Live Eels and Kayaks at Night: How to Nail the Big Girls!

By George DeFranca, DC

The water was calm and the air was still, both contributing to a very quiet night. Occasional large swirls and boils would identify spooked bass. A heart stopping tail slap 20 feet from the yak shattered the still night. It was huge. I could even see the white foam and splash in the darkness. It sounded like someone dropped a small sofa into the water. My rod was in its holder pointing near horizontally out to the right. As I looked at my GPS waypoints, I whispered to my partner Wali sitting behind me in the Malibu tandem kayak, “We are coming upon the ‘Killing Fields’!” His rod was set up like mine but was pointing out to the left. No sooner did the words leave my mouth than my rod was violently slammed backwards in its holder with such force that the rod tip hit the side of the kayak just behind me with a crack! I quickly reached for my rod, fearing that either it or the holder was cracked from the fierce strike. The reel started to scream its welcomed cry, the kayak did its obligatory turn toward the fish, and the fight was on. “Fish on!” I yelled.

Copyright© George DeFranca

Wali grabbed his rod to reel his bait in out of the way. I couldn’t believe what I heard next. “Fish on!” he yelled. For the first time in our tandem we were both on big fish simultaneously, mine heading north and his going east and in a hurry. The yak was turned 360 degrees from the first strike and Wali’s running fish turned it again. It felt like the kayak was turning like a helpless compass needle in the dead of night, twisting and turning at the mercy of these two big fish. It was a miracle that our lines did not cross.

I was able to get mine close to the yak first. My heart thumped as I saw the silver flash of a monster striper swim into the cone of water illuminated by my now turned on headlamp. She was huge! Suddenly, I was caught off guard and drenched by the salty splash of Wali’s fish to my immediate left. “Keep her off!” I yelled. “They’re both too close!” Fearing we might tip from fighting two large fish in close on opposite sides of the yak, I told Wali that we’ll release mine first and deal with his after. As if on queue, Wali’s fish stripped line hard while he screamed with delight, “That’s OK, she’s not ready yet!”

The yak turned from Wali’s fish’s run but after a few tense moments I was able to lip my fish’s jaw and slide her up onto my lap. Within seconds I unhooked her, examined her healthy fat status, and took a lap shot with my camera.

I then slid her off my lap into the water next to the side of the yak. I held her bottom lip as she slowly swam next to the yak.

Copyright© George DeFranca

Meanwhile, Wali’s fish was already yak-side, just when my fish bit down hard on my thumb, signaling me to let go. With a loud drenching slap of her tail she was off. She was probably angry that I still was in possession of the thing that lured her onto my hook in the first place– a wiggling 14-inch live eel! Wali soon landed his fish so that I could take a photo of it while he released her unharmed.

Copyright© George DeFranca

40 pound striped bass on Tournament Trophy™ Fishfinder Slider Rig

So it is with kayakfishing live eels at night. When the bass are in and hungry, there’s nothing better to offer at night than the famed striper candy–live eels. My philosophy is to fish as natural as possible, being a minimalist when it comes to tackle and technique. I am usually fishing in water no deeper than 12-15 feet, and mostly in less than 8 feet. I like it when the tide is moving, especially outgoing. However, fish can be caught at any part of the tide. During low tide, the fish will concentrate in the channels if they are in. Stripers like moving water and that’s fine with me. It makes for an easy drift. Nighttime offers them cover and they come in closer to shore.

Since eels naturally swim to the bottom, I do not use weights in shallow depths, especially if I am using a slow paddle technique or just drifting with the current. However, if I fish deeper waters and stronger currents, a 1/2 oz. egg or bullet weight will help get the eel down in the strike zone. On the other hand, I have gotten monstrous strikes just below the surface if my eel stayed up top and bluefish are not around.

I used to use large fat eels measuring 15 to 18 inches. These were harder to handle and I found out that big fish will slurp down smaller ones just as readily. As a matter of fact a 45 inch striper, my personal best from a kayak, was caught a few seconds after a bluefish strike–on a small 5 inch “cigar butte” that was left. The still wriggling remains of the half-eaten eel continued to draw two more strikes! I now use medium to small eels. They are easier to handle and still catch large fish.

Copyright© George DeFranca

I try to keep tackle simple. I use a rod with a bit of backbone. I like the St. Croix series and I use a 7 foot tidemaster rated for 3/4 to 2 oz.. I top that with a Shimano 3500 Baitcaster. I use 40 lb. Pro Power braided line tied with a Palomar knot to a ball-bearing swivel. The swivel helps avoid line twisting from the eel. However, I have used eels without line twist, but why risk it? To the swivel I tie a three-foot leader made of 30 lb. Seaguar fluorocarbon. The leader is tied to a 5/0 Gamakatsu circle hook with a uni-snell knot. I have used larger circle hooks, 7/0 and even 8/0, thinking that the larger gap would get me better hook-ups. However, when using smaller eels, the 5/0 performs well. I like circle hooks because of the lower incidence of gut hooking. Most of my hook-ups occur in the jaw, allowing me to catch-and-release safely. However, I have seen a couple of gut-hooks with circles, usually on the edge of the entrance to the esophagus or on the edge of the gill arches. Careful hook removal can take time but is worth the effort. As long as there is not a lot of bleeding and tissue tearing, I will release the fish. A great rig that I love is the “Tournament Trophy Bait Rig” by Bob D’Amico from www.TrophyRigs.com. I have caught large fish with confidence on these and I love them.

Don’t even think you can handle eels on a kayak at night without any “eel preparation” and assistance. They are too slimy, slippery, and wiggly to handle without slowing them down and grabbing them with something. I keep the eels on ice in a two-bucket system. One small plastic bucket is nested inside another one. Holes are drilled in it to allow drainage of slime and water. About 6 live eels are placed in the bucket, which is then nested inside the other one. Ice is placed on top of the eels and the lid is applied. Sometimes I place the ice in first, a rag or seaweed on top, followed by the eels. However, eels are the epitome of hardiness, they survive quite well under the ice as long as the melting water and slime are drained away so they don’t suffocate. Once they are placed into a hypothermic “coma”, I’ll grab one with a rag or kitchen scrubby. I’ll then thread the hook from underneath the jaw and up and out the eye socket on one side. Stay off to the side so you don’t “brain” them. Make sure they don’t come active too quickly and wrap around your wrist or worst yet, your line. Let them hang and gently cast them behind you or open your bail or baitcaster drag and play out line until they are well behind your kayak. They usually make a bee-line to the bottom once they hit the water and wake up.

Copyright© George DeFranca

Simply drift and fish slow, tugging on your line every now and then to make sure the eel doesn’t hang up in weeds or rocks. I’ll store the rod in a rod holder, having the rod pointing out to the side and almost parallel with the water. If a bluefish hits your eel, you’ll know it by the frantic jerking and shaking transmitted to your rod. Reel your eel in very slowly to check it. Often times a bass will strike the remains of a bluefish strike. If no strike occurs, you usually bring in a mangled eel or one that has been chopped into the famous 3 or 4 inch “cigar butt.’ A bass usually inhales your bait and hooks itself when it makes its turn to run. It is often a strong, rod slapping strike. Make sure your drag is set properly (before you set out on the water!). Hold tight and let the fish fight your drag, reel, and kayak. A big fish will drag you around for several minutes. A 45-inch striper dragged me around for 12 minutes while sitting in a fully loaded tandem kayak. However, I use heavier line because I want to get the fish in quick to avoid exhaustion and stress.

When tired, the fish will float in close the yak real slow or even side-ways. Be ready for that last bolt to the bottom. If you are off balance, the sudden jolt could send you into the drink! I’ll guide them into the jaws of my Boga lipper tool, grab their lower jaw carefully and slide them onto my lap by supporting them under their body. Try not to support their weight by their jaw only or you will risk injuring to them. Carefully unhook them, thank them, and slide them over the other side. Hold them next to the yak by their jaw or the Boga gripper (make sure it is already tethered to the yak). Once enough water flows over their gills, they will start swimming with vigor and clamp down on your thumb to let you know they are ready to go.

Kayakfishing at night demands skill, awareness, and safety consciousness. Always dress for the colder water temperatures, go with a buddy, enact a float plan, carry a light around your neck or clipped to your hat, and a 360 degree white stern light attached to the kayak. I never go on the water without a VHF radio and GPS unit, especially at night. Know the area, watch the weather, beware of other boats, and the rules of the “road.” Above all, have fun and be mindful of our precious resource, the striped bass.

Fish on!


Copyright© 2008 - 2013 George DeFranca, All Rights Reserved