The last few years have seen a run of massive wreck conger taken from ports in the English Channel and off the Southwest. This upturn may have been brought about by the decrease over wrecks of other species due to commercial netting etc. More skippers and anglers are now targeting conger instead of just using them as a by catch. A factor, but not the real truth. The downturn in ling and cod numbers due to commercial pressure has provided the conger with improved food supplies encouraging both numbers and sizes to grow proportionately. The generally milder winters of the past decade provide the other logical ingredient to the answer.
With respect to these mentioned areas, their success has devalued somewhat, the effort, knowledge, and understanding of technique required by an individual to get himself into a position of being able to consistently take quality wreck conger. Remember, all the skipper can do is put you over the fish and make suggestions on tackle and bait. The rest is up to you. It’s your final assessment and manipulation of tackle and technique that decides the outcome.
The most critical area. Gallant notions of light tackle are folly and lead to heartbreak. Choose 50lb class as your main option. Those seeking record fish now use 80lb class as standard. It’s wrong to say that any rod will do. You need every advantage when “seeking the serpent”. Alloy reel seats like that on the Daiwa Powerlift series give added security and strength over the standard carbon tube type reel seats. When first buying a rod, check that the rings and reel seat are perfectly aligned. Often the reel seat is out of line with the rings leaving the rings tilted to one side when the reel is in the retrieve position. A rod sporting all roller rings is not strictly necessary, but you’ll need a roller tip ring. Cheap rollers can have a gap between roller and cage allowing line to slip down between the gap and chafe. AFTCO rollers are the best. All rings should be under whipped to protect the blank from the stressed ring feet when the blank is under full compression. Conger rods benefit from being the shorter 6ft options, rather than the now standard 7ft. Why? Because leverage is not an important ally when big conger are straight down below the boat. You need lifting power and direct pull. The rod tip must be kept as close to your centre of gravity as possible. With this in mind, some anglers now choose stand up sticks that have an average length under 6ft, supple tip, but with immense power available once the blank is worked. The Shakespeare Stand Up Stik is the one to judge others by. Most 50lb class rods have a gimbal accessory on the butt protected by a rubber butt cap. This is a slot in the base of the butt that fits over a metal bar in a gimbal butt pad. Metal on metal is harsh and can give vibrations through the rod. Retaining the rubber butt cap on the rod and utilizing a standard open cup butt pad is the choice of most.
Serious congering requires a 4/0 sized reel. Again, cheaper options prove weak in the gears and spools can implode under heavy line pressure. Look to Daiwa Sealines SL 400H and 450H, Penn Senator 4/0, but the elite would be the Penn Senator 45GLS lever drag. All have strong alloy spools that don’t succumb to line compression, excellent gears, tough frames and good drags. These reels will hold around 300yds of 50lb line. It’s plenty! Remember that conger will not run far. Runs are short 20 to 30yd affairs, either attempting to reach the wreck after initial hookup, or back towards the bottom from mid water during the fight. Some writers suggest 6/0 reels, but you don’t need their extra line capacity and strength, and their biggest disadvantage is the huge increase in weight and lack of balance in the rod. You’ll tire quick enough when into a decent eel without adding to the burden. Star drag reels need to be set at 7/10′s of the lines strength. This allows heavy pressure to be applied directly after hook up to get the eel moving away from the sanctuary of the wreck and out into more open water. Always use the reel seat clamp provided with these reels for extra reel security on the reel seat. They also have lugs to take a harness which is a good ally to have.
Go for low stretch types like Maxima Marine Green or Bayer. Stretchy lines absorb too much rod power and reduces direct pressure to the eel. Hard lines with a smooth surface tend to withstand the inevitable nicks and scratches better than the more supple lines. A factor when fishing hard into wrecks. Playing a conger
Few regular conger men now employ the often quoted running ledger rig. Tide drag on the line alone is enough to see the lead weight move way before there is any chance of line being freely given to the bite of an eel. The best rig is as follows. Take a 6ft length of 150lb mono, tying a 5/0 swivel to the top. Now slide on a small swivel by one eye. Tie another 5/0 swivel to the end of the 150lb line. These two 5/0 swivels help to reduce line twist caused by the congers habit of spinning during the fight. Choose only Mustad rolling swivels, not cheaper foreign barrel swivels. Sooner or later these will let you down. The main biting trace should be about 18inches long and from 250lb to 400lb mono depending how optimistic you are. This heavy line will need to be crimped to the last 5/0 swivel. It will not knot. The hook needs to crimped in place too. The weight is attached to the small sliding swivel via weak line or telephone wire that will easily give. The sliding swivel is not there to act as a form of running ledger. It is so designed that should the lead weight get jammed in the wreck, the eel will have moved away a short distance and will either pull the weight free, or snap the weak link. Only one pattern of hook is required. Mustad O’Shaughnessy 3406 bronzed sizes 8/0 and 10/0, occasionally 12/0 depending on bait size. These are very strong, but will rot out if a conger is lost. They’re also cheaper on the anglers pocket than stainless steel hooks and Duratin plated Sea Demons and Sea Masters. Keeping the hook trace short reduces tangling with the wreck. The 6ft length of 150lb line acts as an abrasion buffer for the weaker main line and takes the strain of snapping leads out. Tackle losses are going to be horrific. It pays to spend a few nights at home building up a quantity of rubbing leaders and hook traces complete with hooks for instant re-tackling. Carrying 20 ready made rigs is not ridiculous.
Day old mackerel from the skippers bait box is not really acceptable. Feathering fresh on the way out to the wreck is better, but not best. Ideally, you should aim to give the eels exactly what they have been feeding on since their evolution. Pouting, codling, whiting and juvenile ling. Anything else is alien to them. Neither are they used to eating stale baits. Conger are predators and catch their own food, alive! A whole fresh pouting about 1 to 2lbs makes the best bait. Slash the sides to put scent in the water and open up the guts. This brings the conger out to play. Other small wreck dwellers mentioned make almost as good baits. Large squid can also account for big fish, but is less reliable. Hook them once only through the both lips. Ideally bringing the hook point out just infront of the eyes. Conger swallow large baits head first which is where the hook point needs to be. Alternatively, cut the flanks free of the bait upwards from the tail flapper style. This adds both scent and movement to a bait. Whole fillets of fresh fish can be a useful dodge on days when eels are less keen to feed.
Because of the need to anchor and maintain position within very close proximity to the wreck, the skipper and yourselves will have chosen a date on, or either side of the smaller neap tides when the tidal run is minimized and anchoring feasible. Conger by day feed for short periods over both low and high water slack. They may also roam around the ground immediately adjacent to their hole. This is when they are most vulnerable. Once the tide starts to increase, they’ll be back home and far less inclined to feed.
It’s a misconception that all wrecks have huge great holes in their hulls in which the conger live. More often, the conger are resident in holes that have been scoured out directly underneath the hull it self. When any ship goes down vast amounts of debris gets littered over a wide area. These broken off bits will also house eels. The bulk of conger though, according to divers, live at deck level inside smashed superstructure etc. From this, you realise that your best bet of hooking an eel is to have the bait sat right in the middle of the deck area, or tight up alongside the hull. Unless you happen to locate your bait near suitable debris your chances of hook ups are slim. This last sentence makes you realise the importance of the skippers work. Precise anchoring is essential to success. This also tells us that virtually whole vessels, pointing bow on into the tide give a very small target for our bait scent to hit and obviously few hidey holes for eels. Find a hull that was carrying a magazine of ammunition which blew up as it went down breaking the hulls back and splitting it in two and the vast amount of debris and mangled metal makes a big target and the ideal conger wreck. Particularly so if the hull sections are broadside on into the oncoming tide. These are the places where the record breakers lurk.
Rarely will you be sat immediately above a wreck. Most likely is that you’ll be anchored slightly uptide of it. If you’re lucky enough to have a stern fishing position you can use what tide run is available to your advantage. If other anglers are holding bottom with say 1lb of lead, you choose only 12ozs. As the lead touches bottom allow the lead to bounce off slowly downtide until it finds the wreck. This is better than hoping the eels will work uptide, across open ground, to locate your baits. Line released in this way must be controlled and kept constantly in touch with the lead. Just feeding off a few yards does not keep you informed of where the bait has travelled to, or if it’s moved at all. Time spent setting this up is well used. It’s better to have a bait in the best feeding zone for 30 minutes, than in an area devoid of eelsfor 2 hours. If you have to fish from a gunnel position, then trotting the lead away may result in tangles with other lines. In this situation, you can only make sure that your bait is the biggest, freshest available, but occasionally give it a lift in the water just to add movement and spice things up.
Big conger bites are suspiciously gentle. Tiny taps often being the only warning as the fish gently grasps and turns the bait. This is the time to release any tension on the rod tip by allowing a few feet of line to leave the reel. Only when the weight of the eel starts to pull the rod over do you pile on the pressure and get her moving. That’s in perfect sea conditions. When there is a short swell and the boat is lifting up and down in the water making a tightish line impossible to maintain, simply release enough line to compensate for the lift of the boat and feel for any obvious movement at bait level. Again, it’s best to time the strike to when the rod tip starts to fold over. Always hold your rod when congering. Leaning them against the gunnel is the easiest way to miss bites and lose your gear over the side.
Conger fight by twisting and spinning their bodies. It’s not true that conger can swim backwards in open water. The feeling that the conger is backing off is caused by the conger trying to swim away from the angler and banging it’s tail on the line as it does so. Watch a conger on the surface and it doesn’t swim backwards but swims forwards and dives in trying to make for freedom. As soon as the hook is driven home the angler must gain line by repeated pumping of the rod tip. At first, the eel allows it’self to be lead, just for a few seconds, then, when it’s gathered it’s wits and realised all is not well it will turn and head for home. Don’t give it line until you absolutely have to. Keep the rod pressure on and keep it off balance for as long as possible. Soon after comes a time when it will hold in the current gaining strength and feeling almost impossible to move. This is your warning that it’s about to dive, and hard! Keep the pressure on and let the reel clutch sap it’s strength. This pattern of total reluctance then diving for the seabed will occur right to surface level. Expect real fireworks when the eel sees the daylight looming. It will thrash it’s tail, spin uncontrollably and throw the head from side to side. You still keep the pressure on. Most skippers prefer to gaff from a corner of the stern, so you must work the fish towards him by walking towards the cabin along the boats gunnel. Stay observant, for as soon as the gaff goes in you must slack off your reel drag. If the eel does come off the gaff and fall back seawards it’s weight will not come up directly on the line and snap it. A lot of big conger have been lost in this final moment for this very reason.
When a hooked conger gets it’s tail around a snag, you may be able to entice it free by giving it a few yards of slack line. The lack of pressure may convince it that it’s safe to swim free. Always carry a 12in length of 2in diameter wooden bar so that when tackle gets jammed solid in the wreck you can wrap your line around this and pull for a break without endangering your hands. When using whole pout baits etc, adding a thin strip of white squid to the hook point that moves a little in the current can make a difference to your bite ratio. Big conger have big mouths. If you want a 70lb plus fish, use baits of about 2lbs in weight. Whole 8oz mackerel don’t warrant a big conger making the effort to take it. Conger of only 17lbs can swallow ling in the 2 to 3lbs bracket when hungry.
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