On the 11th and 12th of June, the British Conger Club held its 54th championships out of the port of Plymouth. The competition is steeped in history and has been running since 1962 with its president, Mike Millman, a sea angling legend who’s made a massive contribution to the sport over the decades.
My brother, Matthew Gouriet and I embarked on the 3 hour journey from Berkshire down to Plymouth. It was our first year fishing the Championships so were a little unsure as to what to expect. On arrival, we found the three crowns, this year’s base for the Conger Club championship and AGM. There were a total of 28 competitors entered, spread over three boats.
After the draw, we had been allocated the starting positions of 8 and 9 on ‘Tamesis’. We also entered the 4 man team with another two guys; Paul Hall, Mike Page who were drawn on a different boat. It was the first time we’d met and also being their first year fishing in the championships, we decided that ‘Lucky Virgins’ would be an appropriate name for the team.
We were quayside the following morning for a 7am start. Armed with a big box of cuttlefish and in hindsight, a little more tackle than required, we boarded the boat. Tamesis is skippered by Roy Strevens and his son, Jim, both top notch anglers in their own right. They’d previously won the competition from their boat numerous times before so we knew we were in very good company.
The mark that we were heading for was a wreck around 18 miles out… so the hour and a half travelling gave us a little time to get rigged up, defrost some of the cuttlefish and become acquainted with some of the guys on the boat. The sea was a flat calm and even at 8am, you could feel the sun trying to burn through the morning mist.
The rig I was using was my standard 5 foot, 250lbs leader to 2 1/2 foot 250lbs hook link armed with a Cox and Rawle 10/0 hook. I also use the Cox and Rawle roller swivels throughout. Although they are a little more than standard swivels, they’re strong and due to the ball bearing they do not lock up under heavy weights or pressure; in my eyes, they’re a must. Everything is then crimped; for strength and neatness.
I’m a massive believer in if you invest in your terminal tackle, you will lose less fish. I’ve seen people lose really nice fish next to the boat due to the components they’ve decided to use in their rigs. A large percentage of the experienced conger anglers across the boats were using C&R meat hooks as they’re ultra-sharp and due to their heavy gauge, being more or less impossible to straighten out.
There are two reasons that I opt for the 5 feet of 250lbs leader. The first is for the abrasion resistance on the wreck but the second is for ease of landing the fish. I know that once the leader is in the hand of the skipper, it’s not going anywhere and the fish is secure.
My Conger Rig - 250lbs Triplefish hook link and leader with Cox and Rawle ball bearing swivels and at the business end… a 10/0 Cox and Rawle meat hook.
We approached the wreck, the anchor was dropped and it was time to try to catch some bait with baited feathers. Unfortunately, we had already been told that the Mackerel haven’t shown as yet and the likelihood was that we were going to have to opt for whiting and pouting which were abundant. It wasn’t long before the bait crate was full and a few specimen whiting were landed. Being too good for bait, these were placed in the ‘eating’ cool box.
Mackerel, being a mid to top water fish doesn’t usually appear on a Congers natural food menu. Conger Eels hunt wrecks and reefs and it’s usually pouting, whiting and squid that are their main target. Even though this is the case, the high oil and scent value of a Mackerel flapper will pull an eel out of the hole that it’s holding up in... Making it one of the most effective baits. However, when they do come on the feed, by dropping down half a pouting or a whiting flapper can sometimes result in a larger stamp of fish. Although, today I was using Cuttlefish.
Cuttlefish are a great frozen bait for Conger Eel. Its’s always worth having a few packs with you.
The tide started to change and it was time to drop down the baits. As the boat swung into place just off the wreck and with a glance across to the plotter told me we’re in just over 70 meters of water (about 210 feet). My Shimano Tyrnos was put into free spool and the 1 1/2lbs of lead was dropped into the abyss just off the edge of the wreck.
It wasn’t long before I looked over my shoulder to see a 50lbs class rod bent in half with someone shouting ‘fish on’ from the back of the boat. The eels were on the scent trail and before long people were hooking up all over the boat on a variety of different baits. Then I had a ‘tap, tap’ on the end the rod. I hit it, connected and lent back in an attempt to get the fish clear of the wreck before it buried itself in a few tonne of steel.
Fish On! My standard conger gear - A Shimano Tyrnos loaded with 50lbs braid on a 240MH Shimano Beastmaster
After a few back breaking minutes, colour started to appear through the water and a decent sized eel appeared at the side of the boat that looked just over the 40lbs mark. After a call around on the radio it was the biggest landed so far so was a keeper for weigh in. The hook was baited up and was dropped back to the wreck with hopes of a 5 minute rest, but within seconds of hitting the bottom, I could feel something plucking on the line again.
Over the next few hours, everyone was having action on every side of the boat with Congers ranging between low twenties through to low forties. Then as soon as they came on the feed, a slight change in tide and everything went quiet. The skipper repositioned the boat further down the wreck by releasing some more of the anchor rope which resulted in a few more fish but before we knew it, the 5 ½ hours were up and we heading back to harbour.
The Weigh in
Myself and Dave Hawkeswood, another competitor and seasoned Conger Club member on Tamesis, had the only two weigh-ins from the day. At this point, even though it was too hard to call I was convinced that his coal black eel, which colouring would usually suggest it had just moved to the wreck from a reef, was the larger of the two.
The scales were zeroed, the conger went on and the display showed 44lbs 6oz. Now it was my turn. I loaded my fish in the crate, lifted it to the scales and to my surprise it went to 45lbs 5oz… just 15oz heavier… probably the equivalent weight of a couple of my baits!
Myself with the winning fish at 45lbs 5oz.
Unfortunately, due to a poor forecast on the Sunday morning, the skippers made a decision not to go out. The skipper’s word is final so the competition was down to the first day. At this point, I knew I had done enough to secure the Championship.
Due to the second day being cancelled, the presentation was brought forward to late Sunday morning. I was presented with the Hetty Eathorne Trophy along with a number of prizes. Then the next title called out; the four man team event.
The ‘Lucky Virgins’ were lucky indeed securing top spot of 18 eels with a total of 725lbs points winning top spot. The joint runners up were the ‘Guildford SAC’ and the ‘Freebirds’ both with 680lbs points each.
The other notable winners were of the Reg Quest Memorial Trophy awarded for the most amount of eels caught by an individual returned alive. The title was a four way draw between Nigel McLoughlin, Paul Maris, Mike Page & Jimmy Bond all with 6 Congers each.
Matthew Gouriet, Andy Gouriet, Paul Hall and Mike Page. ‘Lucky Virgins’ – Winners of the 4 man team event.
The conger club heavily promotes fish conservation and throughout the day, over 93 congers eels were caught with only 2 being brought in. The boats were in constant contact all day, checking the sizes of the fish being landed so that no eels were brought in unnecessarily. These 2 fish that were weighed in were sold on the fish market with the proceeds going to the lifeboat charity RNLI.
If you haven’t been off-shore conger fishing before, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It can be one of the most physically demanding types of fishing going in the UK. With the combination of the amount of lead, tide, depth of water and obviously a fish that’s essentially 100% muscle, even a 30lbs will give the fittest a run for their money leaving your arms aching and your legs shaking. With eels being landed occasionally over the 100lbs mark, you always have the chance of landing a true zoo monster.
In order to join the conger club and to fish the championships, you will need a qualifying weight conger of 30lbs from a reef or 40lbs from a wreck. If you’ve already done this, you’ll be able to find an application form on the conger club website and join as a full member. If you haven’t qualified, then don’t worry, you can join as an associate member and attend the events with a view of producing a qualifying weight and becoming a full-fledged member.
The conger club have a number of events and competitions running throughout the year and for the small joining fee, it’s worth every penny. Visit http://www.britishcongerclub.org.uk/ for more information of like their page on Facebook for more information on upcoming events.
All in all it was a brilliant weekend, with a great group of people all doing what we love the most… fishing. I’ve reserved my place already for the Championships next year so I hope to see you there too!