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Striped Bass Fishing with Eels
Eels are the quintessential striper bait. Recently there has been a lot of talk about imposing strict limits on possession of eels and possibly putting them on the endangered species list. There has been a dramatic decrease in the American eel population over the last few years and there are fingers being pointed in all directions. I tend to believe that it is a combination of things occurring. The American eel is born in the Sargasso Sea and makes its way back up the rivers and streams all up and down the East Coast. The eel takes nearly 15 years to mature sexually and to return to the Sargasso to spawn. Many people feel that over the last 15 to 20 years the increase in the numbers of hydro electric dams has taken a huge toll. Others feel it has more to do with the sale of glass eels in fish markets over seas. Studies are being done on just what is happening and for now the ASMFC has decided not to recommend any changes in the laws regarding eels until more information is gathered, so it appears that we are safe for the next few years anyways.
A nice striper caught in the surf with an eel.
Eels are sold at any shop near the salt. They can be purchased individually or by the dozen. Eels are easy to keep alive before, during and after use and are just plain deadly when it comes to striper fishing. While they occasionally work well during the day, they are most commonly used at night. Equally popular when used in a boat and 3-wayed over deep structure or cast from the rocks in the surf, they account for staggering numbers of big bass being landed every year. My ideal bait size is twelve to eighteen inches however one of my largest bass ever came on an eel that was barely eight inches long. She weighed nearly 65 pounds! It hardly seems worth the trouble for a fish that big to grab an eel so small. I must have hit her right on the nose with my offering. As with all live bait, I use a circle hook. A 5/0 or 6/0 circle seems to work the best for eels.
Eels can be a handful when hooking though. There are a couple of ways to deal with them. I keep my eels calm by placing them on ice as soon as I get to the boat. Ice works well and causes no long term affects, once they warm up again, they will be as lively as ever. Once chilled, they become as limp as a piece of spaghetti in your hand. It is important to be able to allow the eel slime and melting ice to drain from your bucket so that they don’t drown. Some elect to use the “Shake and Bake” method by using a separate bucket full of sand or saw dust and dropping a few, as needed, in the sand. Once they become covered, they are much easier to handle with a rag. Eel slime is fairly disgusting and rags are needed for either method. The surf pros will store their eels in a mesh bag strung from their wading belt. Keeping dry rags can be a challenge in the surf, many anglers will instead use a Scotch Bright pad. The stiff pad offers a good grip in the bait and allows you to hook the eel with minimal trouble.
An eel, rigged and ready to catch big fish.
One of the benefits of using eels is that any leftover eels can be stored for long periods of time in either fresh or salt water as long as there is water in your container. A bucket with a lid and just enough water to keep them wet works fine for a few days. For longer periods of storage, a larger container with an air pump is ideal. On one particular year we were having an outstanding fall run and I had several dozen eels stored in my basement. The weather pattern changed drastically and the fall run was over for me. With an aerated tank in the basement, I was able to keep the eels alive until I started fishing again in late April. If you don’t have a pump, they will be fine with regular water changes. If the water becomes discolored or begins to smell, change it out. Regular old tap water is fine for them. However, if you choose to store them make sure you have a secure lid. They are the Harry Houdini’s of the animal world and can escape through the smallest of openings.
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