I think most surfcasters can relate when I say that I have a love-hate relationship with live eels. I love how well they work on big fish and I love how conveniently I can bring them along with me. I do not love how the price has jumped to $2.25 per eel in some shops, nor do I love how a school of small bluefish can shred $22.50 worth of those eels in half a tide. I do not love how a live eel commits harikari by twisting up my leader and impaling its vital organs on the hook, and I do not love how eels tend to die and smell when I forget about them at home or in my truck.
But, with the aforementioned high price of eels, I refuse to simply throw away a batch of baits that I killed through neglect. This isn’t entirely because of my thriftiness, however. Dead eels can be just as effective as live ones, and a new-to-me dead-eel technique I tried this season might be my favorite yet.
I’d been tipped off to a school of bass that had been showing up on the dropping tide in a cove along a rocky shoreline. Several large fish had been caught, all on live eels. Unfortunately, that tip came after the bait shops had closed. I had three skinny eels in the tank, ones I wasn’t sure I could even cast far enough to reach the fish. I also had a freezer full of dead but perfect-sized eels.
I could have rigged my dead eels in the traditional style with Dacron, floss, and a pair of giant Siwash hooks. A perfectly rigged eel is like a living lure—it casts well, swims like the real thing, and holds up to many strikes from striped bass. Yet, I’ve never perfectly rigged an eel. Twenty minutes of cursing and pricking myself with rigging needles might produce an eel that could stand up to a dozen casts or a single striper, whichever came first. With the prime tide less than an hour off, I didn’t have enough time to shoddily rig enough eels to last the night.
I considered merely fishing the dead eels as I would live ones. Sometimes this works well, and other times, I’ve sat there watching fishermen with frisky eels get immediate bites while I tried in vain to interest bass in my thawed out bait. So, I tossed a few thawed eels in my carrier, but I wanted a backup plan in case the bass were interested in a more lively presentation.
My solution was the eel jig. I’ve seen fishermen on Facebook and Instagram singing its praises over the past few seasons, but I had never tried it. The eel jig is a lazy man’s rigged eel. Simply thread the eel onto a jighead as you would a soft plastic, zip-tie its head in place, and go fishing. I took a few 1-ounce jigs with long shank hooks, made up a few eel jigs, and hit the water.
I started with my little live eels. I was able to catch one fish with them, but it was clear that most of the fish were out of range of my pencil-thin baits. So I tied on the eel jig. My first cast with it connected with a 34-pounder. As the tide peaked and began to slow, I noticed I was actually catching more fish than the live eel crowd. I was sold.
The eel jig, I learned, has a number of benefits. For one, it casts farther than live eels because the extra weight, and the reduced risk of casting off the bait, allows you to lean into the cast. It also gives you better control over the depth of your eel, especially in current. I fished the bait as I would have a soft plastic—casting it up-current, letting it sink toward the bottom, and slowly reeling it back with the occasional twitch.
Unlike a soft plastic, a dead eel has much more movement. Its entire body undulates in an action that stripers find tantalizing.
Eel jigs can be easily customized to the location or conditions by varying the size of the jighead or the size of the eel. Smaller, thinner eels sink more quickly than larger, thicker eels on the same size jighead. For most locations with moderate depth and current, jigheads of 1 to 2 ounces seem to be the sweet spot. Smaller jigheads work in slower or shallower water, while heavier jigheads get the dead eel deeper in the fast-moving current of inlets or the Cape Cod Canal.
The best jigheads for eel jigs have long shank, heavy-duty hooks and a large collar. The JoeBaggs Eel Jig, MagicTails Kill Shot Jig and Z-Man HeadlockZ HD Jighead all work well for this application.
I used three small zip-ties on each eel jig. One went around the eel’s mouth above the collar, another around its gills toward the bottom of the collar, and one just above the curve of the hook. (The last zip-tie keeps the eel from tearing off the hook from the bottom while fighting fish.)
The action of my first eel jig seemed to improve as each fish beat it up a little more. I used the same one for three straight nights before the back half tore off the hook on a cast—now that was $2.25 well spent!