Angling: The evil eye of the real eel

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The Independent Online
DEAD fish are generally pretty harmless. Certain ones, such as bass, can inflict a spiteful cut with their razor-sharp gill covers if you handle them carelessly. Others, such as wrasse or perch, can give a nasty jab with their spiky dorsal fins. Puffer fish have lethal bits that will kill you, and only trained chefs can prepare fugu. But that's about it. In the list of dangerous occupations, handling dead fish would rate somewhat below parachute testing or tiger dentistry.

John Hogg no doubt takes a different view after being attacked by a dead conger eel this week. At least, he thought it was dead. The North Shields fishmonger had bought the conger in a mess of fish from a local trawler that morning. He loaded the day's catch into his van, took them back to his shop and prepared for the day. Then, he heard a noise from the back of the room.

As Hogg walked over to investigate, the 6ft eel, weighing over 100 lb, reared out of the fish box and snapped at him like a bad-tempered dog. "It was thrashing around, and it was so strong that it was denting the shutters where it was hitting them," he said. Instead of him doing the conger, it was apparent that the conger was about to do him. Hogg fled, slamming the door behind him. He didn't open the room for the rest of the day. Eleven hours later. he cautiously peered back in, to find that the conger was truly dead.

His caution was well founded. Congers have powerful jaws and can easily inflict a savage wound. The largest ones around our shores are found in the West Country, and the British record is a 133lb 4oz fish caught in 1995. But divers report seeing even bigger ones. Congers are specialist lurkers. They hang around wrecks, and often hide inside the superstructure to ambush unwary fish. They sometimes grow so large that their safe home becomes a prison and they can't get out.

Fishing for congers from ports such as Brixham is big business. But those who do so professionally treat their quarry with respect. One well-known skipper still has a vivid scar on his foot from the time several years ago when a conger clamped on to his boot. Trawling through my files, I found another story about two anglers who hooked a big conger while fishing from a rowing boat. Instead of cutting the line when they saw how large it was, they hauled it aboard. That was a mistake. The fish flayed around, snapping its jaws and scattering their tackle. The terrified anglers jumped into the sea, leaving the conger alone in the boat. It would be nice to report that the fish then rowed away, leaving them stranded, but it eventually tired of creating mayhem and wriggled over the side.

Congers look like a giant freshwater eel, but they have an additional feature: large, Charles Manson eyes that seem to be looking right at you. Fishmongers rarely exhibit the head. Too frightening for little children, I guess. In the days before the Trade Descriptions Act, they were sold as "rock salmon" and they are very good eating - always assuming that you can dispatch them in the first place.

That's not as easy as it sounds. Freshwater eels can live hours out of water and sometimes travel across land, which explains how they get into ponds and lakes with no incoming river. So it's no surprise that big brother is even more durable. A few years ago off Mevagissey, I caught a conger early in the day. Hours later, when we got back to shore, it was still very much alive.

At the time, I drove a battered Volvo estate. I was none too happy at the prospect of this murderous-looking beast waiting in the back for the right moment to pounce. The idea of looking in the mirror and seeing a conger's head rearing up still haunts me.

We were so apprehensive that in the end, we heaved it back into the sea. It swam on the surface for a while, took one final look at us as if committing our faces to memory, then disappeared into the depths. For all I know, it may still be waiting among underwater rocks alongside the breakwater, for congers are said to live for over 80 years. One thing's for sure: you won't catch me walking that breakwater in the moonlight.

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