September 20, 2006 Volume 17 • Number 25
by Jerry Vovcsk
A collection of Jerry's artificial eels, including Felmlee and Alou Eels.
Back in the year 2000, a report by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission stated there was a 76 percent decline in the number of eels caught for bait between 1985 -- when more than 250,000 pounds were caught -- and 1995, when the take was less than 50,000 pounds. Since then there have been a number of ominous reports about the possibility of the lowly eel being placed on protected species status, at which point the artificial eel will likely take a quantum jump in popularity. But that will not come as new territory for me to explore; I'm already a big fan of the ersatz version.
Over the years I have maintained a love affair with artificial eels. Back when fake eels consisted of Alous and surgical tubes, I fished them through the seventies and eighties, catching my share of striped bass, bluefish and the occasional fluke. After spending the nineties in Washington state, I returned to Cape Cod a few years ago and found the tackle shops awash in every kind of plastic eel imaginable: Felmlee, Ultimus, Slug-go, Zoom lures, Eddystone, Red Gills and on and on. Some even came equipped with built-in smell, rattles and insertable weights.
Don't get me wrong: I'm delighted with the advances in rubber eel technology. But even though we had less variety in the old days, we did develop a few consistently rewarding methods, and judging by the results so far this season, the old ways still deliver.
But why bother at all with artificial eels when the real thing, Anguilla rostorata, the American eel, is still to be found as close as the nearest bait shop? Dick Hopwood, owner of Maco's Bait & Tackle in Wareham and an eel fisherman from way back, eloquently makes the case for the artificial version.
"Sure, live eels are great striped bass bait," says Dick, "but there are certain advantages to using an eelskin or an artificial. You can throw it out, make it go up or down...or stop and swing it around, then swim the "eel" through the current. In other words, you can control the presentation any way you want. With a live one it's going to go pretty much where it wants and about the best you can do is keep it from hiding. Besides, live eels aren't always available, while artificials can be found at any decent tackle shop."
Available? Yes, and versatile enough to cover the entire water column. Fast reeling makes them look like surface prey trying frantically to escape. Or they can serve as fish finders if you vary the countdown to locate the depth where fish are congregating. Metal-headed eels - Ultimus, Felmlee and others - perform effectively as jigs twitched right along the bottom.
In the old days, the Alou elvers and shoestrings crafted by Lou Palma and Al Reinfelder were the lure de jour. I've been fishing Alous for three decades plus (still got a few left, although you won't find them in the stores anymore), and for years considered them my go-to lure when stripers went off the bite and bluefish dozed instead of chowing down.
Want to rouse them up when fishing is in the doldrums? Hang out a 9-inch eel on one rod and a 6-incher on the other and troll very slowly, as close to shore as you can get without losing a prop. You don't need more than 50 to 75 feet of line out. When you get a strike, mark the location by ranging on something on land, then come around and work that area casting from the boat. That was Standard Operating Procedure along the Elizabeth Islands for years when my fishing partners and I fished those waters. And we'd often catch fish in the same spots where we had just been skunked while casting, plugs, jigs and metal. Slow trolling apparently gave the stripers a chance to look over the eel before they hit, and once they began hitting it seemed to stir them up and put them on the bite for a while.
At one time Alou made a transparent eel to go along with their standard black and brown versions (and I still have an unopened six-pack of green Alou replacement tails), a "color" that I found to be primo in the surf or fishing dirty water conditions. Back in the mid-seventies I recall a time fishing with my neighbor Ron Beck and Falmouth physician Art Crago (Art is the same gent who caught and released a 55-pound bass a few years back) off the point at Nonamesset Island with a stiff, easterly wind churning up a nasty chop that bounced us around in Ron's 19-foot Seacraft center console.
We'd been throwing swimming plugs, poppers, jigs and both black and brown Alou elvers into the wash with no luck at all. Frustrated, I rummaged through my tackle box looking for some sort of inspiration and came across a long-forgotten 10-inch transparent eel. I tied it on and proceeded to take striper after striper while Art and Ron continued drawing blanks. I was getting ready to expound on my newfound expertise when a transient bluefish neatly sliced the eel in half, destroying my one and only transparent eel.
It was back to Rebels and elvers for me and I resumed racking up zeros with the others. So much for Professor Vovcsko's discourse on eel techniques.
I never ran across any of those transparent versions again, Alou or otherwise, but nowadays Zoom markets a semi-translucent 6-inch salty fluke lure. It's a bit light for casting on its own but handles beautifully when added to 1/4 or 1/2-ounce jig heads. And you can easily transform the alewife-colored Felmlee eel as I discovered while picking at it one day trying to remove some dried fish scales. If you scrape the surface layer you can peel away the skin leaving behind a clear, nearly transparent plastic eel. This is an inexpensive way to procure some very effective baits as replacements because the 9-inch eel bodies can be had for a buck apiece in the clear-out bins.
Any old timer will preach the virtues of slow-trolling the tube and worm; the improved version of that technique calls for setting out two lines. On the outside rod hang a 6 or nine-inch rubber eel and drop it back about 75 feet. Put a dropper loop in that line about 16 inches ahead of the eel and hang a teaser on the loop - a saltwater-size streamer fly, 1/4-ounce bucktail jig or Red Gill eel, a two for one deal. Then string a red surgical tube, 16 to 22 inches, on the inside rod and stream the biggest seaworm you've got. Run this out about 100 to 125 feet behind the boat.
Starting around dusk begin trolling, sticking as close to the shoreline as possible. You want to be moving as slowly as possible giving tube, worm and eel a chance to display natural movement. Ideally, the inside line should be trolled in 10 to 14 feet of water. It may seem bizarre to catch 30-pound bass in shallow waters that were filled with laughing, splashing children just a few hours earlier but, trust me, you'll get used to it.
Of course, you can always drift through the rips with live (or dead) eels. Any place you'd use artificials is a good spot to fish real ones. In Woods Hole, for instance, where rock ledges and giant boulders form turbulent, fast moving rips, there may be no more lethal a bait than the real thing, dangled temptingly in front of huge bass lurking among the rocks. But pay attention when you're working the Hole; things can get hairy in a hurry.
I recall one mid-summer night when Ron Beck and I were livelining eels in the narrow cut between Devil's Foot Island and Penzance Point, looking to entice lunker linesides that hung in the current like wedding guests awaiting the buffet.
The thickening fog rolling in went unnoticed until I realized I could barely see Ron in the bow of our 15-foot skiff. We had just finished a drift that carried us out into The Strait, the main channel in the Hole, when we heard the chilling, fog-muffled oo-gah of a vessel's foghorn - something big, and close by. I was peering into the opaque fog-curtain when I began to get one of those really bad feelings about the situation we were in. Never mind that we didn't know from which direction the sound was coming; because of the soupy fog we no longer even knew where we were. Lacking a compass or charts (Charts? Compass? What for? We're only going to be fishing Woods Hole, right?) We were without a clue about direction and with big rocks all around us and the sound of that ship's screws growing ominously louder, we sat waiting like deer caught in the headlights.
"Holy hell...what's that?" Ron blurted, as we saw what looked like a three-story building looming up over us. Bright lights shone through a row of windows high above and orchestra music floated down: "Dreams come true, in blue Hawaii..."
Appearing out of the fog, the New Bedford ferry rushed past us on one of its late night cruises to Martha's Vineyard, immune to the prospect of two fools in a small boat fumbling around the fog-bound channel of Woods Hole in the dead of night. As it sped by, the ferry's 5-foot bow wave curled close enough for us to reach out and touch.
We had missed a rendezvous with the Grim Reaper himself by less than a whisker. My hand was shaking as I picked up my rod, but only for a moment. After all, we were still alive, the fog was lifting and fish were waiting to be caught.
"Hand me one of those eels, Ron...I think this just might be our lucky night."