Moray eels are a terrible fish to target, I mean, come on! Who actually goes out of their way to specifically catch these critters? I do not recommend catching these strong, fearsome and very toothy creatures with a rod and line as a sensible thing to do, nor as an intelligent use of your time. It is inherently dangerous as your quarry is cunning and well adapted to avoid capture with a serious attitude problem. All said and done, what follows is my attempt to explain my participation in this foolish activity and a description of the tactics I used!
During 2020 I spent August and September of that year in Greece on the island of Aegina while on furlough from my job. Float fishing proved to be a very successful method during this trip and I landed more than a dozen new species. The fish were mostly small but extremely colourful with lots of wrasse and bream species, a few more exotic things like parrot fish and the invasive rabbit fish. When not fishing, I spent a lot of time snorkelling, exploring the rocky coves and sandy bays of the island peering into the sea grass and watching the fish dart about within these gently swaying aquatic jungles. It was mesmerising stuff and as an angler it was really interesting to see where the fish were and how they were behaving.
I found a species identification guide in a local book shop which contained a waterproof ID sheet allowing snorkelers to recognise forty key species as they swim along. This book gave me a fantastic checklist to tick off what I had caught float fishing and figure out how to change my tactics to find and catch the remaining fish.
A few of the species on the card have a warning symbol next to them indicating they are dangerous and to be cautious if they are encountered. It was the barracuda and the moray eel which immediately caught my eye. I was happy to see the thornback ray also featured on the card, giving me hope that I might catch this familiar species.
If I said my first surfcasting session was a heartbreaking disaster, it would be accurate. I went to a very promising rock mark but didn’t manage to catch any fish, only to drop my rod and smash two of the guides. The only saving grace was that my reel was ok. When I next visited the local angling shop I was fortunate to find a replacement while I picked up some more worms for float fishing.
The first time I used the new rod was at a mark which looked perfect on the map. It was a peninsular giving me access to the deeper water beyond the rocky coastline. I cast out a squid and mackerel cocktail and using a telescopic rod I dropped a rig into the rocks close in, baited with small ragworm on a two hook flapper rig. I had constant rattling hits on the telescopic rod but no matter what size hooks I tried, how I adjusted the length of the snoods, or when I struck, I simply couldn’t hook whatever was taking the bait. It was most frustrating!
At 01:00 in the morning, I had the kind of bite you dream of! I was stood next to the rod as the tip slammed down and the butt went skywards. I managed to get a hand on it and lifted into a fish that pulled back just as hard. I wrestled with it for some minutes and as it came into my torch beam, I was astonished to discover that it was a conger eel.
We were halfway through our stay in Greece and I had grown confident with my snorkelling, enjoying long swims observing the fish amongst the rocks and sea grass. Whilst exploring a cove called Sotos Grotto I followed a shoal of mullet into a nook in the rocks. As I watched them peacefully feeding on algae I glanced below me and saw something which gave me quite a fright. It was the unmistakable shape of a moray eel, about a metre long, clinging to the rocks just inches from my foot!
I panicked a little and did my best to swim backwards out of the gap in the rocks which suddenly felt a lot smaller than it had done before. I couldn’t help but notice how the eel followed me for a moment, watching me quizzically before turning and disappearing.
The way it flowed over the rocks, in and out of every crevice was mesmerising. I was also surprised at how stunning the patterns on the fish were. Equally as beautiful as other species that people target for their aesthetic qualities.
My next session was at Sottos Grotto and to my surprise I landed a bandtoothed conger which is a small nocturnal eel species that hides in the sediment all day. I was chuffed to add another new eel species to my tally. It took a small ragworm on a size 4 hook. This little fish further increased my species count and it dawned on me that I could make the trip into an eel species hat-trick if I landed a moray.
A few days later while snorkelling at a new beach I saw two more morays in the rocks. Both had impressive markings and one of them was enormous, the biggest I had seen yet by far. When I went back to fish the venue that evening, I spotted a group of people camping on the beach right where I had hoped to fish from, so I decided to fish from a ledge on one side of the cove. It was a spot that put a lot of rocky ground just in front of me and to my left as the cove extended out towards the open sea.
I used a pulley rig with a stout wire trace and a 5/0 O’shaughnessy hook. I tied a stop knot about 10 cm down the rig body, meaning the rig could still be clipped down for tidy casting but still provide effective bite detection. I hoped that this would help me connect with bites quicker, giving the eels less time to hide themselves in the rocks after taking the bait. I used a small multiplier with 60lb braid and a long 60lb mono leader.
My first cast out into the rocky ground quickly produced a satisfying thump of a bite. I grabbed the rod and wrestled the fish in. It was strong, putting up a very good account of itself while occasionally diving for the rocks, forcing me to keep its head up and wind like stink.
I brought the eel up onto the rocks and for a brief moment I could see how beautiful its markings were, it was the moray I had been looking for and the hat-trick complete. Then it went crazy and twisted itself in the rig unhooking itself in the process. After that it was on a one-way trip to the sea, weaving between the tripod legs, sliding back into the water making good its escape. I was impressed an eel of that size had put up such a good fight!
I cast my next bait out into the gloom and rocks once again and put the rod on the tripod. From the way the rig had landed and stopped sinking immediately, I guessed it was on top of a rock. Before I had a chance to consider if that was a good or bad thing, the rod tip hammered down and stayed there. Again, a crazy fight ensued with the fish diving for snags several times and pulling hard throughout. This time I lifted the eel a good distance up on to the rocks and once again it immediately twisted up in the trace and unhooked itself. As it continued to spin, it wrapped itself up in the line and foul hooked itself in the side. Untangling this mess was nerve wracking and required my net handle and long forceps. I wasn’t planning to get my hands anywhere near that ferocious mouth. This was not a happy eel! I took a couple of (fairly terrible) pictures with my phone before scooping the fish into the net and releasing it. Who knew Moray fishing could be so exciting!
I landed another eel of a similar size straight away but lost the following one, which was a much larger specimen, easily the biggest. It fought in the same way as the previous ones, but much harder, putting a really good bend in the rod. When I saw the size of it, I was a little bit worried about having to deal with it up on the rocks after the fiasco with the last few. When it threw the hook while gyrating wildly on the surface, I was actually a little relieved. The fishing was on fire it seemed!
I successfully targeted morays several more times, including during the day using plain squid and fish baits as well as cocktails.
One thing I noticed was that when I cast out a bit further, past the shallow rocks, it took longer for an eel to find the bait. This confirmed that my tactics had been correct. Dropping the bait short, straight into the shallow rocky ground was the way to go. This is the lair of the morays.
I left the island extremely happy with my eel hat-trick and looked forward to going back to chase these powerful fish again. Despite being a somewhat dangerous fish to target, they are strong fighters which require minimal casting distance. If you decide to target moray eels, be careful with your fingers and don’t blame me if it all goes wrong – don’t say I never warned you! Beware!