American eels are lively on a line, making them both fun fish to reel in and great live bait for larger game.
But whether it’s catching them in freshwater or using them in saltwater, American eels can be tricky to handle.
Fishing for eels can be a surprisingly fun challenge. From proper tackle to where you can find them, you’ll need to be prepared before you can try your hand at catching one.
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Table of Contents
Catching Eels on a Line
For freshwater fishing, there are very few fish that are as feisty as an eel.
But to catch an eel on a line, you’ll need to know how.
One of the most important things to note is that eels are nocturnal.
During the day, they’ll hide in the mud or under rocks.
If you want to catch eels, bring flashlights and headlamps and get ready for some night fishing.
American eels are opportunistic feeders.
A large night crawler often makes good bait, but you should also be able to use stink bait, herring, shiner, or anything else that they can catch the scent of.
It’s an open discussion on how strong your line needs to be, but a 10-pound test main line should work in most cases. If you want to err on the side of caution, a 12-pound test monofilament line might be your best bet. A
nd if you want to go lighter, you could drop down to as low as a 6-pound test line.
Eels have small mouths, so try number 4 to number 2 baitholder hooks.
Since eels are such strong pullers, avoid any light-wire models or else the eel might straighten out your hook.
To recap, a setup for eel fishing might look something like:
- Line: 6- to 12-pound-test monofilament, abrasion-resistant
- Hooks: #4 to #2 baitholder
- Bait: large nightcrawlers (or just about anything they’ll smell)
Whether you’re in a river, pond, or lake, you’ll want to cast your line in an area where shallow water suddenly turns deep.
Once the eel’s taken a bite, fight it until the fish tires.
If an eel doesn’t bite within a couple of minutes, reel your line in and recast it.
When you’ve reeled your eel in, you can either beach the eel on the shore or use a small, stiff net that the eel won’t get tangled in.
Hooking Eels as Live Bait
While eels may be fun to fish for in their own right, to most they’re better known as live bait.
Their strength, liveliness, and hardiness make them one of the best live baits for catching many different species. And?as a catadromous fish?they can be used in saltwater.
Since eels are so lively and slippery, they can be difficult to get on a hook. You’ll need to be clever to grab onto them. Some use ice to get their eels to slow down and be more manageable while hooking.
To do this, keep your eels in a bucket of ice while fishing.
But if you want your eels to be in fighting form, there are other ways to handle eels without resorting to icing them. If you’re keeping your eels in water, use a small fishing net to scoop the eel out, then grab it from the net with a dry rag. Eels are much easier to hold with a dry rag wrapped around them.
Once you have a firm grip on them, eels can be hooked like most bait.
For saltwater fishing, Owner 8/0 or 10/0 hooks should do the job. Put the hook through the eel’s bottom jaw and out of its eye socket.
Do not let go of the eel until you’re ready to put it in the water.
As soon as you let go, the eel’s going to start twisting and potentially tangle your line. Get it over the water first, then let it go straight in.
Once the eel’s in the water, give it a few seconds and you can reel it back up.
It should now be a bit calmer and less likely to tangle your line.
Things to remember when hooking eels as live bait:
- Don’t grip them with your bare hands (unless you choose to ice them).
- Try to use larger eels, they’ll stay lively for longer (eels longer than 12 inches).
- Drop them in the water when you first let go. You can reel them back in after they’re settled.
American Eel Fishing
For freshwater sport fishermen, the American eel has proven itself to be a fish that’ll put up quite a fight once hooked, making it a worthwhile challenge.
For saltwater fishing, they’re better known as great live bait.
American eels are a catadromous fish, meaning they spend most of their life in freshwater before migrating to the sea to breed, and have been known to range as far north as Greenland and as far south as Venezuela.
Before any eel fishing is done, you should check to see if you need to get an eel permit wherever you fish.
American eels, or Anguilla Rostrata, are considered threatened in Canada and endangered by the IUCN Red List Criteria.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, hasn’t applied the Endangered Species Act on American eels.
Eel fishing in the Atlantic Canada region can be dated back to the First Nations. Natives would use stone weirs to corral eels into shallow water, then spear them.
In the 1980s, eels were one of the top fish species in Ontario’s commercial fishing industry.
The decline in eel populations, however, has put pressure on reducing commercial fishing.
If you’re good to go for recreational eel fishing in your area, then you’re in business for some fun action. As far as freshwater fishing goes, eels are one of the strongest fighters on a line.
Important things to know before you go fishing for eels:
- Go fishing at night. American eels are nocturnal and won’t begin biting until twilight.
- Eels will twist like a snake. Be prepared for a fight even after you’ve reeled them in.
- Avoid using large nets. Eels can become tangled and injure themselves.
- Eels are biters and secrete a slime when threatened.
As fun as eels are to catch in their own right, they’re probably better known as bait for the saltwater game.
But even when used as bait without going through any of the trouble of catching them on a line you should still prepare yourself for some trouble when hooking them.
Whether you only care about eels in the context of catching striped bass and cobia, or if you actively want to try an original North American tradition, eels are worth the trouble.
Can I go fishing for eels during the day?
American eels typically hide in the mud or under rocks and logs during the day. It’s not impossible to catch eels during the day, but it’s not as ideal as fishing at night when they’re more active.
What other ways are there to get eels for live bait without reeling them in?
Your local bait shop may sell eels and would be your best bet for fast, convenient eels. American eels are also often usually caught with traps or “pots.”
Are eels good to eat?
Eels, once a staple in North American diets, have a sweet, meaty flavor. They can be prepared in a variety of ways (smoked, grilled, fried, baked) and, in some areas, jellied eels are considered a treat.
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