I read the other day that the European eel population has declined by some 70%. I was surprised; when I was a lad (and that's not all that many years ago), they were ten-a-penny. Any old ditch or farm pond could be relied upon to throw up a few 'snigs', which for a young boy with next to zero fishing skills, was just as well. The roach might prove elusive, or the shoal perch might distainfully ignore my 10lb nylon and size 8 hook presentation......but you could always rely on the eel to provide a confidence boosting pull.
I didn't realise it at the time, but looking back I can see that this was the fish which turned me into an angler, the fish which sparked the flame of my obsession. Some other kids I knew had the luxury of a pond full of stunted rudd close at hand. For me, it was the dark and forbidding pit at the end of our lane, or nothing. Black water thick with pondweed and half submerged branches was surrounded by old alders on all sides but one - a field edge which slipped muckily into the water in a mire of gloopy cow-trodden holes. It was from this bank which operations must be conducted....and a twenty yard cast over solid weed into the only clear patch available (about the size of two snooker tables) was the one option available.
It's difficut to see now what enjoyment I derived from fishing this horrible little pond. A seven foot glass spinning rod, fly reel loaded with heavy nylon, a big hook and a massive lobworm were the items available to me and I deployed them as best I could, stripping birdsnesting coils of line off the reel before lobbing the untidy lot into the hole in the weed. And of course given time, the rod tip would kick and I would reel in a huge clump of weed, savouring the vague throb of distant life through the rod handle, and lift the whole lot out, dumping it in the wet grass behind, a brown-olive eel writhing somewhere in the midst. As coarse fishing goes, it was pretty, well, coarse.
I've never ceased to wonder at the mystery of this creature's life cycle. Intelliegence has it that the adults migrate to the Sargasso Sea to breed, as if there could be a more intriguing location from which to spawn such a peculiar fish: a weedy, current-less sea of startling clarity - the Bermuda Triangle, the Horse Latitudes. I find it difficult to reconcile this distantly exotic, almost mythical location, with the clay-brown muddy hole in the fields to the rear of my parents' house. Yet the two are inexorably linked by our elongate friend and his well documented aquatic and terrestrial travels. Tell me, how did the eel know that pond was there? How long has he lived there, amongst the leaf litter and sludge? And what will drive him eventually to leave that insignificant pool for dead waters of salt and sargassum? Sometimes the complexity and wonder of nature is too great to comprehend.
It is years since I last caught an eel. The likelihood is that I cursed as I tried to extract the hook from a clamped-shut mouth, as the sinuous body coiled up my forearm. But I could never regard the eel with anything other than affection. This in my opinion, is an unsung hero, the noblest of all our freshwater fish.