The mere sight of a small eel hanging on the line after taking a bait intended for other fish, is enough to send most anglers into convulsions. They hate them and want nothing to do with them. But to a small band of dedicated anglers, this is a very sought-after fish. Are these anglers revolted by eels? No. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To this small band of anglers, the eel is a mysterious fish worthy of time and dedication. The British Eel Anglers Club, The National Anguilla Club and The Eel Study Group have amongst their membership some of the most dedicated anglers you will ever meet. To enjoy the sport of eel fishing, you needn't be a member of these clubs, you just have to enjoy catching eels, and remember, that eel has traveled halfway across the world to take up residence in your local water, which is just one reason why they command such a dedicated following.

Although the lifecycle of the eel has been well documented before, I will remind you of the magical journey they make from birth to death.

The eel starts life in the Sargasso Sea off the coastline of north Brazil. The adult eel is thought to die after spawning, though as this act has never been witnessed by man, it cannot be proven. What we do know is that adult eels are never seen again after arriving at the breeding beds. The result of breeding between mature eels is eel larvae. This small ‘glass like’ fish passively drift in the warm gulf stream through the Atlantic, to the shores of Europe. During this slow journey, which takes several years, the eel turns into a small green eel known as an elver. The elvers, on arrival to the European shorelines, head for the freshwater estuaries, where they swim against the tides looking for a resting place. The eel will stay in freshwater for several years, building up its strength for the return journey. During its period in freshwater, the eel will feed heavily on the most abundant food source available to it, and will actually change in appearance to suit this need if necessary.

The eel has, on arrival, a small pointed head with a small mouth which is most suited to feeding on small invertebrates such as snails and worms. Should the eel settle in a river or lake where there is a large supply of small fish, it will change its jaw shape to suit its predator instincts. The head will become a broad shovel shape, and its teeth will become prominent. Should the eel settle in a water where there is a large supply of invertebrates etc., its mouth will remain small and pointed having no need to change shape. This is why there are always two shapes of head amongst eels. After a period of time in freshwater, the eel will normally get the urge to return to the warm Sargasso Sea and spawn. The specialist Eel angler is interested in the exceptions, the eels which have become trapped in a lake, reservoir, gravel pit etc. and which have continued to feed and grow, unable or unwilling to escape the freshwater.

The eel is to be found in 99% of British waters, though the quantity will depend on factors such as inlets and outlets to rivers and streams. The quantity is also dependant upon the ‘E.T.’ factor. The ‘E.T.’ factor is the enemy of both the eel and the angler. The ‘Eel Trapper’ can wipe out generations of eels in several nights work, upsetting the natural balance of the water. So when looking for a water to begin your eel fishing, head for waters with as few inlets and outlets as possible and fish waters where you know trappers have not been working.

Eels can also be found in waters where there are no inlets - eels have been known to cross wet ground in search of a resting place. Some have been found in fields, yards away from the waters they are trying to reach - but don’t try fishing fields on the off-chance of catching one. You are more likely to catch the man in a white suit wanting to take you away to visit his nice warm safe hospital, with a high fence and a regular medication time!

The age of a water is an important consideration. Eels are a very slow growing fish, and can take 10 years to grow 1lb in weight, so, in general, look for the older waters. There are exceptions, such as Weirwood reservoir for example. This reservoir has produced just one eel to date, which weighed 8lb. The reservoir is not particularly old, though it once had a river running through it which was dammed to form the lake. Obviously this eel was making it’s way back to the sea when it became trapped by the dam and subsequently put on a huge amount of weight.

Waters to head for include canals, rivers, gravel pits, lakes, ponds, meres and reservoirs. The list is endless, but what do you do when you think you have found that elusive water holding that special big eel? You are very unlikely to see an eel swimming in a water, and in over 15 yrs of eel fishing I have only seen two eels swimming naturally in a lake, so don't think that by climbing a tree to look for basking eels you will see anything! So what next? What you do is look for any form of underwater feature such as gravel bars, plateaus and shallows. Also look for snaggy areas such as tree roots along islands, sunken bushes and, if you are fishing a river or canal, look for bridges and viaducts, as these areas often hold many snags which provide an ambush point for big eels. Once an area has been located, you can either pre-bait for the eel, or just go for it. I use both methods, depending on the water. If the water is not known for producing eels, I will pre-bait for several weeks on a regular basis using a mixture of old fish, maggots, chopped worms and, if allowed, chicken offal. Please check with your fishing club before baiting up with chicken intestines, as I do not want to be held responsible for your expulsion from the club for breaking the rules.

If the water is known to hold eels, beware. I find that pre-baiting encourages the small ones into the area, which is not what I want, so I tend to avoid pre-baiting. If eels are unknown in the water, I'll try pre-baiting. Big eels are thought to be territorial, and often a big fish will come out on one of the first visits to a particular swim. If none are caught after three trips, move to another part of the water and start the process again of pre-baiting. I have found that you can fish-out certain swims very easily. On many occasions I have caught good eels on the first couple of nights only to find the swim becomes devoid of them on further trips, thus proving, to me anyway, that the eel is territorial. These same swims have remained devoid of eels for several years thereafter, only producing more eels after several years have passed.

The eel is one of only two British fish that can swim backwards, the other being the catfish, and you will need strong tackle to land a big eel. Rods should be capable of both casting small deadbaits and worms great distances and be able to cope with setting the hooks at a distance - there are no self hooking rigs in eel fishing. I find a 12ft rod with a fast taper and 2.75lb test curve just right. Line should be a minimum of 14lbs breaking strain to cope with the snaggy environment you will find yourself fishing. A quality fixed spool reel with a clutch mechanism that can be tightly screwed down will complete the main tackle requirements. A suitably large, deep landing net is advisable, a 44" net with a 6ft pole such as a carp landing net is perfect for those long eels. A good quality unhooking mat is recommended to protect the fish while unhooking. Should you wish to weigh the eel, a good quality weigh sling and dial scales are recommended. If you wish to photograph the fish, having caught one during the hours of darkness, a carp sack with a secure zip is ideal, just be sure it's placed in suitably deep water.

Final tackle requirements are at the business end. Eels have teeth, and a wire trace is a must, especially if there are pike in the water. An eel will make short work of a nylon or braid trace, so don’t risk it! Quicksilver etc is not recommended, trust me, I know. I have even had what would have been a personal best eel bite through a wire trace at the net, so nothing is perfect, but it is better to side with caution and stick with a quality wire trace. Traces should be a minimum of 8" - and more if pike are present in the water. Hooks are a personal choice, though I favour the Drennan Super Specialist and the Partridge Jack Hilton Hooks, which both offer strength and quality at a fair price. Other essential pieces of equipment will include a pair of forceps, pliers, a decent torch, a towel and a good sense of humour!

Bite indication will come in the form of an electronic indicator, which is essential for those long nights when it is impossible to stay awake. Try to avoid the indicators which use a magnetic roller, as these do not seem to detect line coming off the spool which is not under tension. I recommend the old style Optonic with the light roller fitted or the Delkim, which detects line vibration. For the indication on the line, nothing could be more simple, use a lemon squeezy bottle top which hangs on the line below the open bail arm. This bottle top will fall off at the start of a take, leaving the eel to take line freely from the open spool. Eels do not tolerate resistance, so unfortunately you will not be able to use those nice carp swingers, as the eel will drop the bait as soon as it feels the line pull out of the clip. Always fish with an open spool, and not with the baitrunner left on, as this causes resistance and the eel will drop the bait .

Next up - baits, rigs and methods. Oh, and how to unhook 'em!