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... an alternative with eels...

... an alternative with eels...

By PeterHunter

… an alternative with eels…

Peter Hunter

It was a common source of frustration that when I fancied some eels to eat, their capture by conventional rod and line methods would often prove elusive. Obviously traditional alternatives such as netting or trapping were not viable for small scale undetected harvesting of the odd fish....
… a more practical technique was called for…
The answer appeared in the form of an adaptation of a method I learned again from my gypsy friend Ned. At first, it appeared only to be a solution looking for a problem, as it required a particular environment in which to be practiced. The ideal location, I found, was created after the county council decided to fill in a large hole - erosion damage scoured below one of the bridges on the Wensum.
Their repair took the form of simply filling in the scour hole with rubble and rocks. The coarse nature of the material created literally hundreds of crevasses of all shapes and sizes. I reasoned that eels would soon colonize these and provide an easily harvested supply for my occasional needs.
The method I used to catch them was simplicity itself. 'Tackle' consisted of just three readily available items; a strong crude 'eel' hook - attached to a couple of feet of strong hemp sea line, and a straight thin stick of eighteen inches or so, cut from a convenient hazel hedge…
… a small supply of fat lobworms sufficed as bait…
Having wedged the baited hook into a small split, cut into one end of the stick - a good hold was taken of the hemp line and the business end of the stick inserted into a hole in the rocks. The technique involved poking the baited hook as far into each hole as possible.
The 'takes' were unmistakable tugs on the line. Firmness, patience and perhaps a little brute strength were then needed to persuade the eel to exit its lair. It was important to gain ground inch by inch - never giving line enabling the fish to retreat deeper into it's hole. I imagine that as an eel sees the worm advancing towards it, the creature moves greedily moves towards it - forsaking the very inner depths of its lair. Once hooked, it becomes important therefore not to let it work its way further back.
Only a very small proportion of the holes in that particular infill contained hungry eels at any one time. It was never a way of catching a large number of fish. However, it could usually be persuade to give up one to a hungry youngster. Interestingly I never caught a small one by this method. They all seemed to be around the twenty to twenty-four ounce mark…
… unorthodox and probably not legal - it was a sure way to get an eel for my tea.
Although I was using a cheap hook, the trick was an improvisation of a technique purely based on the bone gorge-hooks originally used in the Stone Age. From this, I am convinced this method originated long before the invention of the conventional hook.
It worked very well in all sorts of locations. A particular productive place lay in the dammed area upstream of a watermill. Here the banks had been reinforced with several yards of wooden piling. Inevitably, there were narrow gaps between the stakes into which many big eels had made their daytime lair...
… it was good hunting...
Imagine an age where our numerous rivers were all clear, unpolluted and teeming with fish. We know that only a few hundred years ago salmon were so plentiful people became sick of eating them. In the Neolithic period, fish would have been so abundant and easy to harvest - that they would form a more important part of the diet than meat - which would have proved harder and more dangerous to hunt.
Pike like to bask near the surface and would have been easy to spear. Trout, as every poacher knows, will hover in a narrow channel close to the bank - or between beds of ranunculus, so stubbornly that they can be caught by hand, rendering spear or harpoon unnecessary…
… ask any heron….
So - fish such as trout, pike and salmon would have been abundant, although seasonal. Salting and smoking would have prolonged their useful life - but the tasty freshwater eel, with the added virtue of being able to be kept alive in some form of holding cage, would have surely been much sought after.
When the normally nocturnal eel is seen in a clear pool in daylight it seldom remains long enough in one place to be easily impaled. The glaives or eel spears one sees at antique fishing tackle auctions were designed to penetrate a layer of mud or silt in which the creature was thought to be hiding, rather than from a visual contact. Our ancient ancestors or more recently broadland or fen men, probably noted the hole amongst rocks or tree roots, into which the eel retreated and learned how to hunt in such places.
It would have helped with his catch - particularly if fish traps were not proving too productive. Incidentally the old poacher’s favorite, the night or dead line - does not work too well with eels - as they are good at twisting the line into a fearful mess…
… until they rip themselves free…

© Peter Hunter 2012

Peter Hunter's full-length works are available on Kindle

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18 Nov, 2012
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