Casting eels at night in the August surf is a sure bet to fend off the summer doldrums.
Fishing with eels is a tried-and-true method for surfcasters to land a “keeper” bass, especially in the summer months when the inshore water temperatures rise and striped bass become lethargic. Whether fished live, dead, dead and rigged, on a jig or skinned, the eel might just be the most versatile bait we have to offer today. But where does one begin when past eel fishing experiences are nil? To the newbie eel-fisher, the prospect can quickly turn from eager anticipation to slimy ball of aggravation in short order.
First and foremost you need to acquire some eels to fish. Most any saltwater tackle shop from Maine to the Mid-Atlantic and beyond has a large bait tank stocked with live eels from spring through late fall. While some shops have no problem tossing a batch of eels into a shopping bag to let the customer deal with on the ride home, I strongly advise that you bring a bucket to transport your bait. If you forget the bucket check with the shop to see if they sell bait buckets—you’ll be happy you did. If you plan to do a lot of eel fishing, consider purchasing a dedicated 5-gallon bucket with secure lid. I paint all of my eel buckets black on the inside so that the eels retain their dark color, but I’ve landed plenty of big bass on light-colored eels, so this may be more in my head than based on real-world results.
I like to buy my eels by the dozen, but keep in mind that there is a possession limit on American eels. Currently it is a 25-eel per angler limit with a minimum length of 9 inches for all states from Maine to Delaware for private recreational anglers. On an average night I carry eight to ten eels at a time so any extras are kept in a holding tank at home. I have found that carrying eight eels is a good number to both have enough bait on hand when the bite is good, but not too many that carrying them becomes cumbersome. Keep in mind that I opt for the absolute largest eels I can find, so I could probably carry more eels if I preferred the shoe-stringers as many refer to the small ones.
You can throw some ice directly on your eels to slow them down, but in general I do not opt for this as eels will drown if left in melted water. A better technique for transporting live eels is to place them in a small bucket which is then placed inside a cooler with some ice. You can also keep them in a larger bucket and add a ½-gallon juice container filled with water and frozen. This will contain the melted water while still keeping the eels cool. Also, as it “sweats” it will add a little moisture to the eels, further keeping them healthy. Long-term storage of eels should be done in a bucket of aerated water or bait cart set in an inconspicuous place at your local marina or creek. Just be sure the rope is long enough that they do not end up high and dry with the drop of the tide!
Everyone has their preferred way to carry a batch of eels for a night’s tide, and some situations lend themselves more towards certain methods than others. For 99% of my surf outings, I carry my eels in a modified 1-gallon food service jug. The jug started out its life holding salad dressing, mayonnaise or some other form of food product, but with a few simple modifications it can be turned into a suitable eel jug. In short you need to secure the lid and attach a shoulder strap to the jug. Both of these actions can be accomplished in a variety of ways, and in my 20-plus years of using food service jugs I have used everything from bolts to zip-ties to rigging floss and sewing needle. They all worked well enough for my purposes so I generally advise fishermen to use what they have available.
Another popular method of carrying eels, and one preferred by many wetsuit fishermen, is to put them into a mesh bag with a secure closure. It is then clipped onto the angler’s belt and easily accessed. There are two major faults I have found with this method. First and foremost the eels slap against my leg when walking to and from a spot and this results in a mass of eel slime dripping down my leg. The second issue occurs when the eels are out of the water for too long as they tend to dry out. I remember trying this method back in the early 90’s out on Cape Cod and ending up with the nastiest eel-and-sand mess that I had ever seen. I will say that I personally know some very respectable surf fishermen who swear by this method, so to each their own.
Next up is the soft-sided cooler option, something I use if I am fishing a breachway or outflow where I can set up a home base to leave my gear. With this method a small insulated lunch cooler is used to store the eels. The benefits here are that the coolers usually come with a shoulder strap already attached, they are rather cheap, and while eels can easily be dug out, they have a difficult time escaping thanks to a zippered closure.
As you likely already know, live eels are slimy, too slimy in most cases to grab with bare hands. One of the most common ways to grab an eel is with an old rag or piece of burlap. This is fine in a pinch, but I find the eel’s slime quickly makes the cloth useless. My preferred method is with a green dish scrubber. They are cheap enough to buy enough for a season on short money, and even if they get slimed up they still retain their gripping quality. I cut a small hole in one corner of the pad and attach it to my eel jug with a carabiner. If you are fishing a sandy beach, toss in a small amount of sand to further aid in gripping an eel.
One recommendation I will pass along regardless of what type of gripper you choose is to carry at least two at all times. Inevitably you will either drop one in the surf, tear it or get it so full of slime that it cannot be used, and having that second one at the ready is a life saver. I’m speaking from experience here so heed my warning!
Hook choice, much like how to carry an eel, varies from angler to angler. Over the years I’ve tried just about every style and size of hook, but I have now settled on two basic types. The first is a heavy duty live bait hook and the second is a heavy duty short-shanked bronze “tuna” hook. I generally use a 7/0 or 8/0 hook as I prefer very large eels, but I know some fishermen prefer a much smaller hook. I have never found the smaller hooks to be any benefit, and on some occasions I felt the small hook actually hurt my success, especially when using really big eels. The one thing I do recommend regardless of size and style is to select a hook with a large barb. My one gripe with many of the chemically-sharpened hooks is that they almost all feature a small barb. I have lost some fish over the years which I attribute to the hook popping out of the fish’s mouth. When I made the change to large-barbed hooks, my dropped fish numbers fell way off.
Attach the hook to one end of a section of leader material (fluorocarbon is fine but I prefer 50-pound monofilament), and tie a small swivel to the other end. As noted in my column which appeared in the May 24, 2018 Weekly Issue of The Fisherman, I run a long leader of about 6 feet in length. I won’t get into the particulars here as I covered them all in that article.
Attach your main line to your swivel, insert the hook into the eel’s head and you’re ready to make a cast. I prefer to go in the eel’s chin and pop out an eye socket. Some anglers like to put the hook down the eel’s throat and out the chin, but I found the hook tears out too easily with this method. With the chin to eye method, the hook can be repositioned out the other eye socket if the first one gets opened up, and doing this does not kill the eel.
Once the hook is in the eel, be prepared for it to squirm even more. This is when many newbie eelers have an issue as they wait too long to make the first cast and instead end up with an eel ball. Resist a snap-cast as you might do with a plug and instead opt for more of a lob cast. You can still put some power into the cast, but load the rod slower so as to lessen the odds of tearing the hook from the eel. A moderate rod really helps here and is my preferred action for eeling. I do a modified pendulum cast of sorts and cast off few eels.
Once the eel hits the water, let it sink and begin a slow retrieve. Don’t be afraid to change-up the retrieve tempo if slow and steady does not elicit any strikes. There are nights when bass want a moving eel, while other nights they like stop and go. There are even nights when they want the eel skipping on the surface. This is not a standard retrieve, but it did produce a 50-inch striper for me a few years back so I always keep it in my back pocket when nothing else is working.
When you finally feel a solid tap of a bass taking your eel, quickly drop the rod tip, wait for the line to come tight and set the hook, hard. There is no need to let the fish run as they will have the eel in their mouth faster than you can feel the hit, and letting them run will only result in a gut-hooked fish. I also seldom set the hook multiple times as I see some anglers do. For me, this only servers to rip the hook from the fish’s mouth. If I don’t feel the initial hook-set was solid, I will set a second time, but that is it.
With the direct connection to a fish due to the single hook, a bass will generally feel bigger during the fight as opposed to an equal size bass hooked on a plug. Just the same, the single hook affords a bit of security and few bass are dropped when fishing eels, further solidifying their use by surfcasters.