I’d always thought eel fishing was pretty straight forward – cast out an eel and reel it back just fast enough to keep it moving toward you and not burying into the weeds. I thought that was all I needed to know about eels. I figured the allure of a live bait would override any technique or extra action I might impart. And this approach worked. I’ve caught a number of heavy striped bass on eels over the years, and at the times I was fishing by myself, I fancied myself quite the eel fisherman.
But when I fished eels side-by-side with someone who strayed from the straight-retrieve routine, the night’s score would be rather lopsided — and not in my favor. But it took me years to catch on. I attributed the outcome to pure chance. After all, we’d both be fishing live baits, what could be so different as to make the bass eat my fishing buddies’ eels over mine?
I can trace my eel-fishing “inadequacy” back to 2001, when my dad and I were fishing eels on a sandy beach. My old man was no serious surfcaster; he went to humor me more than anything else. In fact, while I wore the requisite “uniform” of waders, boots and rain jacket cinched down with a belt, he fished most often in a bathing suit and t-shirt, navigating the sandy beach barefoot.
His attire said it all – he was there to relax. So while I stood at the water’s edge casting and retrieving my eels painstakingly slow, he would cast, let the eel sit for a while, turn the reel handle a few times, let the eel sit, then turn the reel a bit, and so on. While my retrieves were taking a minute or less, a single cast of my dad’s took 5 minutes before the eel hit the sand. Even after that night – a night where my dad caught 3 fish in the high 30-pound range and one decidedly over 40 pounds and I caught a lone 20-pounder – it took me a decade to change my approach to eel fishing.
No matter how you fish them, if you fish live eels enough, you’re bound to catch some stripers on them – often some very big stripers – so in that sense, there is no “wrong way” to fish an eel. But there are definitely better ways to present eels that will result in more takes and more big stripers.
Often, in the surf, we’re fishing shallow waters, areas where a live eel can easily dive into weeds or rocks and conceal itself. This isn’t unlike the areas Joe Brotz is fishing from his boat in the Merrimack River on the North Shore of Massachusetts. I fished with Joe earlier this spring casting eels into skinny water. While I kept my rod still as I retrieved the eels, Joe snapped his constantly, almost as if he was fishing a soft-plastic stickbait or other artificial. “I don’t want [the eel] to get too comfortable,” Joe explained. By lifting the rod, he was pulling the eel off the bottom, causing it to frantically swim back down to cover. This gets the attention of any bass in the area, which will go out of their way to consume the eel in distress.
While Brotz is looking to get his eels off the bottom, angler Mike Everin, who’s fishing deeper water off the Rhode Island coast, wants his eels to stay down. “Keep that rod down,” Mike instructed me one night. “Your eel might be okay during the first ten feet or so of the retrieve, but after that, the eel is just planing toward the surface, out of the strike zone.”
Whether you intend to or not, the angle created by a 10- or 11-foot surf rod held straight up is going to drag an eel toward the surface during the retrieve. This is why Everin holds his rod low to the water. This keeps the eel deeper, and in front of the fish, for longer.
Eels are also effectively fished in current, though in these cases, placement of the bait may be more important than the retrieve. In New Jersey, I did the majority of my eel fishing from inlet jetties and jetties with a strong sweep around their tip. There was always the urge to send the eel as far seaward as possible, but although that water was usually deeper, the bottom usually was flat and uninteresting. The bass hung tight to the structure. Casting the eel so the current would carry it close to the jetty tip was often the key to getting bites. I would often cast my eel toward shore, picking up the slack just enough to keep the eel from diving into the rocks as the current swept it toward me and around the jetty tip. My first striper over 40 pounds struck an eel almost at my feet as it swept around the tip of the jetty.
Pausing the eel during the retrieve is another useful tactic to catch stripers. Joe Brotz pauses the eel often, and says a large number of hits come during the pause. Thinking back to those Outer Cape trips with my Dad, I saw that – though it may not have been intentional – he paused the eel, and often, that’s when his pickups came. Of course, fishing the eels over a sand bottom with nowhere to hide allows for nice long pauses. Over rocky or weedy bottoms, a more abbreviated pause will have to do.
As I said before, there’s no wrong way to fish a live eel. While I don’t think it would be a high-percentage tactic, I’ve heard of (and seen) some very large bass that were hooked while quickly reeling the eel in to make another cast. Bass love to eat eels, and though they aren’t the best option all of the time, simply deciding to fish them (and sticking with it) is already a major step in the right direction toward catching a big striper. By mixing up your retrieve and picturing what your eel is doing under the water, you can improve your odds even further.