Fishing with eels: Frustrating, fun, and fulfilling

Working with live bait requires patience and persistence.

Eels for bait for sale at Dick's Bait & Tackle in Oak Bluffs. Most bait stores on the Island sell eels. — Gabrielle Mannino

So you’ve decided you are tired of snagging schoolie after schoolie from Tashmoo, and are ready to move up to the big leagues, and hook a massive fish.

There are a number of avenues you can take to target the larger, fully grown fish that may serve as Derby winners or dinner for days.

But many seasoned fishermen will agree that live bait is the most effective way to catch big stripers, and arguably the best live bait is eels.

Cooper “Coop” Gilkes of Coop’s Bait and Tackle said fishing with eels is difficult these days, mainly because there aren’t as many monster bass swimming around. “The eel fishery seems to be in decline, but if there are big fish out there, eels are a good way to go,” Gilkes said.

Gilkes said fishing with eels involves “a very cool scenario” playing out under the water, and if fishermen can understand the eel’s movements, they can anticipate the moment right before the fish hits. “You feel it [the eel] getting all excited, and before you know it, you’re on,” Gilkes said. 

Gilkes said he likes to fish eels by allowing their natural movement to attract fish. “Let the eel do the work,” he said. 

Possibly the most involved method of fishing, fishing eels can be particularly frustrating before you have even taken your first cast, as the little buggers are slimy and elusive. But the overall experience of fishing eels is always full of laughs.

Before you buy a bucket of eels and head to Menemsha for a night of fishing, make sure to snag a coarse rag. The rag will be used to grip the eel while you are inserting the hook, as the writhing creatures are almost impossible to hold without one. 

Before selecting your eel, try placing a couple in a bucket full of ice. The ice causes the eels to relax and become lethargic, making them easier to handle.

Grab the eel with a rag, and try to choke up on it so the head is just barely showing. Insert a circle hook into the eel’s mouth, then pull it either down through the gill cover, or up through the eye. 

Using a circle hook instead of a J-hook will allow for less gut-hooked bass when fishing live eels, and the fish are easier to remove from the hook when landed. 

Once the eel is on your hook, try to cast it out as quickly as possible. Eels writhe and wriggle while on the hook, and sometimes work themselves into a nasty knot, and can even end up impaling themselves. 

Before that eel knots up or flops off your hook, cast it out. Once the eel hits water, it will immediately straighten out and begin to swim for cover. Now, although there are many differing opinions on the best way to retrieve an eel, my preferred method is to let it swim out by closing my bail and loosening the drag. The eel will head for a natural hiding spot, like a rock or a patch of seagrass. Don’t let it get too comfortable — once the eel stops moving, try jigging your rod and reeling slowly. The eel will be pulled from its hiding spot, and will be forced to make for cover again, drawing the attention of hungry stripers. 

Keep in mind that the point of using live eels is for the movement of the bait to be as natural as possible. An eel’s natural motion is to swim facing down, away from predators and into the murky ocean bottom.

When you reel your eel, make sure to have your rod tip facing downward. If your rod is held too high, the eel will be forced to swim up toward the surface, and out of the strike zone.

When you are fishing with eels, it will constantly feel like you have a fish on. But once that monster striper eats your eel, you’ll know it. The fish will immediately swallow the eel, and you can then begin your fight. 

Working with eels is not a beginner’s craft, but the joy of using live bait should be experienced by all who wish to hone their skills and expand their fishing arsenal.