Eel, the very name has always been creepy to me, it conjures up the image of a slimy, slippery, snake-like creature that lies 'doggo' just waiting for the chance to bite you with its big teeth. After all, if there was a Loch-Ness monster it was probably just a huge eel, and eels according to folklore were 'known' to be responsible for grabbing everything from ducks to small dogs and even children. Other than a couple of varieties, for the most part, the majority of eels you're likely to encounter are more often than not, quite timid and not at all aggressive. The following is about eels that are aggressive.
Long before I started 'houseboat' fishing I'd read stories about the "vicious" Pike Eels that fishermen often caught as by-catch when fishing with live bait in the Hawkesbury River and Cowan Creek systems. The mental picture I had of them was a fish very similar to other eels but with two main differences. Number one, they had plenty of big, sharp teeth and they were very aggressive and happy to use said teeth. Number two, they were often "free-roaming" the water column of a night, not sitting down close to/on the bottom.
Plenty of stories had made reference to the dreadful bites inflicted by these eels on anyone who dared to tangle with them and when I first hooked one, I made sure that it was never in a position where it could 'get' anyone. In so many of the stories I'd read about Pike Eels, the angler (or his mate) had been bitten while trying to remove a hook, so my rule was simple- DON'T REMOVE HOOKS FROM PIKE EELS! Then you wouldn't get bitten. This became a "rule" of our houseboat trips.
The first few of these eels we caught were around three feet long and about the diameter of a soft drink can. The mouth/jaws on one this size wasn't very large and not overly impressive either, nevertheless care was still to be taken with them boat-side. It wasn't until one particular houseboat trip that this all changed.
Seven of us had taken a ten berth houseboat to Jerusalem Bay in Cowan Creek for a week chasing Hairtail, something we did every winter for over 25 years. We'd arrived early in the day to secure our 'preferred' mooring in the small inlet of Pinta Bay, but the deeper mooring was in use and we ventured to the opposite side of the main part of the creek to a small point where we'd had some Hairtail success in years past.
After mooring the boat front and back so it wouldn't swing at all, we all fished for Yellowtail (a small fish that are high on the Hairtail's menu) and as usual for the area, were able to quickly fill the plastic washing basket we used to keep our live bait in. The round basket sits within a bicycle inner-tube and negates the need for having to use an aerator, which are noisy little things when you are in tranquil and quiet waters. An hour and a half of Yellowtail fishing and plenty of bait secured.
The rest of the day was spent preparing Hairtail traces - (they have razor sharp flat edged teeth, so wire leaders are almost "compulsory".) The making of "chunk" burley for "cubing" when a Hairtail school arrives and preparing a "drip burley"- so there is a constant attraction for the masses of small bait sized fish, (which in turn attract the roving Hairtail schools), rigging a mass of rods and arranging rod holders fashioned mainly from PVC pipe to our own chosen boat positions, got us to within an hour or so of the "pulse time" of dusk.
The excitement on board the houseboat starts to "ramp-up" as the sun starts to disappear behind the high hills, as dusk, regardless of the tide is prime Hairtail hunting time and baits for Hairtail are lowered to our favourite depths, that range from 10 to about 40 feet. Just before dark we got the first bite and on these trips, everything is treated as a 'Hairtail' bite.
With Hairtail, when they take the bait, you generally give them anything from six or eight feet of line as a minimum so they can swim off and swallow it, sometimes they'd be given thirty feet if they were hard to hook. Doing this with some of the other species encountered would result in either totally missed bites or in the case of Pike Eels, they would swallow it right down and be deep hooked. This night , there were no Hairtail around and this first bite, along with the next twenty or so were all Pike Eels. Not the same sized ones we'd caught previously, these were big, all four and five feet long weighing up to we figured, around fifteen pounds. There was a big school of them stationed below the houseboat and we couldn't catch anything but them. My own theory is that when you get a school of big Pike Eels such as these, they scare everything off, as they seem to attack pretty much any of the other smaller river species. After battling them for a couple of hours, we got sick of re-rigging and decided to stop fishing for a while, in the hope that the school would move on. The state of origin league game was on the radio, so we all stayed inside the cabin away from the cold and listened to the game.
When the match was over about half of the guys decided to fish on, but were dismayed that as soon as a bait was lowered over, a Pike Eel would quickly devour it, and the line would need re-rigging yet again. One by one, the guys decided to turn in, some leaving lines over in the hope of a passing Hairtail. I was last to bed that night and I thought it prudent to bring in all the lines, as it was doubtful anyone would give up the warmth of their sleeping bag for the freezing air just to check their bait. Just as I was about to bring in the last rod, the ratchet whined, indicating something had grabbed the bait. The rod belonged to one of the sleeping bag brigade inside and was a short, super heavy deep sea rod complete with big sidecast reel and about forty pound line- more suited to dropping heavy sinkers on an offshore reef than doing the style of fishing we were doing. I picked the rod up, felt the weight pulling away and struck. The tell-tale 'wobble' of another Pike Eel struggled somewhere in the depths below.
A few minutes later, yet another really big eel was writhing around on the surface beside the boat. Houseboats are always supplied with a small dinghy, enabling shore-based excursions such as rowing in to the riverside shop or simply pulling up on a sand-flat to stretch your legs. We had secured our dinghy alongside the middle of the houseboat with a mooring line tied at each end and a life jacket hung between the two vessels to act as buffer to prevent constant bumping. The rod with Pike Eel attached had been positioned only a few feet from the dinghy and when brought to the surface, the eel was next to the dinghy's stern. Voices from inside the cabin suggested leaving the creature in the dinghy overnight so we could check it out the next morning. Although we'd now caught a heap of these eels, it had always been during the night time hours and we hadn't really checked them out. I managed from above, to drag it into the little boat easily enough, but the eel had other ideas. It broke the heavy line on the sidecast reel, then went berserk, thrashing wildly and biting everything we'd left on the dinghy's floor. and waking everyone up.
Bait, burley, fishing gear and a couple of life-jackets used as seat padding were all bitten and "slimed" as the eel snapped at everything in reach, scattering everything in a mess on the dinghy's deck. There was no chance it was going to stay there and less chance of anyone getting near it to keep it there. After a couple of minutes of biting and thrashing, the eel reared up like a snake and slipped back over the side, leaving everything behind in a mess.
I can still remember the sound of it latching onto and crunching an empty Red Bull can that was on the floor. Next morning one of the guys hopped into the dinghy to reorganise the eel's mess and picked up the Red Bull can. There was a perfect impression left from the eels teeth in the half-crushed can. What was surprising about this impression was that it revealed that these eels seemed to have an extra row of teeth. By the puncture marks left in the can, these teeth were in a line, top and bottom, running exactly down the centre of the eels mouth, from throat towards the tip of the mouth. Immediately this 'discovery' brought disagreement from those on board. Surely the eel had bitten the can several times and we were actually looking at multiple bites, not just one and that was where the 'extra' teeth marks had come from. I didn't agree as it was me who'd caught it and observed it's frenzied 'rampage' and the biting of the can.
The only way to settle the argument was to catch another one and have a closer look. All agreed and we now set out to fish for the very creatures we'd scorned less than twelve hours earlier! Typically of fishing, and as it was in the sunshine of the morning, no eels could be tempted to the bait. We would have to wait for nightfall to try for eels again, but we had decided to go back to the spot in Pinta Bay. We'd already planned the move and after a big breakfast, up anchored and moved off in the direction of our originally intended anchorage at Pinta Bay, about a quarter of a mile away.
From where we'd been anchored you couldn't see around a corner into Pinta and didn't know if the mooring we wanted was still occupied. Public Moorings have a maximum use time limit of twenty four hours use and must then be vacated; as we hadn't sighted any other boat traffic coming up Jerusalem Bay, we knew the mooring was expected to be vacated shortly as that time had expired.
As we rounded the point and sighted what should have been an empty mooring, we were disappointed to see that the previous vessel still hadn't left. After approaching slowly, we asked the occupants of the boat how long they intended to stay. The reply was "none of your business, get lost!" As it turned out, not a good choice of reply to a simple question. We then pointed to the clearly visible inscription on the mooring buoy which states "LIMITED TO ONE VESSEL-STRICTLY 24 HOUR USE ONLY" and they had been there 25 hours at least. Again "Get lost" was the reply. OK, we'll see about that. The other boat was now declared "hostile" and we motored about fifty metres away to decide on what to do next.
We noticed the hostile vessel had been playing classical music, had a small "Union Jack" flag flying from it's bridge and appeared to have two middle aged couples on board. There were seven of us, all in our thirties, so a "pirate-like" takeover was immediately suggested or a "burley bombardment" with our smelly burley of chopped pilchards, tuna, bread, chook pellets and whale oil -either of these ideas however would have no doubt got us into a lot of trouble, so another plan was needed.
Pinta Bay is only about two hundred and fifty metres long by about a hundred and a bit wide, roughly 46 feet deep and surrounded by the steep, high hills of Kuringai Chase National Park. It is fairly well protected from the strong Westerly winds of winter and an ideal spot to fish for Hairtail. Abundant schools of various small bait-fish seem ever present, which are easily captured and returned as live bait for the seasonal 'Hairies'. We had fished the spot every season for many years and had waited for our turn on the mooring, so we felt justified on the action we took next. A "Sex Pistols" CD was placed in the music system we'd brought, a loud track selected and the volume turned up loud, it would have been audible across the water miles away. Circling the "hostile" boat a couple of times like Indians circling a wagon train in a wild west movie was also suggested, however, It wasn't long before they started up their engine and cast off the mooring. This resulted in a huge cheer from all on board our boat and we all stood next to each other in a line and gave a long salute to the departee's, who returned fire with the 'bird' salute to us. OK, not very nice of us I admit, but what else can you do when people break the strict mooring laws we all abide by?
Spot secured and after mooring, we went about the business of catching bait, making burley and other such chores. The day was pretty uneventful, which is fairly common for this type of fishing- everything happens of a night, when the predatory Hairtail are actively hunting under the cover of darkness. Other species like Tailor, Mulloway, Snapper and Bream are also more active at night, as are Squid and the Pike Eels. Often, daytime fishing for Garfish passes the time.
On this night ,the prime dusk time came and went without any action at all, other than the abundant bait fish that now were in their thousands all around the boat. On this trip one of the guys had brought his seventeen foot half cabin boat along, enabling at least a few of the crew at a time to search for Hairie's further afield in one of the many other bays of the Cowan system. I decided to stay with the houseboat and said I'd go in the half cabin on it's next run, as we still had three more nights on the river to come. Three of the guys took off into the darkness with the idea of staying away for at least a few hours.
Around twenty minutes after the half cabin left, a smokey looking fog started to descend upon the now silent bay and hovered cloud-like, less than a hundred feet above our boat, blocking the little moonlight previously visible. Whether this was a trigger of sorts for the fish to come on the bite, or perhaps it was just that a school of Hairies had swum into our bay, I don't know, but bites started and it was 'action stations' for the crew.
When Hairtail are moving around in the system actively hunting, they usually only stay around for about fifteen minutes or so unless they find an easy food source and this is where being organised with pre-made burley is important. About a half bucket of 'chunked' Pilchard, Yellowtail and Mullet was at the ready for whenever a potential school turned up and these were thrown out in hand-full's when action was happening. Definitely keeps them around and the proof is they have this same burley in them when they're being cleaned.
Most of us used two purpose-rigged Hairtail lines, complete with long wire traces and cyalum 'light-sticks' that act as fish attractor's. Using the wire trace and light-stick usually deterred most other species, so when bites came they were mostly from Hairies.
Within twenty minutes we landed five beauty's and lost a few before the school moved off. Some years they are all similar size, sometimes they are really large, but in smaller schools. This night they were big ones, all over five and a half feet-"trophy size" to us.
Then all quiet again, but at least we knew they were around and they'd usually return at some point during the night, if not several times. Once you've caught your first one for the trip, the pressure was off- we all get pretty competitive when it comes to Hairtail, as some years they're rarer than Unicorns- our "code name" for them.
An hour or so passed and the fog got lower, now only twenty to thirty feet above the water, creating a surreal effect that looks like smoke with water droplets in it. The silence was broken by the sound of a reels ratchet alarm, indicating a fish was there. Beauty, are the Hairtail back? Same sort of run with the bait and I could see the light-stick moving off horizontally through the water column, indicating a Hairtail was swimming away with the bait. Well at least I thought it was a Hairtail. Not so.
I was using eight pound mono and on setting the hooks, the fish bolted, peeling off some forty or so yards of line. After about five minutes of to-and-fro, I was convinced I had the most massive Hairtail ever. I've been lucky enough over the years to catch plenty of Hairie's over the 'magic' six foot mark and when they reach that sort of length, they also broaden considerably in body size and have a much greater 'purchase' on the water. After ten and then fifteen minutes I was calling it for the biggest Hairy of all time, as every time I started to get it towards the boat it would tear off again, shaking as they often do in their efforts to dislodge the hook. The rest of the crew started wondering what I was doing and why it was taking so long to get the fish at least near the boat, so we could get a look at it. While the battle was on, the fog started to come down even more, giving the bay a real 'spooky' effect, with visibility dropping to a point that you couldn't even see the other end of the houseboat. This fog is common on freezing, still nights up there in winter.
More than twenty minutes from hook-up passed before I started to get the upper hand with the 'Hairy' and was getting line back on the reel. Then suddenly the light-stick on the line came into view and a few seconds later there was a swirl on the surface and what I thought was a massive Hairy writhed around before making one last run. Don't lose it now! This time it only went about ten yards and I managed to stop it and bring it back to the surface next to the bow. In the misty fog it lay there on its side and someone grabbed a torch for a better look. Due to the long fight it was just lying there and revealing it's massive length- I reckon it was well over seven and maybe even eight feet long. The guys grabbed both gaffs we'd brought with us, each being about six feet long and I got the 'Hairy' into a position so we could gaff it and drag it aboard. However, something didn't seem right. It's belly looked white, not the magnificent shiny chrome colour that it should have been.
Hairtail, for those who have never seen one, have flat bodies with the most brilliant silver/chrome colouration that you could imagine. In fact they genuinely appear to have been dipped in chrome and polished to a mirror finish. This huge creature just didn't fit the bill. At first, in the weak torchlight it did look the right colour, but someone grabbed a brighter torch and the true identity was revealed- a giant Pike Eel, much lighter in colour than those the previous night.
I had caught a big Hairtail in the earlier session that was six foot three inches long, the largest of the whole trip it turned out, and this eel was at least a couple of feet longer and looked as thick as a soccer ball. Big Anton put the gaff in through the gills and was about to drag it on board when I stopped him. I didn't want that monster on board, no way! A second gaff was sunk in, this time through it's open gill cover and the boys were confident they had it under control. Not so! Even though it was impaled on two gaffs you could see it trying to lunge at each gaffer, so I said that's it, cut it off. Anton argued that if I didn't want it he was happy to take it home- we could open up the back underfloor hatch and keep it down in the bilge, out of harms way. He changed his mind when it opened it's mouth fully, revealing not only it's massive teeth, but also the argued third row running down the centre. Besides, who would be game to go through the hatch and underneath to retrieve it from the bilge?- which contained a few inches of water depth, probably enough to keep it alive. After cutting the line we shook it from the gaffs and it fell back in and swam off.
The boys on the half cabin got lost in the fog and didn't return until just before dawn when the fog had risen to a few feet off the water. No Hairtail boated or sighted on the sounder in any of the other bays they tried.
I noticed Nobody got down on the water level platform at the back of the boat for the rest of that night.