Put me on a beach in Namibia and hook me into one of their runaway bronze whaler sharks and I will be close to collapsing from pure, unadulterated excitement! But I do not live there and my home fishing is what makes me the angler (or dangler?!) that I am; who could beat winter codding or autumn mulleting? What about the spring pollack of my south western reefs or the magnificent porbeagle shark fishing of North Cornwall? All things are relevant, and the secret is being able to appreciate all, and regretting nothing.
But what of UK fish that are really going to hit back hard when you strike into them? Nobody would say that a flounder, dab or rockling is going to pull hard, although I admit that flounder on light rods are fun; but not many of our fish are going to really hoop that beachcaster over and lock it there until you have it in. If you after that kind of fish, then you need to take a look at shore fishing for big conger eels. Of course, big smoothound and tope will run and scrap, but for that "menacing" kind of angry fight, the eel is your quarry.
If you decide to try and hunt down a decent shore eel, patience will become one of your biggest attributes; I rate a 25lb shore conger as a good fish, with the 40lb mark being some kind of plateau to reach up to. There are not many anglers who have had confirmed 40lb conger from the shore, although you will hear some amazing stories of big fish lost; some are true and some are, let’s just say, exaggerated!
There are any number of places where you can go and catch smaller, "strap" conger up to around 15-20lbs, and do not ignore these fish. How many of you have honestly had a double figure fish from our shores? Strap conger do not attract the headlines, but for some anglers they could be the chance to land a decent sized fish. If you are new to congering, then they also provide excellent practise before taking on the big mothers.
If you really get into specimen conger fishing, then be prepared for them to take over your life to some extent, and prepare for times when you want to hurl all your gear away in disgust! They are a fish that will try and break our resolve, but if you put the time in at the right places, then chances are that someday you will reap the rewards. I have never landed a 40lb eel, but instead have suffered sleepless nights over the loss of two 50lb plus monsters. I saw each fish (up very close!) and had witnesses, but maybe it is going to be third time lucky for me; my wife has woken me up in the night before and told me to stop sleep-talking about conger eels! (At least I had not been talking about an old girlfriend or something like that, but she still thinks I am mad to be dreaming of fish!) Yes, it can get that bad!
Where to look
I would hazard a guess that most big conger marks do not throw up large numbers of small eels, so straight off you are going to have to prepare yourself for numbers of blank trips, unless there is something else you can fish for at the same time. Big conger inhabit a number of environments, including deep water rock marks, harbours, jetties, piers, breakwaters and the odd sandy beach! Yes, do not discount the roaming eels.
Not many big eel marks are any great secret, but limited will be the number of anglers prepared to put the time in, so consequently, these places to not receive a huge amount of angling pressure. Places to look include the Dorset coastline, parts of the Isle of Wight, Brixham Breakwater, Hope’s Nose (Torquay), Devil’s Point and Mutton Cove (the River Tamar, Devon side, British record of 68lb 8oz comes from Devil’s), the River Fal, Newquay Headland (called Towan Head on a map), and of course the Channel Islands of Alderney, Jersey, Guernsey and Sark. All of these places can or have thrown up huge eels in the past, but I reckon that if the record is ever broken, once again it will come from the River Tamar. You could not fish a harder place, but there are massive congers within the deep, swift waters.
First off, forget subtlety, and approach this fishing with a heavy duty mindset; if you hook a big eel after many blank hours, then of course it makes sense to give yourself the best possible chance of landing it. Look to using the stiffest beachcasters you can get hold of, along the lines of a Conoflex Highlander and Scorpion Sport, although most of the independent rod manufacturers make blanks suitable for the job. Throw any of those coasters in the bin and araldite a Fuji reelseat to the butt, in the reel-up position.
As for reels, only multipliers will do; I am sure there are people out there who have landed big eels on a fixed spool, but rest assured this is not going to happen often. Among the most popular and effective reels for congering are the Daiwa SLOSH 30, 40 (the new gold coloured one, my favourite) and 50, Penn 535 and 545, Shimano Speedmaster (British record came on this reel), and the Abu 7000s and above.
As for mainlines, drop no lower than 30lb, and look more to 40-50lb if at all possible; I accept that to a certain degree it depends on where you are fishing and how far you need to cast. As heavy as you go though, do realise that there are many underwater "structures" that will conspire to lacerate a healthy line, especially when a big eel is on; tight lines brushing over evil rocks do not make great partners, but that is where we have to fish and is but part and parcel of fishing. About the strongest line I have ever used for eeling is 50lb Ultima Red Ice (sold in 4oz spools, intended for shockleaders!) and it really hurts the hands to break it out of snags. That is how I gauge my line, by how much pain they inflict on me when pulling for a break, as I like to wrap lines around my hands and then pull. Rags and clothes can burn lines, but bare skin does not. 40lb Ultima Seastrike is good line as well and is, like Red Ice, cheap enough to replace on a very regular basis; you want to get into the habit of doing this.
As with most specimen hunting, keep things very simple. A short running ledger of 200lb mono to a good swivel is fine, and as for hooks, the bronzed Mustad O’Shaughnessy is perfect, in sizes 8/0 or 10/0, dependent on bait size. Use whatever weight or kind of lead required to anchor your bait hard to the bottom, for this is where the conger feed.
Conger accept such delicacies as mackerel, garfish, pouting, pollack, squid, cuttlefish, rockling, launce, and cuttlefish; in fact there is probably no bait that an eel has not picked up before, but big eels do have a particular liking for the above. The bait I use most often is cuttlefish, for it works and is very crab resistant. At times it pays to use a monster sized offering, mounted on an 8/0 pennel rig, and sometimes a small, compact bait is required. You have no choice but to find out what works best.
When to try
Very deep places like the River Tamar can produce eels all year, but most big conger tend to come out between September and January, although that is a generalisation and each area is going to be slightly different. If you fish very deep water then you are going to catch right through the harshest winters, and the Channel Islands tend to fish better in the depths of winter (especially Alderney). Shallower marks are best fished September-December. But then a big eel is caught off a beach in February and confounds all wisdom! That is fishing.
Big eels tend to bite with a degree of caution, so give them time and then hit them hard; then pump like mad to get them away from the bottom. Setting your drag must depend on where you are fishing, but over the rough stuff, wind it up solid and give not an inch of line. As for landing them, have fun! In some areas you can simply walk down steps and grab the trace, whereas in others you will have to contend with a long gaff and rough seas. This final act is where most fish are lost (apart from the eels that snap you up close to the bottom), but then that is part of what makes this fishing so exciting.