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Slippery Eels

Slippery Eels
2009-11-10

There were many methods used to catch the slippery eel, both on the Broads and in the Fens – nets, gleaves, darts, traps and babs (baited loops of Worsted dipped into the water). Eels were caught in the spring and summer occasionally even into November and were a very useful harvest for the Broadsmen and Fenmen who sold the catch locally, sent it to London or even away to Holland. On the Broads the flat bottomed open Marshman's punts were known as ‘eel punts’ but as in the drawings an awful lot of gun punts were used as well, although being on the Fens the one shown is of a local open design called a “shout” as opposed to the half decked Norfolk style. There were galvanised steel traps but a lot of the old Marshmen preferred willow grigs or hives and one of the last Fenmen to make and use the Lincolnshire type of around 40” long and shaped somewhat like a Greek urn was Ernie James, as shown on a Bygone DVD called ‘A man between three rivers’. Another style of willow trap was a little shorter at around 30” and this one was shaped like a bottle with a bung, instead of a cork. A Yarmouth basket maker last made some these around ten years ago to a pattern copied from his Father. All willow traps need soaking in the river to remove its newness otherwise the eels will refuse to enter it but being willow they will only last a couple of seasons before they rot.

As the river warms in the New Year the hive is baited, possibly with worms and dropped overboard along a dyke edge, preferably under an n overhanging willow. Eel law is tremendous and varied. It is thought though that the eels enter the trap stern first. The following morning the trap is recovered by pulling out the stick pushed into the river bottom and tied individually by lines onto the hive at the stoppered end. Once the bung is removed the eel is put into some kind of receptacle and then transferred into a floating eel trunk to await transhipment. You can see one of these trunks on the bows of the Breydon punt, full of tiny little holes and lockable for obvious reasons. I well remember seeing a dredged up willow eel trap laying on the bank near to where solace swings to her mudweight on Wroxham Broad about twenty five years ago. Let us now return to Breydon, where an old waterman is using his gleave (pure Anglo- Saxon) or pick as it would have been known to him, to go picking for eels. These picks came in a huge variety of designs but the best were made of spring steel. They could be a foot or more long and have any number of tines. The butt dart also shown was made illegal about this time, but had been used for eel darting, floundering or more commonly pike darting, however it actually pierced the prey, rather ruining it for resale. The pick could be randomly plunged firmly into any likely looking spot in the hope that an eel would be captured between the tines on its withdrawal, but a more refined method in reasonably clear water was to look for the blow holes, one in, one out, and to shove the pick down between the two so as to strike the eels amidships.

Sometimes the punt would be quanted gently along a likely looking area when the eelman would stamp his foot onto the floorboards, frightening the eel into betraying his lair, when down would come the pick, not piercing its body, but springing either side of it. The highest form of eel picking was known as ‘flying’ and in this too the punt glided stealthily along. The pick in this case had a shortened haft, about four foot long, the eelman again stood in the bow or stern watching for any sign of wriggles as the eels invariably tried to escape amongst the wigeon grass (a type of water weed). Drawing his arm back, the pick would fly through the air like a javelin into the water catching the eel and burying its tines into the mud, feats of this kind were spoken about for years after the practitioners had come ashore. Once the eels were aboard it was often useful to have a pair of eel scissors to pick up any escape artists or easily transfer the eels to the trunk.

The following is taken from Jimmy Cox’s (he was a marshman/wherryman from Pennygate Barton Turf) note book which details much of his marshman's work. These notes are of interest in that they tell us the weight of eels caught in each year. I assume that the eels were caught by net but cannot be absolutely certain.

1903 48 stone

1904 57 stone

1905 62 stone

1906 61 stone

1907 43 stone

1908 70 stone

1909 65 stone

1910 110 stone

1911 81½ stone

1912 95 stone

1913 48 stone

1914 129 stone - £25 pounds 18 shillings