I made the mistake of going down the reserve at 8.00 this morning. A mistake in as much as I was met by a wall of heavy drizzle, a cold NE wind and a temperature of 9 degrees. The thought of walking through wet grass in conditions akin to February held no attraction to me and I turned round and went back home. With this weather forecast for much of May the prospects of a decent summer are not looking very good at the moment.
As I came back past the Raptor Viewing Mound in this grey weather I was reminded of my eel-trapping days in similar conditions out there. A friend and I spent several years wandering all over Sheppey's marshes trapping eels and the section of Capel Fleet between the Raptor Viewing Mound and Capel Corner, which for some reason is little more than a ditch in width, we found an ideal place for trapping eels. This was back in the late 1970's when I was younger and could take the extremes of cold, because on days like today, submerging your arm into freezing ditch water to pull out nets was not fun. In fact at times in the early part of the season, because the chest waders that we wore had a large inside chest pocket, we often carried a hot water bottle in there to re-warm our hands.
We used the tradional eel fyke nets bought from commercial traders and each one consisted of a length of netting similar to a badminton net, which at one end had a series of hooped netting that tapered to a point. This section had an inner piece of netting that prevented the eels from returning back out. By stretching this net across the width of the ditch and with it touching the bottom, any eels passing along the ditch would come up against the net and be led into the hooped, trap end. We would stretch several of these nets across a length of ditch or fleet at about 50 yd intervals, securing them at each end with a length of thin wood also pushed under the water out of sight. The only thing left to do then was to discreetly mark where the first net was and then return a couple of days later.
Unfortunately many of the sites that we netted we had no permission to do so, as was the case at Capel Fleet, and so we were forced to return after dark, which in the middle of summer meant scurrying around with torches around midnight and hiding everytime somebody drove past along the road. There used to be an old farm hand, that lived in one of the cottages by Harty Church, that cycled back from an Eastchurch pub a few nights a week, and he used to take ages to weave his drunken way along the road while we hid in the reed beds. Even worse were the unauthorised netting expeditions to places like Elmley, which often meant lengthy walks across dark farmland, carrying all the equipment, in order to reach a site without being seen.
Anyway, a couple of days later we would return in the middle of the night and after locating the first marker would go either side of the ditch and plunge a naked arm in up to the shoulder and feel around for the posts, boy was that cold sometimes and even worse sometimes when you accidently slid into the water. Believe me, trying to get out of a ditch with your chest waders full up with freezing water, causing you to look like the michelin man was well beyond fun, no wonder I now have arthritis!. But to pull the net up out of the water from both sides and see the trap end bulging with lots of lovely eels was a great reward, although there were many times that just one or two made up the catch. The eels would then be transferred to a large keep net carried by one of us and if the catch was good the nets would be put back in the same place for another visit, if not, we moved the whole lot further along. In this way we would spend a couple of weeks trapping a length of ditching until satisfied that we had caught the majority of the eels and then move to another spot.
Unfortunately the nets weren't always selective in what they caught and casulties did occur with frogs and even some diving birds but the thing along that Capel Fleet stretch that amazed us, was catching good size flounders! A couple of miles from the sea and there they were and it could only be due to the fact that they had either got in through a seaward end sluice or birds had dropped them, whatever the reason we even found baby ones and assumed that they were even able to breed and live in the slightly saline water.
There was one other place that we found this occuring and in much larger breeding numbers and that was in the inland side of the Windmill Creek dam, it was a huge nursery for the flatties.
And lastly, what did we do with the eels after catching them. Well at home in my driveway I had positioned an old galvanised loft tank full of water that the eels went into. We found that if you had tap water running continuously in the top and out the bottom - 24 hrs a day, that the eels would survive perfectly OK without any feeding, which they wouldn't take anyway. After stockpiling them for a couple of weeks in the tank until a 100-odd pounds were there, we then bagged them into large dustbin bags and took them for sale to an Eel-Pie shop in Bow, East London, where we made £1 a pound for them.
Terric fun, mostly done at night before working during the day, but my wife was never amused at 2.00 in the morning when I got into bed freezing cold and smelling of ditch mud and eel slime!