Mark Wintle, an angler for thirty-five years, is on a quest to discover and bring to you the magic of fishing. Previously heavily involved with match fishing he now fishes for the sheer fun of it. With an open and enquiring mind, each week Mark will bring to you articles on fishing different rivers, different methods and what makes rivers, and occasionally stillwaters, tick. Add to this a mixed bag of articles on catching big fish, tackle design, angling politics and a few surprises.

Are you stuck in a rut fishing the same swim every week? Do you dare to try something different and see a whole new world of angling open up? Yes? Then read Mark Wintle’s regular weekly column.


There have been several articles about the demise of the eel on this site, from official EA press releases to Barrie Rickards’ comments. I’m going to chuck a stick of dynamite into a small muddy pond and suggest that the vast majority of anglers will miss them far less than the fuss generated would appear to warrant.

Eels – do the majority of anglers really want them?

That the European eel is in extremely serious decline is not in doubt. The reasons for it are complex and all contribute to some degree to the current situation. Survey after survey confirms a similar picture. During the nineties, and continuing to the present day, there has been a massive decline in eel numbers, right across Europe, possibly by as much as 99%. The factors that caused the decline include, in no particular order, over-fishing by commercial netsmen and trapping, parasitical pestilence, pollution, a possible change in the currents of the Gulf Stream, and I’m sure that a little blame can be put on cormorants and otters. By far the most readable book on the subject must be “The Book of Eels” by Tom Fort, essential reading for those who want to know more.

Loads of Eels
My experiences with eels go back to 1970 when I started to fish the tidal reaches of the Dorset Frome. These waters, like so many near the sea, teemed with eels. In the right conditions, a summer flood or thundery weather, they were hard to avoid. In those days, they were regarded as a pest and didn’t count in the majority of matches. Fortunately, the fact that we didn’t use too much bait saved us from catching too many. Fast forward a decade to the eighties and eels did count in matches. Certain standing tides, a decent weedbed and plenty of maggots brought us eels galore in matches. Mostly small with few as big as pound, there were still enough to dominate match weights. I have memories of tying hooks as fast as I could to keep up with a quivertip that pulled round every five minutes with yet another small eel. Twenty and thirty eels were possible in a match. When the tide stood, floatfishing near the bottom would result in ten eels in twenty minutes until the river starting flowing again.

Not far away, chub and barbel anglers cursed eels on the Avon and Stour that quickly got a taste for cheese, luncheon meat and maggots. These were bigger fish than those we got in the Frome, with many between a pound and two pounds. Much further away, the Witham match anglers found ways to catch eels on the pole when the bream weren’t feeding. I had lessons on this back in 1990 from eel ace Roger Downing that stood me in good stead in the National that year. There seemed to be so many at that time that it was unimaginable that they could disappear.

But disappear they did
I did very little fishing around 1993/94, but when I got back to some of my old haunts on the Frome around 1995/6, having largely left them alone when I chased around the country match fishing for the previous decade, it took me a while to notice that I no longer got plagued by eels. An eel per summer was more like it. The standing tides that produced so many eels previously now produced dace and roach.

Two years later I got hold of the fishery survey reports for the Frome and Stour. Whilst populations of dace, roach, chub etc, had shown the usual local fluctuations, there had been a massive decline in eel populations in just five years. On the Stour, the EA had caught 1150 eels in 1993; this was down to 69 in 1998. As eels are one of the easiest fish to electro-fish, such a decline could not be explained away by differences in weed growth that can make a difference, especially when trying to electro-fish for roach. Since then this decline has continued, with no evidence of a recovery. If there are far fewer eels going to sea then logic implies that far fewer elvers will return in the future. And that’s not even taking into account whether those returning to sea are being infected with a parasite that causes them to be unable to return to their spawning grounds, or if the elvers are being taken off course by changes in Gulf Stream currents.

All of this does not mean that it impossible to catch eels, whether deliberately or accidentally, for there are waters with a healthy stock of them. And the difficult question of whether eels stocks will ever return to the levels of twenty years ago is impossible to answer. I know two commercial eel fishers and both have no doubts that the decline is real, and possibly permanent. One told me about fishing the middle reaches of the Stour, and said that it only took one year to clear a stretch of river (two miles) of eels.

Who wants them back?
So, who does really want eels to return to their former glory? The EA with their bio-diversity plans (recognising that otters need eels to eat rather than providing anglers with sport), the commercial eel fishers, no doubt.

Who really want eels to return to their former glory, apart from the microscopic number of anglers who want to catch them to the exclusion of all else?

Oh, and I nearly forgot, the microscopic number of anglers who want to catch them to the exclusion of all else. But I think that the vast majority of anglers miss them far less than they’re prepared to admit. That no true angler should regard the massive decline of a species without a great sense of loss has its supporters, but could this be an exception? Can you tell me that the average chub or barbel angler, who twenty years ago endured half a dozen eels on a warm summer’s evening, really wants them back?

Does the Eel decline increase growth rates in other coarse fish?
When there were all those eels they must have eaten an awful lot of insect and crustacean life that could have supported other fish. Is this a significant contributing factor to the increases in growth rates of other coarse fish? Because eels were for the most part invisible, we tend to forget that they were there, scoffing all that natural food. If they did come back, would it affect the growth rates of roach, dace, chub and barbel, and for that matter bream, carp and tench?

Do you really believe the decline can be stopped?
Some of the problems that the eel faces may even disappear of their own accord. Commercial eel fishing is only viable if there are eels to catch. If such fishing is not worthwhile for a relatively short time, say ten or twenty years, and eels did return then it is possible that few would want to return to the twilight muddy world of trapping eels. Though banning licensed eel fishing might slow down the decline, I fear that it will be too little, too late. Furthermore, the fact that twice as many eels are caught by unlicensed operators as licensed operators reduces the benefit of banning commercial fishing. Such a ban on eel fishing would have to be total and extend Europe-wide to have any real effect.

The changes to the currents of the Gulf Stream have occurred before, and no doubt will occur again; it’s not conclusive this is even a factor. These current may well return to their former routes at some time in the future. I have no answer to the problems of parasites affecting our eels and I’m not sure anyone else does either, and if the cormorant crisis is ever resolved perhaps there may be something for the otters to eat. I firmly believe that a crisis such as this cannot be resolved by man’s intervention alone. The eels may one day return of their own accord, or they may become as extinct as the burbot as far as the UK is concerned.

I think that it’s clear that I don’t personally miss eels that much. You don’t have to share that view, but I wonder if we, as anglers, are being a mite hypocritical in wanting to save the eel.

Are we really better off without them? What do you think?
Even the experts cannot agree on the true causes of the eel’s decline, and certainly not on how to reverse that decline. Some of my arguments are slipperier than an eel in wet grass, but as was the case with stillwater barbel, it’s now your turn to have your say.

Next week: ‘The Trend Towards Heavier Tackle’