Live Eels for Trophy Bass
By John Skinner
As I read the accounts and statistics of large stripers caught over the years by High Hill Club members, I couldn’t help but think that many of the big fish from days past fell to artificials. The wonderful story of Bob Rance’s 58-pounder mentions a plug. What a great way to take a great fish. From writing the weekly Surf Side column for Nor’east Saltwater, it has become apparent to me that the vast majority of large stripers caught nowadays are taken on cut baits or live eels. It’s not impossible to take trophy stripers on artificials, but there seems to be so few fish over 40 pounds in the population that it’s very difficult to do so on a consistent basis. So if you’re serious about having the expectation of beaching a trophy or two each season, it’s highly advisable that you become proficient and persistent about eeling and/or chunking.
I choose to spend a significant amount of time casting live eels because it puts me in a position to score some quality stripers while allowing me to enjoy many of the pleasurable aspects inherent in plug casting. In many ways, eel casting can be described as plugging with a live lure. This affords the angler excellent mobility, and allows one to “hunt” and cover a lot of water easily.
How do you convert the slimy critters into jumbo linesiders? It’s conceptually easy. Put the eel within striking distance of the bass, and Mother Nature will often take care of most of the rest. I say most, because you’ll still have to execute a decent hookset and land the fish, but proper tackle selection should help tilt the odds in your favor.
In this advanced world of the 21st century, it boggles my mind that some anglers still fish with 30 year-old technology when it comes to lines and hooks. Big bass have rock-hard mouths. You’re not going to get many chances at having your eel in the mouth of a 40-pound plus bass, so you can’t afford to squander the opportunity when it arises. You need to have the best possible hookset.
The best way to ensure this is to use a no-stretch superline in concert with a razor sharp hook such as those made by Gamakatsu and Owner. Below are the results of a simple test that support this. At a distance of 80 feet, I measured how far one had to pull back slowly on a line to sink a hook into a piece of Styrofoam past the barb. To cut to the chase, note that I had to pull back 64 inches to sink a 6/0 short shanked tuna hook with 20-pound test monofilament. To do the same with a 6/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook with 50-pound test Power Pro, I only had to pull back 2.5 inches. The difference is caused primarily by the stretch in the monofilament, but hook selection also had a significant effect. Other advantages of braided superlines include a higher strength to diameter ratio and much better abrasion resistance as compared to monofilament line.
Hookset Distance (Inches)
Tuna Hook Siwash Hook Gamakatsu Octopus Hook
Monofilament 64 67 41
Braided Spectra 5 6 2.5
If you combine the proper hook and line selection with a rod with sufficient backbone to penetrate a hook into the jaw of a big bass, you’ll increase your chances of capitalizing on the opportunities that come your way. My rod of choice for most of my eeling is a spinning rod built on an 11-foot graphite Lamiglas GSB1321M. That rod is nicely matched with a VS300 or Penn 706. I spool up with 50-pound test Power Pro. The main line is connected to a 40-inch leader of 50-pound test fluorocarbon with a 7/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook on one end and a #1 black swivel barrel on the other. I choose fluorocarbon not for its low visibility, but for its superior abrasion resistance as compared to monofilament.
Eel selection can be almost as important as tackle selection. As I mentioned, if you get the eel within striking range of a bass, you’re probably in a good position for something to happen. That’s easier said than done under some conditions, especially in the deep moving waters of Long Island’s South Shore inlets. This is where the eels themselves can help out. When you cast a live eel into the water, it heads straight for the bottom. This is fortunately where the large bass can be counted on holding as they use irregular bottom structure to break the current. The larger the eel, the better it can negotiate the deep and moving water and get itself to the strike zone. For this reason, I save my largest eels for inlet fishing. These are big snakes that are roughly in the 19- to 22-inch range. Even with eels such as these, you may still be limited to fishing the windows around slack tide when the water isn’t moving very fast.
Some anglers get down to the fish by adding a lead drail in the 1- to 3-ounce range about 36 inches ahead of the eel. I’ve caught fish this way, but personally prefer to fish unweighted eels. If you do use a drail, smaller eels are recommended because casting the large ones in combination with a drail can be quite awkward. The drail setup might be a good last resort if you’re unable to secure a supply of large eels for a trip.
When fishing an inlet, I usually cast the eel well uptide, let it work its way to the bottom for a few seconds, then start a slow and steady retrieve with my rod held at a higher angle than I’d use when fishing artificials. Hits are often felt as a couple of sharp raps. When I feel this, I drop my rod tip and set the hook very hard multiple times when I feel the line tighten. The time between the hit and the hookset is only about three seconds. I strike fast because I’d rather hook the fish in the mouth, and by not giving it a lot of time, I’m likely to pull the eel away from smaller fish that I don’t want to waste my time or eels on. Although eels that have been banged up by other fish are often very productive, I find that eel reuse in the inlets often doesn’t work out well because they don’t have the swimming power to get to the bottom.
When fishing shallower areas, like those found at Montauk, I’ll usually fish eels in the 16-19-inch range. Since the eels like to dive for the bottom, keeping them out of the weeds and rocks can be somewhat of a problem in the shallower areas. If I’m on a good enough rock, I’ll often calm a fresh eel down by grasping it firmly by the head with my burlap rag and whacking it’s tail end hard against the rock a few times. Some anglers won’t do this because they prefer lively eels, but I’ve found eels treated this way to produce just fine, and I can work them along slower without getting snagged. Eel reuse works great in the relatively shallow Montauk surf and it’s not uncommon to catch several bass on each eel on a very good night. Some of my better fish have been caught on eels that were dead or nearly so from having caught multiple fish. The technique for shallow water casting is similar to inlet fishing, but I’ll start my retrieve as soon as the eel hits the water.
No matter where you’re fishing, bluefish can be a problem. I’ve noticed that when bluefish find your eels, they’re pretty likely to stay in the area and continue to make an expensive nuisance of themselves. In this situation, the best thing to do is take a break for a few minutes. Without the slap and scent of fresh food continuing to hit the water, they’ll often move on. If they’re really thick, you’ll have no choice but to try another area or switch to a more durable offering.
If you get serious about fishing with live eels, consider setting up a home live well. It will save you money in the long run and make it easier to have a convenient supply of quality eels available. A simple 30-gallon garbage can aerated by a fish tank pump such as a Whisper 700 will do the job. Changing the water every third day or so with water from the garden hose is all that is necessary to keep several dozen eels in good shape. They do not need to be fed. Adding a slime-coating protecting product such as Better Bait is a good idea.
While Although eeling can be an exciting way to fish, the opposite is more often the case. Having the correct mindset is very important. You have to go out with the expectation that it may take hours to raise a single hit. A good night may be a hit an hour. But the odds of those hits coming from an exceptional fish are much higher than the chances of culling a cow from the more frequent strikes elicited with artificials. When fishing with live eels, you'll work hard for a few fish, but quite often they’ll be fish to be proud of.
"Some of the author's largest stripers have fallen to eels that were beat up by other fish."
John Skinner is one of Long Island most respected surfcasters , a very popular speaker on surf fishing seminar circuit and surf editor of Noreast saltwater magazine.
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