Eel Care and Welfare

Regular readers of the ‘Lines on the Water’ blogs will recall an earlier campaign feature: ‘Eel Fishing; Care For Your Catch’. This was published in association with the National Anguilla Club as part of the club’s ‘Lip Hook Your Eels’ campaign and focused on safe methods when targeting eels .

In this update, NAC committee member, Jason Webb, looks at wider care for this enigmatic yet impressive wanderer.

If you are targeting eels through the warmer spring and summer months then it’s important to use the safe rigs which are proven to be much more effective at lip hooking eels. A deep-hooked eel can be mortally wounded due to the location of its main artery from its heart being located in its throat. Safe rigs such as the semi-fixed bolt rig with a short hook link or the BM twig rig are by far the safest methods to use. These rigs can be found on our dedicated webpage at:

They should be fished in conjunction with a tight line and sensitive bite detection.

Once an eel is caught, what next? Firstly, it’s important to let it calm down for a short while before assessing where the hook is located. As a guide allow it 40 to 60 seconds on the unhooking mat to calm down. Placing the damp wet mesh of a net over its head and eyes will help calm it down quicker.

Providing eels are kept damp and out of direct sunlight they can survive out of water longer than nearly any other freshwater species. In fact, in cool damp wet conditions, they can survive for days out of water and are known to travel over land to find a body of water. So, the key is not to rush or panic in trying to unhook it.

Gently run your hand down its flank, from head to tail. Don’t make sudden movements; just be calm and gentle with the eel and it will quickly start to respond and become more compliant. If you try and wrestle with the eel there will only be one winner and it won’t be you. They can contort, twist, coil and easily out manoeuvre you. So soft calming strokes all the way down its flank repeating this process over and over is the way to go.

Once the eel has calmed down assess the location of the hook. If it is an accidental capture and the hook is out of sight and more than one inch back from its lip it is wise to leave well alone and cut the line. Poking about in its throat could prove fatal for the eel and it has a much better chance of survival and shedding the hook if you cut the line as close to the eel’s mouth as possible. If it is lip hooked then it can easily be removed with forceps or a small or medium ‘Stonfo’ type disgorger. But only if the hook is close to the mouth. Using a barbless hook makes unhooking so much easier.

One method that has been used to help unhooking is to turn the eel upside down, placing it on its back. This puts the eel into a temporary paralysed state called tonic immobility. They are aware of what is going on around them in this state but are unable to move. This can help to calm the eel, but it is important to realise that the eel can’t breathe in this position for long because it is unable to keep its gill cavity inflated to draw the oxygen it needs when out of water. So only ever keep the eel inverted in this position for 60 seconds maximum. Too long upside down will kill them.

When trying to hold the eel don’t grip them too tightly around the head or pectoral fin area as this is the location of its vital organs. Always be gentle with the eel and it will respond much better to you. Avoid gripping them with such things as newspaper or a dry towel, this will remove its protective mucus slime layer which not only protects the eel from disease but also helps prevent the eel drying out during land excursions when moving from water to water or migrating.

Please remember that the eel is a truly wild fish which travels thousands of miles to reach us and takes decades to grow to specimen size. On that basis, eel care and welfare is paramount to help them with their 3000 mile return trip across the Atlantic and to complete their incredible life journey.

For more information, please go to:

Leave a Reply