This is the time of year when the big stripers start their migration south out of the Gulf of Maine. They follow the shoreline slowly south, feasting along the way. There are some big fish out there and the best way to get them is fishing eels at night. The reason for eels is that this is the time they start coming out of the freshwater rivers headed off for the Sargasso Sea to breed.
The eel life cycle is unusual to say the least. The females lay their eggs in the Sargasso Sea in the mid-to-late winter, releasing from one-half to as many as eight million eggs. Once the eggs have been covered with sperm it takes about a week for them to hatch out. It is believed that the adult eels die after spawning.
The young are rather odd looking little fellows with small pointed heads and very flat “leaf-like‘ bodies. They drift along in the Gulf Stream both westward and northward, taking as much as a year to reach our eastern seaboard. As they reach the continental shelve they start to change body shape and become what we know as glass eels. You can literally see through them. On average it takes about nine months for them to reach our rivers.
As they do so, they change in both color and size. They are called elvers at this stage. Their sex has not yet been determined. Research shows that the number of males finally produced is determined by the density of the numbers reaching shore at this point. If there are a lot of elvers, there will be a higher number of males. This keeps the females and future reproduction under control. These young eels start to turn yellow with a creamy-colored underbody. Some eels remain along the shoreline while others make the sometimes long journey up the rivers.
As they mature they change from a yellow color to more silver and grey. Parts of their digestive system changes to prepare them for the long swim when they eventually head back to the Sargasso Sea. The small eels feed on aquatic insects while adult eels dine on crayfish, small fish, and other available food. And, they almost always feed at night, burying into the mud during daylight hours. Eels will spend from 10 to 25 years in their freshwater location before migrating back to the ocean to spawn.
This gets us to fishing with them. Once they emerge from the rivers, the big stripers love them for dinner. However, eels only come out at night to feed. Therefore, the linesiders only feed on them at night. Thusly, (follow the logic friends) you need to fish with them at night!
The rig you use is pretty simple. Because eels tend to meander when feeding, you want to troll as slowly as you can make your boat go. Along with slow trolling, you want your bait or lures right down on the bottom.
Although there are a number of ways to get your bait to the bottom, I like trolling with lead-core line. The weight of this line will bring your rig right to the stones. The depth you are fishing and the speed you are trolling will determine how many colors of line you need to let out, but you want to fish right along the bottom. If you are not bouncing the rocks and getting hooked up every once in while, you are not fishing deep enough.
Tie a 6/0 circle hook on the end of six-ten feet of 30 lb. test mono and tie that to a ball bearing swivel. Tie the swivel to the end of the lead core line. Attach a live eel to the hook and troll it very slowly along the bottom. If you are fishing in really deep water, you may want to use a trolling sinker, but I generally do not fish in water I can’t reach with just lead core line.
We try to keep the whole boat as dark as possible so we can concentrate on the water around us. Your eyes will adjust to the dark and you will be amazed how much you can see if you just don’t turn on the lights.
Use a small “six-pack” cooler to hold your eels. Put one of those reusable plastic ice blocks inside to keep them cold. Do not cover them with ice because it will melt and immerse the eels in water. The eels will deplete the oxygen in the water and they will suffocate. The frozen block numbs them up so they are easy to handle when you have to hook up.
You can use a towel or old cotton socks to grab the eels out of the cooler, but I like cut up burlap rags as the rough cloth seems to allow me to grip them easily. Grab them just behind the head. They can’t hurt you, but they will often try to wrap around your arm.
There are a couple of ways to hook on the eel. Many guys run the hook through one eye and out the other. This gives you some bone in the skull to hold the hook. One of the best ways is to put the point deep into the mouth and down through the throat.
I like to troll across or against the current. This puts the bait down to the fish and moves it by them very slowly. If the ball bearing swivel is working the way it should, the eel should roll and wiggle as if it is moving along the bottom looking for a place to hide. Remembering that the big bass do not want to move too far or fast to eat, your boat should just be creeping along.
When you get a strike, pop the bail open and let the fish take the eel. Count to ten and then set the hook. By pausing a bit, you will allow the fish time to swallow the whole eel. Unfortunately this will result in the fish taking the hook deep which produces a high mortality rate in the fish.
So, if you want to catch the big stripers this time of year, get out onto the water at sunset and fish eels deep around structures. Try the mouth of the Ipswich right along the shoreline of Crane or the mouth of the Essex on the Stoney side. Good Luck!