Dragging the Eel and Other Lessons Learned
by Joe Lyons
confess, some time ago, while preparing to leave a small cove after a night of surf fishing, I committed a surfcasting sin: I decided to look into the water using a high-powered diving light. Now granted, the evening's fishing had concluded, so spooking the fish to Portugal was no longer an issue. And I was alone, so my light would not anger any other fishermen. But I was curious to see what was around that was making this evening so productive. Trying to observe as much as possible, I used the light sparingly, every so many steps I would blink it on for a quick look-see and then quickly turn it off.
What I saw were eels, lots of them. In the waist deep water, their dark silhouettes were clearly contrasted against the sandy bottom. The eels were right along the ocean floor, and would quickly depart once the light flashed upon them. I was surprised to have seen eels any at all, but even more surprised to see how slowly they moved until they noticed the light. Somehow, I had always envisioned eels as swimming along fairly quickly. This first-hand finding however, contradicted my amateurish speculation.
Now with the benefit of hindsight, like most things, it makes perfect sense. I remember the eel fishing lessons from my surfcasting mentor, and how he was always reminding to crank ever slower on the retrieve. He usually illustrated this, and many other fine points of surfcasting, in a most ideal manner; he would out-fish me. Some nights it was a mildly embarrassing 4 to 2 sometimes a very embarrassing 4 to 0, sometimes much worse. After a short while, I came to the inevitable conclusion that for a time, listening to him was a more judicious course than thinking for myself. I began to crank slow also.
Some nights, if there was a strong wind blowing, or when we were fishing inlets, he would thread slip sinkers onto the leader material to enable the eel to sink more quickly, to "bite" and hold better in the water. It looked strange to me, and I wondered aloud if the sinker would spook the bass. Inevitably, a short while later, the fish on the rock beside him would again prove me wrong. Before too long, he was talking about "Baked Stuffed Striped Bass" and I found myself asking if he had any spare sinkers to loan. As usual, he loaned them to me graciously, without the slightest of "I-told-you-so," inklings. After a while, it began to sink in, regardless of where we were or what conditions were like he was always trying to work his eel as close to the bottom, without snagging on the bottom, as possible. Now, when fishing similar conditions, I weight my eels also.
Sometimes he would simply let the eel sink before he began the retrieve. He would cast the eel out, close the bail, and then take up the slack line, but stop short of retrieving. By watching his line, I was able to discern the subtleness of his technique. By taking up the slack, he always maintained contact eel, but by not retrieving, the eel made its way to the bottom where the presentation, once began, would appear the most natural. The importance of staying in contact with one's offering cannot be overstated. If a fish were to pick up the bait as it initially descended through the water, as often was the case, he would immediately feel it. He would vary the amount of time he let the Eel sink until he found the depth that caught fish. Once this depth was found he would repeat the technique with astonishing consistency.
While watching his rod tip I also noticed that every so often he would twitch the top of rod tip ever so slightly. He told me that this made the Eel swim in a more realistic, "S" fashion. The movement was very subtle, more like a slight tug than a sharp pull, and deadly effective. I thought back to a book I had read by the late Hank Lyman and Frank Woolner. In Successful Striped Bass Fishing, the authors wrote of how making friends with dyed-in-the-wool surfcasters as the most effective way for a budding surfman to learn. A good teacher can move one along the learning curve more quickly - but I still owe a debt of gratitude to Woolner and Lyman.
Several years ago, when circle hooks started gaining in popularity, we were immediately sold on them. The circle hook, for those unfamiliar with them, is configured with its point wrapped on the inside. Circle hooks are designed to hook a fish on the outside portion of the mouth, thus reducing the mortality that often results when fish are hooked deeply. To further reduce injury to the fish, one can bend the barb down. Now, some fishermen feel that they cast off more eels when the barb is mashed down, but I have not experienced an appreciable increase in lost baits or fish, for that matter. In my opinion, the benefits gained in using circle hooks, for both fish and fisherman, cannot be ignored.
Shortly after our introduction to circle hooks we began employing a technique called "Dragging The Eel." The method is as it named, when retrieving the eel, slow the retrieve down to the point where it begins to actually hit, or drag, along the bottom. It is along the bottom where we get the most pick-ups. Anyone who has ever examined the stomach contents of a caught fish will tell you that crustaceans make up a big portion of the stripers diet. Whenever I keep a fish I'll examine the stomach contents - I've found that the larger the fish the more likely that the partially digested remnants of either a crab or an immature lobster will be found among the stomach contents. The bottom is where the crustaceans reside, and though I try and avoid speculating on the habits of game fish, I think they spend a good deal of time looking down. A marauding striper simply cannot resist an eel slithering along the bottom at a dead-slow canter.
Lately I have been fishing alone more often as my friend, like many older surfcasters, has moved towards inshore boating. Walking the Rhode Island shore with its cliffs and treacherous rocks and inherent physicality is a young man's game. But the lessons learned have not been lost on me. However, now, more often than not, the solitary silhouette along the shore is mine. The easy banter and jibing that comes so naturally when fishing with a partner - has been replaced by something more personal and serious. I'm now different fisherman who fishes for different reasons.
But when alone in the deep night with little success to show for my efforts, I find myself speculating on how my old mentors, or Hal Lyman or Frank Woolner, would have approached a similar set of conditions. I find that I'm now convinced that the notion of the intuitive fishermen is often overstated. I realize now that most likely they would have pulled their answers from their own experiences, what they had been so generously shown, or what they have read. While many fishermen will attest to being self-taught, I've found that the better ones have stood alongside, or on the shoulders of, more fishermen than one. Some mentors we've known, some, like Lyman and Woolner, we have only felt as if we have. Usually, after putting myself in someone else's waders, I find my shortcoming, correct it, and have a marginal degree of success - until my next failing comes along.
Copyright © 2002 - 2013 Joe Lyons, All Rights Reserved
Articles by Joe Lyons
Joe Lyons has been a surfcaster for over twenty years on the rocks and beaches of Rhode Island and Block Island. An accomplished writer he is a regular contributer to several New England and Northeast fishing magazines. In 2002 he put his experience and knowledge to "good use" by becoming a professional surfcasting guide in Rhode Island and Block Island. Among his many clients has been Peter Kaminsky, the well known writer for the New York Times and author of numerous books on fishing and many other subjects.
Joe resides in West Warwick, RI 02893 and can be reached by calling (401) 615-2636 or by the Contact Us page on Surfcasting-RhodeIsland.com where you will find his complete Guiding information.