Fishing Live Eels
Written by John Redmond   

Eels - those slimy, biting, electrified, creepy, squirmy, snake-like, evil, suck the blood from you worse than a leech would ever do, just plain nasty creatures of the deep. I love ‘em. And as long as a lot of other people won’t touch them, well that’s OK by me too.

What we call Eels, the American Eel, Anguilla Rostrata, are a fantastic tool in the quest of our prized Striped Bass. There are all kinds of theories from people saying that the Eel & the Striper are enemies of sorts and attack each other as opportunity presents and up to the fact that they might simply taste to good for a bass to resist. In short, stripers love them and will often suck down an eel when nothing else would get more than a short glimpse.

I was fortunate to learn eeling from my brother-in-law Bill. He’s so into eeling that the first class former editor of The Fisherman – New England Edition, Tim Coleman, labeled him “The Eelman” and wrote numerous articles for that weekly that the nickname soon stuck. One of the best & most hilarious was Stevie Van Stall and the Eelman – but that’s another story.

Sure, so I had heard how great they were and even chunked some a couple times with no success but Bill imparted a lot of his lessons on me and enough of them stuck to where I’ve had some decent success using eels from the surf line.

He basically said this about eels; fish them slow & deep. And always check to make sure you are fishing slow and deep, then check again and again.

Hooking & setting up: eels by nature squirm around a lot. If left to squirm they WILL ball up on your line and wrap themselves to the point that they are useless and your terminal tackle is too. So some basic steps of prevention will go a long way on hooking and keeping the eels.

First hooking the eel. Hooks to be used range from the simple Mustad 6/0 short shank O’Shaugnessy # 94150, to Gamagatsu 6/0 Live Baits 4x, and in some case 5/0-7/0 Non-Offset Circle hooks (the jury is still deliberating which circle is best with eels). As with all hooks, sharpness is the key and easily overlooked – even if you sharpened your hooks, they will dull after hooking several fish or fishing along the bottom – so re-sharpen your hooks!

I like to place the hook into the throat as far back as reasonable (don’t want to hit internal organs), to the back of the jaw and with the point coming through the bottom. This will make the shank of the hook parallel with the bottom jaw and depending on hook model, the eye will just be out of the mouth. Many people are advocated of running the hook inside the mouth and out one of the eyes. It is a good method with some advantages like being less likely to snag on the bottom and a firmer hold to the eel as the hook is held in by some cartilage (or whatever fish have) around the eye socket. It also has some disadvantages that I’ve seen, primarily that you run a good chance of killing the eel much quicker or doing an impromptu lobotomy on the eel. Running your hook thru his brain - that just can’t be good.

Preparing eels: Eels have a couple nasty habits. First, they are like the MacGyver of the aquatic world. Give them the smallest hole and they will get out – and when getting out means getting lost in the back of your car in the heat of summer [Yak] - it gets nasty! Next, the eels that don’t escape are going to ball up in your line into a tangled mess that has little to no hope of being undone. Your eel, your leader, your hook are pretty useless now if you have not prepared them. What I like to do is run a multi-bucket setup. I take one of those smaller shiner buckets and drill holes, ¼ inch diameter, on the bottom from the INSIDE out and then I smooth the whole edges. Going from the inside and then smoothing the wholes prevents the slime from being scraped off the eels quickly, which clogs the holes and drowns the eels. Eels will stay alive and robust for days and even weeks if handled properly. Keep them moist at all costs and keep them cool. If they dry out they are dead. If you add too much water – they die drowned in their own slime. (Note - for a great eel storage alternative check out MacoJoe's Keep Cool Eel Bucket - it works great and really extends the life of live eels). For storage – anything beyond just fishing – I put ice cubes in the shiner bucket (and bring more for replenishing melted ice), wet down the ice or put a piece of wet burlap over the ice. Seaweed works great but why bother chasing it down when a smelly piece of old burlap will do just fine. Place the eels on top of the ice layer / burlap and be certain not to let them out. Being on the ice will significantly slow down their metabolism and keep them alive. This has one FANATASTIC benefit. If they are iced properly you may not need to stun them before putting them on a hook. Deciding whether or not to stun them first takes some time to get used to but they will last even longer while casting if iced well than if they are thwacked hard on a rock to stun.

Now this bucket with all the holes will drip eel slime all over the place (and probably solicit a call from a divorce attorney if dripped in the “significant other’s” car). What I do is take a 5 gallon bucket, place a brick (good weight for traveling) in the bottom and the closed eel bucket on top of the brick. This will allow the ice to melt and run off without drowning the eels. Using a brick ensures that you have a while before needing to drain. This 2 bucket arrangement also allows you to put ice on top of the eel bucket so as it melts, it drips on top of the eels – keeping them moist. With proper rotation of eels and ice, you can keep them alive for well beyond a week but it does require constant maintenance.

So what’s all this talk about needing to “stun” the eel? Remember how we said the eel WILL ball up on the line? Well if iced down properly the eel’s metabolism will be slowed and you can get a few casts in as the eel wakes up, at which point having been hurled out a few times, it’s docile enough to not ball up on your line yet lively enough to “swim” better. If not iced, the eel needs to be stunned. By gripping the eel somewhat lightly behind the head, whack the last third of the eel against a rock or something fairly hard. If fishing the sandy beaches with nothing hard around, you can whack the eel against the bait bucket.

Terminal Tackle: Above I mentioned which hooks were suggested. I do want to touch on one important item for fishing with spinning reels – Swivels. The eel will twirl around your line when retrieved on a spinner. You want to use a strong and free spinning swivel to help prevent that twirling. With a conventional this is less of a problem as the line is wound directly onto the reel and does not impart spin on the line. That’s also one of the advantages of using a conventional. A few years ago, Joe “Flip” and I were fishing the drop at the Charlestown Breachway. When we got there, it was packed and everyone was complaining about the weeds. Cast after cast everyone brought in massive globs of weeds on their lines – almost always at the swivel – and complained of no fish. Most of the people started to leave at this point. Joe and I, both having tired directly from running lines to leaders with smoothed knots and no swivels were able to drift almost weed free and hook up on fish! And we got more than a few fish that night. No monsters but when most of the fish are keepers when everyone else manages just weeds – that’s a pretty good night. Eels can often have an advantage in weedy areas over regular plugs. They are by no means weed proof but with some effort you can keep the weeds off when others cannot – this does not apply to Mung. One version of the new Spro swivels allows an 80# strength swivel with as small a profile as tying directly to your leader on conventional. I would recommend these swivels even though they are relatively pricey.

OK – eeling 101: As Bill said – slow and deep. You are going to work the eel much as you would a slow plug – cast & retrieve style. And that’s what eeling often is; working a live bait like you would a favorite plug – the best of both worlds. When you first start, you will want to cast the eel out a little easily until you find the sweet spot for casting the eel without ripping out the hook. Too hard of a cast will cause the eels to be lost. Depending on depth and current, give the eel a few seconds to settle towards the bottom. Why the bottom? That’s where the bigger fish tend to be. Slowly reel the eel in. When you think you are going slow, slow down some more. I’ve found that the best speed ranges from 3 to 5 seconds per revolution of the reel’s handle with 5 seconds being optimum (on a medium 5-1 ratio conventional reel - this will vary by reel tyoe and size). This depends on the fish’s activity, current, structure, and other factors too numerous to count. Varying your speed, as with most lures, often applies here.

Work the bottom! You want to work the bottom so that you are almost hanging up. Almost. When you are fishing, you want the eel to do most of the work. You want the eel to make a beeline behind that big rock or over that edge of trough, as that is where the basses play.

Nine times out of ten, you will get a good Bump, Bump, IMMEDIATELY bow your rod to the fish. An eel swimming along naturally is not supposed to have tension on it so neither should the one you fish. Often, a tight line as a bass sucks down an eel might be enough to spook the fish. Again, bow the rod down and point the rod tip at the fish.

Wait time? With regular spinning reels I’ve been told to bow to the fish wait a second until you fell it running and the line tightening, then setup on the fish (or start reeling in if circle hook). With Conventionals and “Baitrunner” spinning reels, you can let them take some line 2-5 seconds is more than enough, reel in, get taught, and set the hook. I prefer to keep the run time a little short. I may miss a couple more fish but then again, I won’t gut hook them either. A L O N G run will often result in a gut hooked fish. So use circles or consider shorter runs.

So now the fish is on, eh? And she’s (hopefully a she) a little tweaked, fight the fish and get it in safely. Like all other fishing, be certain to have several safe ways mapped out to retrieve the fish and to remove the hook and release the fish if that’s what you are going to do.

Last thing? Eels are VERY resilient creatures. I’ve caught Three high 20#ers and a 30 #er all on the same eel – and it lived. I was so in debt to this eel that I released it knowing that it’s tracheotomy would grow over ;) …

Good luck & Enjoy Eelin!

John Redmond
Chief Cook & Bottle Washer

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