers around our shores are predominantly fish feeders, with mackerel, pouting, poor cod and whiting being part of the staple diet. Cuttlefish and squid are also renowned for taking some big conger eels. Congers appear quite happy to lay in wait in their lairs and then ambush passing prey.
Conger favour very rough ground, from very rocky reefs rough mixed ground and old ship wrecks. In such ground they can find various holes or lairs to lie up and hide from their prey. Congers are nocturnal feeders; however in depths of over 100 foot tend to feed around the clock. Some of the ground and wrecks around Holyhead are in only 60ft of water and the congers here tend to feed mainly after dark, adding weight to this thought, however the odd eel does put in an appearance from these shallower grounds in daylight.
Not an awful lot I can tell you about the breeding cycle of conger eels. It has been a long held belief that congers travel thousands of mile to the Saragossa Sea to spawn in depths of thousands of feet. No amount of research on the internet seems to confirm or deny the actual goings on. One of the mysteries of the sea maybe?
This is a hard subject to cover. Traditionally to cope with the 50lb+ eels that many crave for a reputable 30 -50lb class rod is required to bully the strong fighting fish to the surface. If fishing for big conger on a regular basis, then this type of rod really is a must for you. However it is an expense to go to if only fishing conger on occasions.
We have had many fish come aboard from straps of a few pound to 50lb fish all caught on good uptide rods.
It becomes a little more stressful and slightly harder to control with the added rod length, and more subtle build of an uptider, but the rod will cope with the fish in our waters, and will also see many hours pleasurable fishing for other species from dogs to tope. I have two favoured uptiders, – Abu Suveran and the Gemini, not being a tackle tart, these are a good few years old but still perform as required. There are many other quality uptiders to meet all pockets – check out the various ranges such as Daiwa, Shimano and Abu.
Stand up rods if big congers are going to be the norm can be found from Penn, Daiwa and Shimano.
Reels as with rods, need to be robust and capable for the job. There is the old adage of buy cheap and you buy twice, and I feel this is certainly the case when it comes to reels. Naturally there are reels on the market to suit all budgets, but if your angling is to continue, and your enjoyment is paramount, it is worth taking time and browsing around for a deal to get you a good fishing reel. Reels such as the ABU Ambassadeur 7000 range or Daiwa Slo30sh are both reels I own and use regular in pursuit of many species, in particular tope and conger. Another good strong multiplier often overlooked by the boat angler is the Penn mag range – strong and robust but also with magnetic control for ease when uptiding.
Rigs are very simple and straight forward, with no complicated pieces of tackle to clip here and there. A basic running ledger is all you need. The trace should be around 4 – 6 ft in length and made up of mono with a breaking strain between 150 and 250lb; on one end of the trace a good size 2 or bigger swivel and on the business end a strong 8/0 hook. Some anglers prefer to use a pennel rig, where to hooks are used inside the same bait, not entirely necessary and down to personal choice.
Stay away from wire though, it may be strong and can withstand the craggy surrounds slightly better than mono – but it kinks and twists terribly, and often comes back looking like a cork screw!
Slight advantage A trick learned from Irish angling colleagues is the use of a pirk just before the bait. ~This chrome metal bar, often also used as the weight in heavier tides, adds a glimmer to the bait to help entice the conger to feed on your offerings. Another trick used by a friend of mine when both conger and tope fishing is the addition of a few ~Booby Beads to the rig – the vibration and noise helping the eel hone in on your bait.
One of the best baits and most conventional for conger fishing is a fresh mackerel flapper. This is where the tail and backbone of the mackerel is removed from the fish and the hook inserted through the lower jaw and out between the eyes. The fleshy sides then ‘flap’ in the tide, releasing scent and giving movement to the bait.
Beware when using this method with frozen mackerel on the reefs and inshore wrecks around Anglesey. With the abundance of dogfish in the area, they tend to move in on the bait and spoil your conger hunt before it has got started. Some preferred baits aboard My Way include, whitefish such as whiting, pouting and poor cod, especially when fresh or live. Additionally squid and cuttlefish have accounted for some quality congers for us.
Congers are hard fighting fish, reputed to be the only fish in the British Isles to physically swim backwards; the fight is made up of thumping big nods as the fish slowly edges closer to its lair and around the safety of the nearest rock or crevice.
9 times from ten though, the initial bite from a conger is the shyest you will ever feel. The smallest of rattles, sometimes brushed away as a small poor cod having a nibble, can result in a jaw dropping fight that the angler was far from expecting. If the rattle are not noted, look out for the rod tip, slowly bending down as the eel picks up the bait and retreats to comfort and safety for the main meal.
If you notice these small rattles, or slight downward movement I the rod, pick the rod up slowly, and reel down the slack line.
What do you do? Wait, slowly pick up or strike hard and reel like hell!?
Situations vary and only experience after each fish will help guide you in the right direction. What you need to bear in mind is that the congers are surrounded by rough broken ground, from which they can nearly always find some form of protection; a known method being to wrap their bodies around some rock of wreckage and not budging – your patience or the line parting well before the fish.
Personally I will reel down, taking in the slack line, then wait for the next distinctive movement in the line/rod tip, at this point I will slowly lift the bait. At this point you may feel subtle resistance or a god almighty whack as the conger snaffles the bait and makes for home. If hooked up, I’ll make a few quick turns on the reel, lowering and lifting the rod as required, thus hopefully clearing the eel from the ground, only at this point will I slacken off and allow the fish to take some line off me. If allowed to get to safety you can kiss goodbye to that fish.