Slinging Eels for Shallow Stripers

If you’re serious about catching big stripers, you should get serious about eels. Eels—particularly live eels—have accounted for some of the largest striped bass ever recorded, including the 76-pound monster taken by Capt. Bob Rocchetta off Montauk in 1976 and the current world record of 81.88 pounds held by Greg Myerson. Those monster fish, like many bass caught on eels, were both caught at night, but eels also work well in broad daylight.

For example, Cape Cod charter captain Terry Nugent often uses live eels to take big bass in 10 to 20 feet of water, even on bright summer days.

Nugent prefers eels in the 12- to 14-inch range and about as thick around as the average index finger. He rigs them on a 7/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook, which he crimps to 3 to 5 feet of 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Crimping requires a set of crimping pliers and sleeves, but makes for a very slim, strong connection with heavy fluorocarbon. If you decide to use a knot, both the snell knot and Palomar work well.

To attach the leader to the main line (50-pound-test braid), Nugent uses a triple surgeon’s knot. Other good knots for joining braided main line to a mono leader include the Bristol-to-Bimini knot, the Slim Beauty and the Albright.

Eels account for some mighty big bass.

Like ‘Em Lively

Since Nugent typically fishes eels in less than 20 feet of water, he doesn’t normally use a sinker. As long as the eels are in good shape, they’ll head for the bottom on their own and swim right into the striper’s lair. To keep his eels in peak form, Nugent stores them in an aerated live well—not on ice. By keeping them in a live well, they’re ready to “dig for the bottom” as soon as they hit the water, and that really gets the attention of big bass.

If Nugent is fishing a productive spot, but the current is making it hard to get the eel down to where the fish are holding, he will sometimes resort to adding a one-ounce rubbercore sinker to his leader. However, he doesn’t want the weight to affect the performance of the eel, so he seldom uses anything heavier.


Cant. Terry Nugent releases a big striper taken on a live eel.

How to Hook ‘Em

By the way, Nugent uses biodegradable paper towels to grip the eels while hooking them. This is easier than using a rag, which gets pretty nasty after a few eels. He hooks the eel up through the chin and out one eye.

Nugent’s rod of choice for eel fishing is a 7-foot, fast-action graphite model rated for 10- to 20-pound line. He likes a medium-heavy power that gives him enough leverage to pull a big striper off the bottom. The 7-foot length helps in slinging eels a good distance—especially handy in shallow, rocky areas where you need to keep the boat in a safe depth.

As mentioned, Nugent’s main line is 50-pound braid, and his reel drag is set at 9 pounds. Whether you use spinning or conventional gear, the trick is to let the fish pick up the eel and run for approximately 5 seconds before setting the hook. You can usually tell when the fish has engulfed the bait by watching the line as it’s pulled off the reel. When the rate of line leaving the spool rapidly increases, engage the drag (or flip the bail) and lift the rod sharply to set the hook. As long as you don’t wait too long to set the hook, the fish will usually be hooked in the mouth.

Of course, circle hooks also work in this game, but if you use them, do not set the hook by lifting the rod. Instead, simply point the rod tip at the water and wait until the fish begins pulling line against the drag before raising the rod.

Circle hooks work very well with eels, although many anglers still prefer J hooks.

Snake Holes

The main trick, of course, is finding the fish. Unless a buddy has clued you in on a hot spot or two, you’ll have to do some scouting. Nugent advises working your way along a rocky reef or ledge in 10 to 20 feet of water, fishing different sections until you find some fish. A good depthsounder definitely helps, either to locate the bass themselves or a concentration of bait. Sometimes Nugent will send his eels on a “recon mission” near cormorants and gulls, as these birds tend to follow the bait. And where there’s bait, there are usually predators.

Nugent also concentrates on places where current flows over some type of bottom structure, such as a reef, ledge, wreck, rock pile or shoal. Other potential hot spots include places where a river or creek empties into a larger body of water, or any big boulders lying slightly offshore. Steep drop-offs and holes are also worth investigating. Lobster pots are good clues, because they often mark a contour line with fish-attracting structure. By the way, big stripers can often be taken in surprisingly shallow water in the early season, so don’t hesitate to chuck an eel into depths of 3 feet or less right against a rocky shoreline. Retrieve the eel very slowly to keep it out of the rocks while watching to see if a striper follows it. If you see a follower, flip the reel in freespool and let the fish eat the bait.

Quick Tips

  • Store your eels in a live well. This keeps them frisky for when it’s time for them to go to work.
  • Use the least amount of weight needed to help get the bait to the bottom if the current is strong.
  • If you don’t get a pickup within 15 minutes, move to another spot.
  • Keep a logbook and note the exact date, time, tide stage and other conditions when you locate a good bite. Chances are that same spot will produce under the same conditions on later visits.
  • When casting eels along a stretch of shoreline or ledge, drift an eel behind the boat with the rod placed in a holder. You never know when this “dead-sticked” bait will get picked up.