Holiday reflections and revisiting the eel

Am I the only person who having returned from holiday each year, vows never again to take more than the occasional day away from the desk? There’s that awful pit of the stomach feeling when you first log on to see hundreds – in my case 788 – unopened emails. You scroll frantically for the things you just didn’t have time to polish off before you departed, hoping against hope that they have not come back to bite you in the derriere.

Eel River Soar

Canal Floods

On top of that, it seems there is always at least one incident involving the Trust’s fisheries to deal with on my return. Back in January 2015, it was pollution on the Leicester Line, this time around there have been severe floods on some of our canals in the north. Ray Barber, the great Todmorden Angling Club legend, first alerted me to the situation just as I was about to step onto the Ethiopian airlines plane. Whilst the majority of waterways in the north are still open as usual, these floods have caused widespread damage and upheaval to everything unlucky enough to be in their path, and suffice to say they have also had a massive impact on our fisheries infrastructure. Follow the link to read more about what’s been happening on our flood-hit canals.

Being grateful for what I already have

Going away to Africa annually should teach me gratitude. I should be more grateful, returning as I do to a wonderful job, a living wage, our NHS, worrying about overeating rather than malnutrition, clean water and sewerage systems etc. I should definitely be grateful for the opportunity to continue to run 2000 miles of waterway fisheries and 80 odd stillwaters and for the characters that I meet along the way. And I will be recruiting a new northern based fisheries officer to take some of the weight off my shoulders too.

Holiday Reading. Book of the Eel

With my normal hectic schedule, I find too little time to read good books these days. My late father, who himself barely attended school until the age of 12, used to remind me that the person who didn’t bother to read wasn’t much better off than the person that couldn’t actually read. Partly for day job reasons, I re-read Tom Fort’s excellent Book of the Eel whilst drinking copious cups of delicious Ethiopian coffee. It got me thinking about my first introduction to the eel as a young nipper of a lad on the banks of the Llangollen canal.

First Fishing Box

In the late 1960s, during summer holidays, I would stay with my grandparents and great uncle in the little canal village of Grindley Brook. Following war duties, Bill had turned to carpentry as a trade, making me a wonderful wooden fishing box and a magical little float box to go with it; filling it with peacock quills and other antiquities. One particular late July weekend, awaking at dawn and armed with flask and sandwiches, we strode like Mr Crabtree and Peter along the towpath heading towards Jacksons Bridge. The mist was rising off the water; it was the start of a perfect summer day. Bill had splashed out on maggots, or gentles as he called them, to supplement the copious supply of worms that resided in grandfathers compost heaps. We were hoping for a tench, a species that had not graced my net at that stage in my fledgling fishing career. Armed with my 6 foot green fibreglass rod and a worm on the hook, I cast a double rubber quill float a good ten foot from the bank – the canal seemed so wide then. Within minutes the quill flickered furiously and upon instructions from Bill to strike, a 2 oz. perch was entangled in the hedge behind me before it realised what was going on.

Bill’s Eel

Bill then struck into something monstrous, rod bending, reel screeching as the fish took line. To Bill’s displeasure, but to my amazement, a snake like slimy creature tugging and wriggling, appeared at the surface. It was the first eel I ever saw and I guess it weighed a pound and a half. Bill cut the line, for the hook was deep and difficult to extract, and the fish went back into the canal.

Angling for the Pot

Eels were common in the Llangollen in those days. Men travelled by car or pushbike from the big population centres round and about, places like Whitchurch, Whixall, Malpas, Prees and Wem. Men angled for the pot, the favourite spot being upstream of the Grindley Brook lock flight. One evening despite my incessant pestering Ted Williams, an accomplished match angler with the Bulls Head club, landed a brace of four pounders and four more fish around the 2 pound mark. As for me, I never had the patience to leave the bait in the water long enough to give even the most stupid of eels the opportunity of getting caught.

Decline of the Eel and Tom Forts book

By the 1990s, when Grindley Brook A C Friday evening matches were in full swing, fewer eels were being caught. One competitor, Charlie Clutton, realising he couldn’t outcompete his grandchildren Mark, Simon and Hannah, who were becoming masters of the pole, set his stall out for eels. Ledgering a worm down the track he waited patiently, knowing one decent sized eel often weighed more than the dozens of roach, perch, gudgeon and ruffe that the rest of us targeted. As the years went on, Charlie landed fewer and fewer eels.

Which leads me back to Tom Forts book which charts the calamitous decline of the European and other species of eel and thus the livelihoods of people who have relied on them for millennia. It’s a book that every anger and anyone interested in the relationship between humanity and nature should read.

Last date edited: 25 January 2016

About this blog

The fisheries & angling team

The team undertake a diverse range of work including looking after the Trust's £40 million worth of fish stocks, managing agreements with over 250 different angling clubs and helping more people, especially youngsters, take up angling on the canal. Follow this blog to keep updated with the thoughts and work of the team.

See more blogs from this author