The Conger Eel Saga


"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried, As he landed his crew with care; Supporting each man on the top of the tide By a finger entwined in his hair.

This is a saga that has been told in my family for at least half a generation. It is usually told by me in the presence of my brother and at least one other listener in order to cause the greatest embarrassment. It is the story of man against Nature, a life and death struggle against the winds, the tides, and the perilous coastline of South Pembrokeshire before she was tamed and became Dyfed.

My brother and I were the fishing scum of the earth, holiday fishermen, a name spat in contempt by all serious fishermen who risk life and limb, exposure, frostbite, and even divorce, in the dedicated pursuit of their sport. To those afficionados fishing was a religion, their bible the Angling Times, their spiritual leader Paul Meredith. We were heretics, outcasts, those who only cast out a fishing line during the precious two weeks of the Summer Holiday. That is not to say that we were without cunning or wiles or that we lacked preparedness or that we did not have a clue what we doing. Such lies are propagated by Unbelievers, those who do not even own fishing tackle or who never get it wet.

We were going on holiday to South Pembrokeshire and we were going to catch a conger eel. How would we find our quarry, that cunning beast with fearsome teeth and slimy body that hides in rock holes, darting out only to prey on unwary passers- by? We looked it in "Where to catch fish in Pembrokeshire". There on the map in the water off Wooltack Point was the monstrous symbol of the conger eel. To Wooltack Point we would go, we would pit our wits against this fiend who dared, at least according to the map, to virtually walk on dry land, or perhaps it was a printers' error?

"For, although common Snarks do no manner of harm, Yet, I feel it my duty to say, Some are Boojums" - The Bellman broke off in alarm, For the Baker had fainted away.

To South Wales we went and set up camp on a farm within walking distance of our quarry. Actually we set up camp within walking distance of the pub and it was sheer coincidence that our quarry was also close by. It was in the relaxed surroundings of that same pub that we plotted the fish's downfall. We carefully checked and re-checked our fishing armoury. Stainless steel shark trace, multiplier fishing reel with 150lb line, boat-rod, pike bung, 2lb fishing line, ex British Rail "fish-plate" bolts, whole mackerel, keep-net, gaff, priest, (two feet of lead piping, not Roman Catholic) hurricane lamp, matches, torch, and thirty-two cans of lager. Nothing could be left to chance.

We had decided that our quarry could be best taken at night, sometime after closing time at the Lobster Pot. We left the pub weighted down with out fishing equipment. In reality it was I who was weighted down by the fishing equipment. My brother was doing his best to handle the thirty-two cans of lager he was carrying plus the four he had already consumed. By midnight we were past the coastguard lookout and picking our way down the cliff onto the flat range of rock that made up Wooltack Point. There we set up our equipment. The line was threaded and attached to the shark trace. The pike float was attached to the shark trace halfway down. A three-foot length of light line was then attached to the shark trace at the top where the heavy line was attached. The BR fish-plate bolt was attached to the end of the light line.

As I said before, we were not without cunning. When this rig hit the water and sank, the heavy BR bolt would take the main line to the bottom. The pike float, however, would lift up the shark trace and keep it clear of the rocks where it would wave about with the mackerel and tempt our quarry rather than get snagged on the rocks. If the bolt did get snagged when we reeled in, the light line would snap and everything would be retrieved except the replaceable BR bolt. This type of rig is called a "rotten bottom". Judging from the smell erupting from my brother, it was not the only one in the vicinity. "Did you have to eat that chilli hot dog?" I said. He grinned and hiccupped guiltily.

"You may seek it with thimbles and seek it with care; You may hunt it with forks and hope; You may threaten its life with a railway-share; You may charm it with smiles and soap"

The next task was launching the rig without launching myself into a rather menacing looking ink-black sea. The boat rod bent alarmingly under the weight of the BR fish-plate bolt. Going for style rather than distance, I used the bend to act as a springboard and carefully launched the rig in a gentle parabola that saw it disappear into the murk about 20 yards off the rocks. The locals had heard rumours that we were after conger, but became highly amused when they saw us departing the pub with a keep net. If they could have seen us now, all would have been revealed. My brother and I carefully loaded the 32 tins of lager into the keep net and lowered it over the rocks into one of the deep tidal pools. Whoever had heard of anyone willingly drinking warm lager?

Time passed and much lager was consumed during the night. I must be honest that the fishing side had not been taken terribly seriously. The bait had been launched and we would wait for a bite. I had little inkling how this remark would soon be re-interpreted! At about four in the morning we had had enough in every respect. We decided it was time to pack up and head back. I started to reel in the line. Almost immediately it stopped dead. "Damn" I thought, "the lines snagged". After all this time it came as little surprise. "I'm snagged on a rock!" I yelled to my brother. Suddenly the line jerked and headed off at right angles. My brother lifted the lamp and said "that rock of yours is doing about 5 knots!"

I heaved back on the rod and increased the drag on the reel. "Get the gaff!" I shouted. My brother disappeared into the gloom. I continued to reel in, the boat rod juddering and vibrating like a pneumatic drill. Whatever it was on the end of the line was not going to come gently into this morning's dawn. Eventually I got it to the surface. On the line was our quarry, a conger eel, a big one gleaming in the first rays of the dawn. My brother swung at it with the gaff. I felt the line slacked as he hauled it up onto the rocks. At this point all hell broke loose. Instead of gaffing the fish he had managed to gaff the head of the shark hook through the barrel swivel just above it. The action of the twisting eel and the gaff had disgorged the hook from its mouth. We were now faced with about 25lbs of extremely prejudiced conger eel whose first contact with the human race had not proved to be an enlightening experience.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say, In the midst of his laughter and glee, He had softly and suddenly vanished away, For the Snark *was* a Boojum, you see. 

My spirits drooped, I could see my prize one leap and a wriggle from freedom. I was wrong. The Conger overlooked the wriggle plan and went straight for the leap, straight in the direction of my brother. Within a second its teeth were firmly fastened onto his left foot. "There is a god", I thought. "Don't let go off it," I cried, as my brother disappeared backwards onto his behind. "It's got me, it's got me," he yelled in reply. I grabbed the gaff and the priest and headed into the melee. Fortunately my brother was wearing wellington boots and the conger was busy chewing for the most part that on the rather unappetising heel. However from the urgency of my brother's screams I sensed the conger was about to move onto the more tender parts of his anatomy.

I was in a quandary. Should I hit the conger on the head to made him let go? (I might lose the fish). Should I hit the conger where the dorsal fins starts and try to paralyse it? (I might miss and it could go for a better grip!) Should I attempt to gaff it again? (It might let go and slip off the rocks!) Should I hit my brother with the priest? (I was getting fed up with his whining already!) I decided to use the gaff. I inserted it under the lower jaw and pulled. My brother's screams intensified. Then suddenly there was a plop and away came the conger along with what was left of my brother's wellington boot, it looked just like a blown out car tyre. My brother stood up very gingerly, blood running down his leg and foot. He seized the priest from me and began clobbered the eel. His language was quite unprintable. 

We had triumphed but not without cost. At least I managed to stop my brother hitting the eel before all we could do with the damned thing was make eel pate. As we ascended the cliffs of Wooltack point, it was with the heady knowledge that there would be Conger Eel cutlets for breakfast and in my brother's case a visit to Haverfordwest casualty unit for stitches before lunch!

Verses taken from "The Hunting of the Snark". Lewis Carrol