Obviously, if fishing over rocks, great care should be taken not to let the conger get into any nook or cranny, or on the bottom. Once there, it will be very difficult to dislodge him. The only way of doing this is to keep a strong and continuous strain on his mouth. Jerks and irregular pulls are of little avail ; they doubtless give him sudden pangs akin to toothache, which cause him at the end of each to retire deeper still into his fastness. But keep a steady strain on his mouth, and, sooner or later, he loses heart and yields. It is, however, very difficult to do this when there is a little lop on.
On sandy or other clear bottom the conger will play, for the most part, like any other fish ; but both he and the freshwater eel have a nasty habit, when all other schemes for their deliverance have failed, of twisting round and round in the sea like the propeller of a steamboat ; then it is that the swivel is useful. Many a large conger is caught on a long line laid near the rocks, and the short snoodings of such gear should always be fitted with strong swivels. The lines should be taken up before daylight, as immediately the sun rises the congers redouble their efforts to escape. Both the long line and the snood attached to it, intended for conger, should be sound and strong. The main line should certainly be not less stout than the North Sea line, No. 3, illustrated on p. 288. The snoods should be two or three feet in length and placed seven to nine feet apart. Very heavy stones will be required to weight this line, as the fish it is intended to catch are among the strongest that swim in the sea. The hooks should be the same as those used on the inshore line (see p. 422), and well covered with bait, or the conger may reject them.
It is no easy matter to get a very large conger on board in the dark. A landing net, unless of enormous dimensions, is hardly any use. A stout gaff on a strong stick is the best thing for the purpose. I say stout, for a 20-lb. conger would easily twist or break a gaff which would be strong enough for a 30-lb. salmon. It is not a bad plan to have in the centre of the boat a large, basket in which to drop the fish. It is a great mistake to hold them up by the snooding. In a basket on the floor of the boat they are far more quiet than when dangling in the air. A sharp blow on the head with a well-leaded knobstick, or some such implement as my 'priest' (see p. 190), is very necessary before any attempt is made to dislodge the hook. A sharp blow on the tail of the eel, which is slanting and slippery, and very difficult to hit, is also effective. With an eel of a moderate size it is a good plan to put one's left hand on its neck, the right hand in the middle, wave the tail in the air, and bring down sharply on one of the thwarts. A stout knife with a pointed blade should be stuck through its brain as soon as it has been stunned.
A sea-fishing friend of mine had a curious experience with a big conger. He had set a small long line or trot for soles in a Manx bay. The snoods were of cotton, and fine. A codling of a pound took one of the baits, and a conger six feet long the codling. For reasons which it is not easy to explain the big fish easily allowed himself to be coaxed by means of a gaff into the small dinghy, which had three men in her, a basket or two, and a lot of lines. Then, and not until then, he awoke to his position and caused confusion unbounded. Indeed, everyone concerned had a lively time.
For night fishing a lantern is very necessary, both as an indication of our whereabouts to other vessels, and to enable the tackle to be handled with some degree of comfort. Those who handline should be most particular not to allow coils of line to get on the bottom of the boat, otherwise an eel will surely find them out, and save the lives of many of his kindred by placing that line out of the running for one night at least. Those who are used to eels dislodge the hook easily enough ; but the beginner should certainly study to kill his prey before attempting the disgorgement, and will be well advised to furnish himself with a fish gag of some kind or other.
At night and where fishing can only be carried on for a couple of hours during the ease of the tide, and time is extremely important, it is a capital plan to make up a number of snoods, and have on the main length of line a hook swivel, to which they can be quickly attached; then, immediately an eel is caught, drop him into the basket, unhooking the snood and putting on another one. This in many instances will save a great deal of time. In lieu of the hook swivel, the snood can be made fast to the line by the useful knot which I have explained in Chapter VIII. p. 290. By merely pulling the end the knot instantly comes undone, and the snood is released from the line.
If a great many congers are caught, there is no cause to waste them. They are not such excellent food as the silver eel of our rivers, but the part next to the head is by no means bad eating if stuffed, and stewed with a good gravy flavoured with port wine. In any case the conger makes an excellent stock for soup, any fishy flavour being absolutely non-existent. I have a pleasant recollection of a very nice dish, something between soup and water souchee, compounded by a Welsh cook. The stock for it was made from conger, and in it was chopped parsley and fragments of sand dabs. I was told that congers kipper well, but have not yet tried the experiment.