The Eel Poachers

By “Country Boy”

Always out to earn a bob we had all the tools in our sheds. Eeling was an all year round job. During winter, along with our forays after rabbits, we would work all the likely-looking ditches, especially where there was a hole in the dyke’s bottom, for here would gather the fish to lay up in the mud for the cold weather.



The tool for capturing them was a three-pronged serrated blade of steel, mounted on a fifteen foot ash pole, called an eel shear – a lethal weapon in the right hands. With a thrust in the muddy bottom any eel encountered was caught between the jagged teeth. One drawback with this tool was that it did not discriminate between large or small, so killed all in its way. Now the eel shear is nailed to the wall of my garden shed as an old time relic.

The summer tools were varied. The one we had a lot of fun with was the hoop net consisting of a willow hoop about twelve feet in diameter. From this huge circle of wood hung a twenty five foot funnel of net, tapering to a joint that was tied tightly together with a strong piece of twine. Inside this net there was another funnel so on passing through it they were unable to return, becoming trapped at the end. The way we worked this contrivance was to place the ring across the ditch. Then, pulling the tail of net out tight behind it, we pushed the end into the mud to keep it tightly open. Walking 200 yards up from the obstruction two of us would take up our other pieces of the engine (as that is what they called any thing that was used to take animals, birds or fish). These consisted of two long poles. Attached to one end was an old bean tin with the bottom end cut out. By threshing the tin under the water quickly it made a dreadful noise and scared all the fish, including the eels, in front of us boys. We had a rare old time working in unison plopping the water to foam as we worked towards the net, blocking the path of our intended prey on reaching the net. As one, we dropped our poles and grabbed the hoop and dragged it ashore. Sometimes we had over 1 cwt of fish of all kinds. Large pike were studied before being released, noting in our heads the likely place to find him come winter. All the rest were immediately returned. But not the eels. These we bagged for sale and the net being made of one inch herring mesh had filtered all the little ones out for us. All that remained were 1 lb and over – ‘lovely’.

Another weapon for the slimy snake was a wine trap with two funnels in it. This was chucked in any likely-looking place and could be left for a few days before retrieving the hoped-for catch. The best bait was chicken guts or the paunch of a rabbit, tied up in a lady’s stocking and suspended in the cage on a piece of wire, so the eels could not suck it out through the sides, but had to go inside. These wire traps made good rat cages as well and were left bailed in the winter months when the eels were buried in the mud and no longer active. You had to take care where you placed them when not fishing for they always seemed to attract the little wrens. So, if not in use we stacked them all with the doors open. That way they were no longer a trap. There was also the fish hook. Many a fine bag of big eels were had from the now growing gravel pits in my area. With a ball of string and an armful of willow wands you were in business. Walking around the pits you picked up all the stones with holes in them.

Then, coming to a good place you tied the lucky stone on the string 3 ft from the end. Then you tied a loop and your hook on. A no. 8 long shank whiting hook was best. This you baited with a bit of chicken gut or meat, a real favourite of myself. It also made sure nothing else ate it. Then, laying out 50 – 60 feet of line on the ground you then placed the thinnest end of one of your willow rods in the loop and with a good cast, your stone and bait sailed out into the distance. You gently took the slack up till you felt the weight and placed a stone on the line shoving the willow wand into the bank and attached the string to the top, cut off what you no longer needed and moved onto the next place. The stick had now served its job, launching the bait into the water. Now it would mark the spot as nothing was visible above the water. It still had another job to do and that was to act like a tension spring for any fish pulling on the line bent the upright wand and so wore the eel out. Next day he would easily come to you with no fuss. Many times the willow was left behind having done its job and today they have grown into massive trees all round the pits, thanks to the little eel poachers.

“Rye’s Own” November 2011

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