Giant Eels and the Search for Monsters – fishing for real leviathans

Giant Eels - In Search of Monsters by Tony Stevens.
Giant Eels - In Search of Monsters by Tony Stevens.

By Tony Stevens

The story begins when my 6ft plus son lost a monumental tug of war, with him at one end of a skinned rabbit destined for our tea, and an eel who seemed to think it was for hers. Well, in all honesty, a justifiable mistake, for, after all, it was in her element, being washed of blood etc, prior to going into the pan. In search of giant eels.

The long and short of it was as always, the strongest won and we went back to dehydrated packaged food for tea. This happened not too long ago in the high country of North Canterbury, on the banks of a river famed for its brown trout which I had designs on, while my son hunted, hoping to fill the freezer with succulent joints of pork and venison.

Never before have I seen such an eel, not even whilst out fishing for congers off the Banks Peninsula. At a rough guess that eel was at least 2 metres long and as round as my thigh. What weight such a beast would be I don’t even want to begin to make a guess at, suffice to say that it goes on record as huge, the veritable essence of dreams and myths of monster giant eels.

Having seen such a veritable monster, knowing it to be for real, meant of course designs upon capturing, if not that particular one, then one of the similar proportions. With the experience of the rabbit, I felt sure just what bait might lure my monster from her (I am assured that all big long-finned eels are female) rocky cliff pool.

Tackle for Giant Eels

However, it would not be bait but tackle that would win the day and the battle. Forty-kilogram line and a rod like a broomstick, albeit made from the very latest blend of carbon and X Wrap Kevlar, just did not seem to be in keeping with fishing such a superb trout venue in the midst of the grandeur of the Southern Alps.

Sporting ethics whispered in my subconscious that it was on a par with taking a “D8” fitted with a hydraulic crane up there, even though it may have been eminently practical to haul my monster out.

After soul searching and looking through fish tackle catalogues and a variety of books and magazines, the choices were made. The rod chosen was a Byron 11ft, 2 1/2 lb TC Carp bought for salmon fishing in the Rakaia, matched to a ”Procaster” fixed spool reel with 18 lb line, 20 lb multistrand steel trace, with either Jack Hilton or Partridge specimen carp hooks fitted by means of double sleeves. This to be fished on a running leger tackle completed the proposed outfit.

Gaff for Giant Eels

How to land my monster? I much prefer to return my catches alive and unharmed if possible, but up to 2 metres of upset eel presented what turned out to be an insurmountable problem. The only sensible answer was to use a gaff and a strong one at that. This was made, a stainless steel hook with a 75mm gap was married to a very stout selected straight grain hickory 1.25m shaft. The idea was that if at all possible, the eel would be lower lip gaffed, thus allowing a safe return after weighing.

The following summer saw a new four-day expedition setting off to the North Canterbury high country in the trusty Niva. This time, besides guns and trout rods the load included the monster eel catching gear as well. The hunt was on!

The tent was pitched and the campsite made comfortable. An aperitif whisky drunk, a meal prepared and eaten, then in the half-light, the shotgun was taken for a walk to gather some fresh bait and just possibly tomorrow’s tea as well.

After a good night’s sleep, an early start was made, and I headed off upriver to the pool. The monster search was on. This pool has a small beach at the lower end of fine gravel, then rocks and low cliffs surround the rest of the quarter-acre or so of water.

The tackle was put up, attention in particular paid to knots before casting a 10cm chunk of a fresh bloody rabbit up into the head of the pool to a clear gravel run close to a midstream rocky underwater ridge. The line was tightened up and the rod put on to rests cut from the bush on the way up. This ensures that the reel and line do not come into contact with abrasive particles of sand.

Now comes the wait! Out comes the little stove I carry and that universal panacea, a brew of tea is started off. Before the water starts to boil the rod tip gently nods a couple of times. It just couldn’t be, I think, could it be! Yes, there it is again. I’ve got an offer.

Slowly I pick up the rod and as I do the line starts to move off slowly but steadily. Eels do not normally require striking, but in this instant, I suspect that I will need an advantage right from the word go. I give a long slow sweeping strike to lift the eel off the bottom. This is not my monster!

That was very clear, but it was still a very sizeable fish. Three minutes later a reluctant gyrating eel of about 5kg is gently brought ashore, unhooked with the artery forceps and allowed to slither back into its watery home. I only realise afterwards that it was the biggest eel I have ever landed. On well, too late, bait up cast out again, and back to making my brew of tea.

My brew drunk I settle back to wait, my back supported comfortably by a convenient rock when the rod tip is wrenched around and I just have time to grab the rod before it disappears into the river. No need or chance to strike this time, the rod is arced over and bucking like a mule.

Strange I think, it’s not taking any line! Slowly the line rises and up from the depths appears a writhing black form. It’s smaller I think, but doing the most furious water gymnastics in its bid for freedom.

On the bank, things go from bad to worse. I get the forceps onto the hook and promptly let go as an incredibly strong muscled body wraps itself around my arm. It lets me go and I get a boot instep onto it and manage to remove an imaginatively reworked hook, whereupon it proceeds to bite chunks out of my waders before charging off into a rock pool with no connection to the river. Wow! Talk about agro. I’m glad it’s not a driver on the motorway.

That hook, by the way, was a No. 6 Jack Hilton specimen carp hook designed to handle fish of 60lb plus. That eel munched it as if it was made of putty, pretty impressive eh!

Things slowed down after that and it was a good half an hour before a gentle nod of the rod tip indicated an interest in the bait again. The slow steady sweeping strike connected. With what? The bottom? Uh oh, this could be the one because the bottom has just started to move.

For about 15 minutes a tug of war ensued, with neither side gaining or losing much line, then for some unfathomable reason, the eel decided to throw the towel in on the contest and allowed itself to be drawn ashore, lip gaffed, and weighed in or out, as the case may be, at 18 lb 12 oz then returned. Her vital statistics were 54 inches long and a girth of 18 inches. One of the giant eels for sure!

No small fish this, but not the monster I had hoped for. Two more eels were caught during that session, both smaller and even though I continued over the next two days to fish there and in other pools, I did not have so much as a nibble.

So my monster still swims free. Next summer, if you take a trip to the high country and spot a bearded figure skulking beside a deep pool drowning pieces of rabbit, it will be me. I have become addicted to fishing for real leviathans, giant eels.