Conger (Conger Vulgaris), for we may now leave the great Gadidce family, were insensibly led up to by the consideration of ling. From time immemorial congers have been both the delight and despair of naturalists, particularly in the matter of their breeding habits. The ancients had most curious views on this subject. In Aristotle's ' History of Animals' it is declared that eels have no sexes, nor eggs, and that they arise Oppian thought that eels embraced, and that the slime from their bodies fell to the bottom and vitalised in the mud; but those, by the way, were freshwater eels. Pliny declared that these fish rubbed against rocks and a new breed arose from the detritus. One of our most learned professors of biology wrote a paper not long since gravely stating that in all probability congers spawned once and then died, acting in fact like butterflies. It seemed he had been watching over some congers kept in an aquarium, and the females, so far as I could understand his experience, all died from being eggbound. It is a curious fact that before this happened the bones of the head became soft as cheese. I must say I do not see how any absolutely trustworthy data can be obtained as to the breeding habits of fish from observations made in an aquarium, where the fish do not live under natural conditions. Two other points were noticed with regard to these congers kept in captivity—when gravid they shed teeth ; and there appeared no fixed season for this interesting condition, one or more females being found gravid during every month of the year except November.
There are certain small creatures living in the sea called by naturalists Leptocephali, the variety found in British waters being Leptocephali Morrisii. M. Yves Delage observed at Roscoff that one of these little creatures grew into a conger eel; and I may say here that one of the most recent discoveries connected with freshwater eels is that another of the Leptocephali is the silver eel in its larval condition (Leptocephalus brevirostris it has been named), and, curiously enough, it has only been found in the Straits of Messina. The little creatures which grow into conger eels have been known to naturalists for a good many years.
There are in the commencement of a conger's life-history three stages before the fish takes the form under which it is so familiar to us. The first is a taenioid form with long and fine teeth ; then these teeth disappear ; and finally we get the third form, in which the ordinary conger's teeth begin to develop. One of the most extraordinary points about the transformation is that the little creature grows smaller as it changes into a conger proper. Mr. J. T. Cunningham, who is one of the naturalists of the Marine Biological Association, states that a larva five inches in length develops into a three-inch conger, and that the transformation may not take more than a month.
Like trout, conger vary very much in colour, according to the bottom on which they are caught, and they are caught anywhere and everywhere. Generally speaking, their haunts are among rocks, but when feeding at night they leave their cavernous retreats and travel long distances over sandy and muddy bottoms in search of food. Deep water is usually believed to be essential to the capture of big congers, but at night I have caught large ones, and hooked and lost still larger (a common experience), in a couple of fathoms of water.
If the number of eggs is any criterion, congers must be extremely prolific. In a female which died in the Southport Aquarium were found over six million, the eel weighing only 15 1/4 lbs. The growth rate of congers is extremely rapid, not only in the sea (pure presumption), but also in aquariums (a well-known fact). In the Southport Aquarium these fish have grown from 7 lbs. or 8 lbs. to 25 lbs. or 30 lbs. in about sixteen months, and one monster attained the weight of 90 lbs. in five and a half years. There are many stories of congers being caught weighing over 100 lbs. One of that size would certainly be an unpleasant customer to have on board any small boat.
On the edibility of sea eels opinions differ, but most of us who have indulged in 'real turtle' at a London hotel or restaurant have unconsciously imbibed conger extract. In Scotland eels of all kinds are abominated, being regarded in the light of serpents, but in Wales pickled conger is a very favourite dish. Both on the Welsh and Scotch coasts, and round the Channel Islands and Ireland, conger are very plentiful.
To give an idea of the voracity of these enormous fish, one of 58 1/2 lbs. and over six feet in length was caught at Portrush in 1876. It was endeavouring to swallow a salmon of 6 lbs,, which had been caught in a net. There is, indeed, hardly any fish which they will not attack, including their own species ; and at the Southport Aquarium the only other remaining inhabitants of the conger tanks were skate, large turbot, sturgeons, and angel fish.
Conger not only eat, but are eaten. A strange scene occurred upon the beach of Colwyn Bay in April of 1881. A porpoise chased one of these creatures with such effect that the eel ran ashore and began to climb the beach. It was captured by a Captain Davis, who had quite a set-to with his marine visitor. According to Templeton, a very large number of congers were killed by their own greediness on the coast of Rathlin by gorging themselves with salt herrings, of which an all too plentiful supply came sinking through the water from a wrecked vessel. Congers are extremely sensitive to cold, and I have heard once or twice of large numbers having died in frosty weather. This, I think, possibly may have happened during an early frost before the fish had retired to deeper water for the winter.
To be very successful with conger, it is usually necessary to fish at night. Then do these great eels leave their fastnesses among rocks and tangle, and roam about seeking what they can devour. It is not necessary at night to be actually fishing over rocks, but it is as well to be near them. The very large conger are mostly caught in deep water, but fish up to 12 lbs. or more are often numerous close inshore a little below low-water mark, in two or three fathoms of water at the lowest spring tides.