Fishing for short-finned (shortfin) and long-finned (longfin) eels in Melbourne [Anguilla australis & Anguilla reinhardtii]
Date Published: 7th of October 2015
Introduction to local Eel species:
Anguilla australis is an eel species endemic to Australia, known as the shortfin eel, they are one of two main species found throughout Melbourne, the second variety, Anguilla reinhardtii, is commonly known as the long-finned (longfin) eel.
Longfin eels are normally found in semi rural rivers, lakes and creeks, while the shortfin eel is known to reside in most Melbourne rivers, lakes and streams. Catching them is some of the easiest fishing you will ever do, as they are not often targeted by anglers, apart from those looking for an easy bait for gummy shark.
Eel as gummy-shark bait:
Shortfin eel fillets are known to catch gummy-shark but are not the best bait to use, when fishing in Port Phillip Bay or Western Port, eel fillets are a magnet for sea lice, and bait is often attacked heavily by them. For gummy shark fishing, the best baits are fresh baits, fish that you can catch easily on the way out to your favourite fishing spot. Mullet fillets are a simple alternative, and can be caught on nothing more than a mixture of bread dough with some animal fat (lard) added. Other easy to catch species which do well on pieces of pilchard are Trevally, as their abundance and small legal size of 20cm means you can catch legal sized ones for bait very easily. Eel is often a last resort bait, if you don't have time to fish for mullet or trevally before heading out.
Eel as a eating species on its own:
If you ever buy eel from the supermarket or fish shop, most of these are either local shortfin, or a very similar species found and fished in new zealand. If you love the eel you buy at the shops here, you will love locally caught eel, as they are all identical in flavour.
Catching eel for eating purposes has dropped off in popularity in the last 2 generations, but before that was very common and enjoyed by many. Even today, there are still a select few who really enjoy eating eel, and their ease of catching makes them a perfect delicacy. In the shops, eel normally goes for between $25 to $50 each, where as fishing for one takes little more than a half hour at a good fishing spot, a piece of raw steak as bait, a knife, a nail, some pliers and a coal fired barbecue.
Bait for catching Eels:
Most people fishing specifically for eel will use small pieces of raw beef steak, this is the easiest and most cost effective way to lure and catch eels. Catch and release of eels however can be a bit difficult, as they are very fast eaters and normally swallow a small piece of steak in an instant. If you are planning on cooking eels though, this won't be a problem, there is no size limit on shortfin or longfin eels in Victoria, but there is a bag (possession) limit of 10 at any one time.
Eels have an amazing ability to find bait, even the smallest piece in waters where eel are present, it will often not take longer than 45 minutes for one to locate your steak and have a go. If you want to avoid the eel swallowing your bait, you will need to strike fast, as soon as you see the line move, waiting any longer and it is almost assured the bait and hook will be down it's throat with no way to remove the hook.
If catching eel with intent to release, you may prefer to use smaller hooks, such as a size 6 regular hook, which if swallowed will hopefully degrade and rust off faster than anything larger. If catching only for the purpose of eating, and a fairly small eel of say 20cm is acceptable for you to prepare and cook, then you can use a 1/0 hook. The large mouth and throat of the eel will still easily pass a 1/0 hook straight down with little to no trouble.
Eel to anyone who is not targeting them for eating purposes, appear mostly as a nuisance, as they also have a love for scrub worms, and can sniff out scrub worms just as easily as steak pieces. If you dig up worms from your backyard and it costs you nothing, then this may be your preferred bait, as you have the chance to catch something else at the same time too, such as redfin perch.
But if you are buying from a tackle shop, then using store bought worms for eels can get expensive. Steam is often the preferred choice instead of buying worms, as one $5 piece of steak can be cut into cubes and frozen, and will last for 20 or more eels.
WARNING!!! Potential dangers for those fishing in northern Victoria, or in other Australian states such as NSW.
It is very important that people outside of Victoria take note, that not all eels in your state are likely going to be shortfin or longfin.
In areas such as New South Wales, there are other types of eels, known as pike eels. These eels have very sharp teeth and are in no way anywhere near the Melbourne based eels in terms of handling ability, the pike eel will take off a finger or toe in no time. Handing them should be avoided at all costs.
If you land a pike eel fishing towards the NSW border, or in any other region of Australia that contains them, the best advice I can give you is to cut the line immediately and let it go. Do not even bother with them as there are plenty more fish and eels in the river, but you won't find another finger or toe ever again!
Where to find shortfin and longfin eels to catch:
Eels will only make use of estuaries, brackish rivers / creeks, freshwater rivers / creeks, or lakes (with any salinity). I have mostly caught eels in freshwater lakes, but also salt water in places such as the Yarra river in Melbourne, right in the middle of the CBD.
POLLUTION: For Yarra River caught eels and other potentially polluted waterways:
The last check I did showed that shortfin eel are fine to consume from the Yarra no more than once a month, and to make sure I'm not telling you all tales, here is an excerpt from the EPA's most recent report:
This advice states that while it is safe to eat fish from the Lower Yarra and Maribyrnong
Rivers, it is recommended that people limit themselves to four serves of fish a month and one serve of eel a month,
and children and women of child bearing age should limit themselves to one serve of fish per month and should eat no eels from these rivers.
The full article can be found here: http://www.epa.vic.gov.au/~/media/Publications/1283.pdf
Generally the reason for this is eels have a large fat content, fat is known to store harmful pollutants more than that of most other fish, the lower yarra river and lower maribrynong is most affected by toxic chemicals, however local pollution in other creeks, rivers and lakes will depend mostly upon existingly present chemicals or nearby industrial discharges. The main toxin that most effects eel is polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and this is what is heavily monitored in terms of safe eating for fish species, due to the fact the chemical has a half life of around 15 years (meaning if you were to intake some now, whatever is absorbed into your body will take 15 years to halve in quantity, with 30 years to be completely removed).
Water quality and PCB concentrations are often monitored by local waterway management companies, who do fairly regular checks on water quality in each region. Local councils may also have access to this information and be able to digest the water company findings much easier for you. If you are unsure about eating from specific waterways, it is often best to contact the waterway management company or council and ask for a copy of their most recent report on water quality, also find out if there has ever been PCB's detected in eel or fish species in these waterways in the past, they may refer you to the Department of Environment and Primary Industries for this data, or maybe even the EPA in some cases.
More information about toxins found in fish from polluted waterways can be found here: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Fishing_eat_your_catch_with_care
Personally speaking, the Yarra probably isn't the best place to be eating eels from, if you were to land a decent sized Flathead, Gummy-shark or Mulloway though, then I would definitely be tempted and likely give in, but eel is so commonly found elsewhere it seems a bit silly to be consuming them from a river with such high a risk.
For the majority of other Melbourne rivers, lakes and streams:
For those rivers not blessed with the Yarras remarkable maintenance and outstanding expertise in design and planning (I really hope I don't need to tell you this is sarcasm!), the majority of other rivers, creeks, and lakes with creek access will contain shortfin or longfin eels.
The further out of Melbourne you get, the better the chance of landing a longfin, but for those in and around Melbourne, the shortfin tends to prefer these regions and they can be found in masses within many waters.
Creeks are by far the most common place to catch them, some very productive creeks are those which join in some way or another to the Maribrynong and Yarra River.
My personal spot for eel fishing is Taylors Creek, especially Taylors Lake in Melbourne's North West, rarely do I have bait in longer than 20 minutes before an eel is on the other end.
They should also be available within Merri Creek in Melbournes North, or any other creek that joins the Maribrynong or Yarra Rivers at some point.
Dandenong creek also contains a lot of eels, I have not fished there personally but have spoken to people who get a lot of eels there, especially in the suburban regions such as Mulgrave, most of the eels in Dandenong Creek have arrived via the Patterson River estuary in Carrum.
For those looking for non urban creeks close to Melbourne, there is also a huge number of eels found in the Werribee River in Ballan, it's not at all uncommon to pull out fat 1 meter long specimens here.
How to tell if the river / creek or lake near you will contain eels:
If looking for eels in other lakes, rivers and streams, there is only 1 factor you need to consider, does the river / creek or lake you are fishing in, join to a salt water estuary at some point?
Eels do not breed locally, they breed far out in the ocean and their elvers (baby eels) then find their way back to the mainland, where they travel up stream normally as far as they can go, they then spend the rest of their lives in the rivers, creeks and lakes they have access to via their entry point from the sea, and live in both fresh and salt water sections until such time as the females go to see to have their young again.
Many will also not travel back to the sea, but instead spend their lives in the rivers until death. But the main rule for finding eels is this simple fact, if the lake you are fishing in is attached to a creek, does this creek then attach to a river, and does this river then connect to the ocean?
If you follow this path of reasoning, you will know that every waterway that has a direct connection to the sea, or a bay such is the case with Port Phillip Bay and the Yarra, eels will have found their way upstream.
Unfortunately for some, there may also be the very unpopular pike eels too, depending where you live, not all states and regions are as blessed with non agressive and easy eels to catch like the Victorian south coast is.
How eels travel up rivers and creeks:
Eels are extremely strong creatures, the skull is especially well prepared for impact protection and their skin is very tough and durable. Unlike most other fish, eels are known to leave water for periods of time when creeks and rivers have dried up, they will go on land and continue travelling for a brief period of time to find where the creek or river rejoins the water, then continue travelling further up river.
For breeding and migration this is essential, as if they reach the end of an estuary which has dried into a sandbank, they will need to cross this sandbank to the sea in order to travel through the oceans to reproduce.
They are also well known to pass over rock barriers by snaking their way across the rocks, this gives them the ability to get into dams, lakes and impoundments, as well as passing over water control channels built to protect rivers from flash floods.
They truly are the snakes of the water, extremely flexible, able to launch their upper and lower bodies up and over rocks, and as one would imagine when making these brief on land manoeuvres, able to handle a decent fall without serious bodily damage.
For that last past I have to say it, if you are immature or disrespectful to animals or both, please don't put them to the test, your nearest museum will be happy to show you skeletal remains of eels and also educate you on their evolutionary benefits.
How to kill an eel quickly, easily and limit or eliminate it's potential suffering:
After reading this last part, if it hasn't already become obvious, killing an eel is not as easy as trout or redfin, which can be dispatched with a solid heavy knock above the eyes. An eel would merely shake this off and try very hard to escape.
The fastest, most painless death for an eel is something that not a lot of people new to fishing are comfortable with, this is a very sharp knife, directly between and just behind the eyes. There is no need to use force initially to make the incision, just find the correct location and once in place, press down strongly until the knife passes through the skull, you can then wiggle the knife to destroy the brain, use a regular kitchen chopping board underneath so that there is a solid foundation for the knife to not completely go through the skull, as you want to only break through the top of the skull and pass into the brain region, not split the skull in half.
Some people prefer to take the entire head off, this can be done too, but will hold you back and make removing the skin of the fish later on much more difficult.
Don't try to use a hammer, or a regular fishing priest, it won't be strong enough, and if it is, you will end up with pieces of eel head all over the place! Unfortunately this is one fish you have to use the stab and wiggle method of Ikejime (brain death).
For more information on the common term ikejime, visit the page on wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ikejime
Ikejime Eel Killing Tool:
If a knife isn't the best suited tool to be carrying around when fishing, then there is a small amount of eel specific fishing tackle that will do the job. There is a fairly niche speciality tool from Asia designed specifically to kill eels, they consist of a Y shaped solid bar, with the centre drilled out and a spike added on a handle, this makes the method of killing eels much easier and precise, as the position of the eels brain can be placed and held within the top of the Y piece, and then once in place, you can put pressure on the top handle to drive the metal rod with a bottom spike directly into the brain, you then twist the handle left to right a few times while placing and removing pressure, to ensure the immediate death of the fish. These tools make the job extremely fast and easy for both us humans and the fish itself.
Preparing a dispatched eel for cooking:
Once the eel has been dispatched (put to death) comes the tricky part of preparing it for cooking, the oldest method known is often the best method in the case of eel preparation, it is well known by eel enthusiasts for at least the last 200 years, if not much longer.
First you will need to gut the fish, this is normally done immediately after death, and the guy should be removed at this time to avoid spoiling, as well as to prevent crud falling out the back passage or forward out the mouth. If you have just killed the eel keep in mind that their nerves can sometimes twitch for some time after death, some people prefer to wait until the eels muscles have stopped twitching, this is your choice, but I would not leave it longer than a half hour, in strong sun I would not leave it more than a few minutes unless kept temporarily in an esky (chilly bin to New-Zealanders).
To gut the fish is very simple, flip the eel onto it's back, now find the join section of the two front fins, proceed further up than this just below the base of the skull, place an incision here cutting directly down the centre belly of the fish, so that the knife then falls into the cavity with the organs, proceed down to the back passage. After this, reach in and remove the internal organs, they will just pull out easily. Drop the organs in the nearest bin, or bag them up and drop them in the bin at home. Rinse the inside cavity and exterior of the eel with water (I normally carry a bottle of brine, effectively a heap of salt added to tap water, then given a good shake), then keep on ice or take home immediately to complete the cooking process.
This next part is the most important, it involves making an incision about an inch behind the centre of the skull and then cutting the eels skin on a 45 degree angle down both sides, so that the incision ends after the eels front fins, from this position cut horizontally across the belly of the fish to the cavity you previously made to gut the fish, do the same on the other side.
Then cut a tiny bit underneath the top of the triangle shaped skin incision behind the eels skull, so that the skin hangs off very slightly, later you will need to grab the skin from this point with a pair of pliers.
Now with the skin cut on an angle where it can be pulled off the fish without getting caught on the front fins, get yourself a large, long, strong and solid nail and find the nearest tree or wooden plank at eye level. Nail the skull of the eel through to the tree to secure it in place, some people put two nails at different positions to ensure it is held in place.
With the head in place, grab your pliers and with a lot of force but not enough force to tear at the skin, take a firm grip of the tiny flap of skin now hanging off behind the skull, and with constantly firm pressure, peel the skin downwards off the eel. If you are skinning a short-finned eel, this will be more difficult, be patient and remember not to tear at the skin, just get a firm grasp and pull the pliers down, so that the skin is slowly but steadily peeling directly off the fish and leaving behind the muscle.
Once the skin is off, I normally rinse the eel again in some salted tap water, some people use lemon juice either at this step or after the following step.
Can cut the eel in your preferred way, you may prefer to remove the flesh from the connecting bones for a quick batter and deep fry, cut the fillets all the way through the centre to split the eel in two, or just cut some regular plate sized fillets.
If you are not deep frying, normally just cutting the eel as is into plate sized chunks and throwing them on a ready fired wood fuelled weber BBQ will do the job, or coal fired if you aren't as fussy, let them cook through until the flesh turns white, add some lemon, salt and pepper and your eel should be just about ready to eat (once you grab a beer or two for your effort).
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