European Eels are a predatory fish which have one of, if not the most distinctive features of all of the fish which swim in our waters.
They are hardy creatures and can be incredible long lived (older than many people!) if they are landlocked and cannot reach the sea to spawn.
They have a keen following from anglers who are looking to branch out and catch this beautiful and ancient fish.
European Eels (scientific name Anguilla Anguilla) are of the order Anguilliformes.
This order refers to over 800 species of teleost fish are fish with elongated, snake like bodies.
This includes all species of freshwater and saltwater fish such as conger eels, moray eels and even the infamous electric eels.
In the UK the common way to refer to freshwater eels is simply “eels”.
Eel have been used for centuries across Europe as an important source of food. There are countless times in history that eels have been mentioned for use in cooking.
They were incredibly popular in London for both jellied eels and eel pie and mash, however they were fished out of the River Thames due to the demand.
In Gloucester, baby eels (elvers) were traditionally caught and mixed with scrambled eggs.
In the Basque reason of Spain and France they have also been historically cooked with oil and chillies as a great delicacy.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has placed the European eel on a critically endangered list of species.
The reason for this is that, although the stock of adult fish appears stable, the elvers have seen a colossal decline. Some figures put the decline as up to 95% fewer than there were in the 1970s.
It is not entirely understood why there has been such a drastic decline, but theories include manmade obstacles such as flood defences, weirs and dams and natural changes to the Gulf Stream which the eel larvae use to return to Europe after spawning.
It is still permissible to catch and eat eels, however this may be susceptible to change so please check with the fishery owner and Environment Agency before doing this.
There is hope ahead for the fish, as fisheries have stocked eels and countries such as the Netherlands are successfully breeding eels in captivity.
There has also been a report in the rise in the number of eels reaching our shores.
However, this is hopefully the start and in order to preserve this fish, we would suggest not to buy and eat wild eels (and never elvers) and instead opt for the farmed variety.
Sadly, as the eels have declined there have been some who have sought to profit from this.
In 2020 a seafood salesman was caught with a huge 200kg of European glass eels (small eels which can be found in the spawning section below) by the UK Border Force.
They were hidden under other fish and were destined for Hong Kong where they had a value of £53,000,000.00. They are considered a delicacy in that part of the world and are in great demand.
Eels have natural predators (as well as people) such as otters, heron and goosander.
Distribution and Habitat
Eels are common in Europe and will inhabit rivers which are fed from the Atlantic Ocean.
This includes areas around the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea and the North Sea.
Almost all countries which a coastal area on these seas will have freshwater eels, including North African countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria to the south, Turkey to the East, Russia and Iceland to the North and the UK and Portugal to the West.
Although eels will enter countries through their river systems, they will inhabit most areas of water. Amazingly, eels can travel distances of up to 400 meters across land (albeit damp ground) to reach other bodies of water.
They will inhabit still waters such as ponds, lakes and gravel pits as well as rivers and streams (sometimes even very small streams).
Anglers are sometimes shocked to find eels in waters where they were previously thought not to inhabit!
Although eels live in most waters, they appear to prefer coloured or dark water with a muddy or silted bottom.
European Eels are probably one of the most easily recognisable fish in our waters.
They have very distinctive long, elongated, snake like body. The body looks smooth, shiny and scale less, however eels have small scales which are embedded in their skin. The fish is covered with slime.
Eels are either yellow or brown in colour – and some have termed them “yellow eels” or “brown eels” to distinguish them. The colouration is mainly determined by the environment in which they live.
Their backs will be a dark grey or black colour and their bellies are usually a creamy white. The yellow or brown colour actually changes to a silvery grey when they are about to spawn.
The head of eels is surprisingly small and elongated. They have small eyes, but when you look into them they seem intelligent and somehow crafty.
The mouth is large, slightly protruding and contains rows of small sharp teeth. They have small gills just behind their heads.
The pectoral fins of eels are small, dark and oval shaped and are located towards the front of the fish. Eels do not have pelvic fins.
Their dorsal, anal and caudal fins are joined and run from approximately one third of the way down the eel’s back, around their tail to approximately halfway down their underbodies.
Eels can grow as long as one metre in length but the average is likely to be half this size. There may even be some larger and older specimens which exceed a metre.
Eels can grow up to approximately 5kg, however again you may find an older specimen which exceeds this. The average weight is likely to be between 1 – 3lb (approximately 0.5 – 1.5kg).
The British record stands at 11lb 2oz (approximately 5kg) from 2015.
Eels generally live from eight to eighteen years, however they will rarely die from old age.
They will usually travel out to sea to spawn and will, like the salmon, likely die at the end of the spawning. In areas where the eels are landlocked and cannot get out to sea, they can actually live to over 100!
There is even a report of the “Brantevik Eel” from Brantevik in Sweden which was aged at an amazing 155 years old!
How They Feed
Eels have an extremely powerful sense of smell but relatively poor eyesight. They use their sense of smell to seek out dead animals on which they can feed. They are aggressive feeders at night and it is said that that the best time to catch eels is during a thunderstorm.
As eels become older they become predators as well as scavengers. They will actively hunt out small fish and frogs.
In addition to this, eels are bottom feeders and have a varied diet, and known foods include invertebrates in the water, fish eggs, insect larvae, worms, molluscs and crustaceans.
Eels do not generally feed in mid-winter and will lay dormant in holes in the banking or bottom of the water.
Eels have one of the most amazing spawning habits of all fish in our waters. Male eels reach sexual maturity at approximately 6 – 12 years of age, whilst females will generally be 9 – 18 years.
Once eels are ready to spawn, they will move from their freshwater or brackish water habitats and head towards the sea. They will make the incredible journey to the Sargasso Sea.
The Sargasso Sea is within the Atlantic Ocean and has currents as boundaries instead of land boundaries. The Sargasso Sea contains a lot of seaweed which provides perfect protection for the eel eggs and larvae. The eels will not eat when they migrate out to sea.
Once the eels reach the spawning grounds, the females lay millions of eggs which are fertilised by the males. The exact location of the spawning grounds is not known and it is assumed that the adults die after spawning.
The eels larvae (known as leptocrphali) are an oval leaf shape and they will travel back to Europe in the Gulf Stream.
This journey can take anywhere from 6 – 12 months (300 days is often quoted) up to an amazing 6 years!
Once the eel larvae reach the continental shelf they metamorphosize into “glass eels” – these are small transparent elvers. The glass eels swim into estuaries and upstream.
The glass eels take on pigment and transform into elvers, which are small version of large eels but look like small silvery threads.
The eels will slowly grow to become yellow or brown eels, before eventually changing to a silvery colour before they return to the spawning grounds.
How To Catch The European Eel
Anglers used to view eels as pests and would be repulsed at catching them. Times have changed and these unusual creatures are now sought out in their own right.
Eels are present in almost all waters. You could fish a slow-moving river to catch eels and be successful, however they won’t tend to be the larger specimens.
To find the larger specimens try to find landlocked areas of stillwater which may have rivers or streams nearby.
These will contain the older and wily specimens which have capitalised on the lack of competition and can reach very large sizes. Try to find areas where there are snags or reeds as this is generally where the eels will be lurking.
The best time to catch eels is dusk, dark or very early morning. They will not be shy at this time and are actually aggressive feeders when it is dark.
Eels can be caught throughout the day, but they won’t be as prolific during this time. Eels can be caught all year round but they tend to go dormant through mid-winter.
The best months to catch them are generally summer, from June until October.
In terms of bait, eels search out their food by smell so dead baits are a common option.
Popular dead baits include roach, rudd and gudgeon. Alternatively, eels can be caught using maggots, casters, worms and lob worms.
You could use various methods to catch eels such as float or feeder, however ledger is probably the most popular and also our favourite.
A simple ledger rig is perfectly acceptable for eels. Eels are incredible fighters for their size and a strong rod is a must if you are going for the bigger specimens.
Your rod will need to have a 2.5 – 3lb test curve for the larger specimens, or 1.5lb for the smaller ones. You will need line that is between 10 – 15lb (10lb absolute minimum).
Eels have razor sharp teeth so you will need a wire trace to prevent the large eels to cutting through your line. A size four to six hook is perfect.
You should be aware that eels can swim backwards and will try to find shelter in snags, weeds and reeds.
They will wrap themselves around the aforementioned snags and even your line.
Handling eels is thought to be difficult, but it doesn’t need to be. Once landed, place the eel onto a good unhooking mat.
Sometimes the eels will wriggle and writhe constantly. In order to calm the fish, cover the eel’s eyes with wet material and run your hands several times down the side of the eel and it will naturally relax.
Do not grip the eel tightly behind the head as this is where their organs are located.
Eels and slimy and there were recommendations in the past of holding eels with newspaper or towels.
Do not do this as it will remove the eel’s protective slime and it could die. You could take a towel or wipes for your hand or tackle once the eel has been returned to the water.
Make sure to have forceps to remove the hook from the eel’s mouth – please don’t put your finger in there!
Eels are notoriously greedy and they are known to swallow your bait so strike early to prevent deep hooking. If they have been deep hooked do not use a disgorger as their organs are just behind their head and it could be fatal.
Instead, cut the line as close to their mouth as you can. The eel should naturally unhook themselves or digest the hook over time.
Eels are an amazing species and these may be the oldest and farthest travelled species in our waters and it is our duty as anglers to return the creatures to the water as healthy as possible!
If you would like more information on how to fish for eels, or would like some further information on angling techniques, check out our fishing tips page for more information!