The Fine Art of Trapping Eels
Willow eel traps go back so far in time that their remains are familiar to archeologists, yet within a generation of these words appearing in print they are likely to vanish, except perhaps as works of art; a strange end for such a practical device. To most intents and purposes traditional eel traps have gone already, because very few remain in use and the skills for making new ones - which were passed down from father to son as a matter of course, as a part of the knowledge necessary for daily living - barely survived the end of the twentieth century. The whole business of building eel traps was bound to the complex and equally ancient system of osier cutting, ‘osier’ being a generic name that was applied to the handful of different types of willow which were useful for basket making. Only a handful of people alive today can claim to have the building of eel traps in their blood, and when they go, although there are people in the arts and crafts community who have made it their business to learn how to build them, to all intents and purposes this ancient tradition will be dead.
At one time, though, eel traps were such a common sight on rivers that laws had to be passed to limit their numbers - whoever wrote the paragraph in Magna Carta mentioning ‘fish weirs’ probably had eel traps in mind - and whenever you read the words ‘fishing engines’, traps were right there in the frame along with all the other arcane devices used to harvest the apparently inexhaustible supply of fish the waters had on offer. The Luttrell Psalter, which dates back to about 1330, includes an image of a wicker eel trap among the other fabulous images of Lincolnshire rural life which illuminate its pages. Eel traps weren’t peculiar to Britain and were used in the majority of European countries, particularly France, Denmark and Poland, but they were also found as far afield as the Cook Islands, the Pacific being a particularly good place for eels, not least because the creatures out there don’t have to face the long breeding migration of their European cousins.
The terminology of the traps is arcane, the smaller traps being known as ‘grig-wheels’, or ‘ground-wheels’ particularly in the south, where the terms were even used in official documents like the Thames Conservancy Acts. In times past small eels were known as grigs by the river men and ‘weel’ may be derived from a Saxon word for a wooden fish trap, although the word was also used for any deep pool or eddy in a river, which is exactly the sort of place where eels might be got. The biggest traps were called ‘bucks’, the name for any large basket - laundry baskets in particular - although big traps were also known as pots. Their spirit lives on in the form of small island on the Thames, Buck Ait, on the stretch above Shiplake Lock near Sonning; in the nineteenth century the bucks on the shore of the island and in St. Patrick’s Stream on the opposite bank a little way up river were a hazard to navigation. If a river had eels, it had traps, which meant that they were found almost everywhere: at one time they were common on the chalk streams, the Severn, and Norfolk was a hotbed of eel trapping, it being no accident that the ‘capital of the Fens’ came by the name Ely. A few survive yet on the Test, although the wire traps I saw near Longstock a few years back had very little to do with the curvaceous works of wicker art that were once the trademark of each family that made them. Eel traps were such a commonplace, that everyone seems to have taken them for granted - they were there and yet they were not, like the post box you remember but aren’t quite sure where to find when it comes to posting a letter.
Amazingly enough, the Longstock set are visible on Google Earth at 51° 7'48.83"N 1°29'5.19"W (just paste the coordinates into Google Earth and it will take you straight there) along with the little round thatched hut next to them; if you live anywhere near, they stand barely thirty yards from the bridge that leads down to the river from the village. But apart from this one small triumph of technology, pictures of eel traps might as well not exist; and don’t expect the literature to help, because a concerted search through the library failed to turn up more than a handful of engravings, although the River and Rowing Museum at Henley has some fantastic pics buried in their collection. Even in their heyday, these gorgeous traps seem to have been subject to something of a conspiracy of silence, with the result that now, it is as if eel bucks did not exist and even the name is at risk of extinction.
Now you can catch eels any way you like, one of the major challenges of my boyhood being finding a method that didn’t attract them and from the Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle onwards, anyone who thought himself fit to be called the author of an angling book included a section on how to catch eels, but it is rare to come across any words about how to trap them. Odd really, considering that eels were a staple during the Middle Ages and were a popular food right up to the end of the last war, but beyond a few accounts in popular histories and monographs on particular rivers, the art of trapping gets scarcely a mention. Even odder, when you realise that despite all the pages about how to take eels on a rod and line, it is probably the least effective way of catching them.
Eel trappers were a varied lot. Millers knew very well how much money there was to be made from eels and they didn’t miss a trick, which is understandable, given that all they had to do was lean over and pull up their traps out of the race and on a good night, there might be a thick knot of black gold writhing around inside, ready to be sold with the flour in the morning. Money for nothing and more to be had tomorrow, though it was a seasonal catch and dependent on the weather, dark windy autumn nights being the miller’s prayer. Others were faced with a more difficult choice. Upstream and down of a nineteenth century mill an otter in search of dinner might come across a grig weel or two, usually shaped like large crayfish baskets that could be bought baited, weighted and stoppered for 7s 6d each, many of which did good business where they had no right to be doing any business at all. These items were made with wide circular mouths and one side flat so that they laid comfortably on the bottom, and although sometimes they were tied to a stake in the bank with a piece of twine, very often the position was marked with no more than a snapped branch or a knot in a reed. Grigs were weighted with a flat stone at either end and the standard method of fishing them out was to use a boathook or a grapple, which made retrieving them a slightly chancy business, but then if they were laid where they ought not to be fishing, the chance was worth taking. Grigs were laid at dusk with the mouths facing downstream, the idea being to catch small eels on their way upstream, attracted to a bait of gudgeons or fish gut.
As she worked her way through the faster streams, our otter would have met ‘eel hives’, which were a variation on the same theme, except that they had less generous mouths and were altogether more streamlined to suit the conditions they found themselves in; and then, in a place where the best catches were expected, she might have to swim around the stage that held a line of big bucks. Every one of these would have been a sore temptation to her, but apart from batting at them with a paw out of sheer frustration, she would have learned not to bother, because if there is one thing the trap builders understood, other than how to keep eels in, it was how to keep otters out and that, as far as she was concerned was that. She could look, and she could sniff, but she could not touch.
Before it occurred to anyone to build them out of wire, eel traps were made out of willow - Farlow’s sold them until about 1940 for 14s 6d each, and astonishingly enough, you can still buy them, the trap here being built by Windrush Willow, who also sell lobster pots, if you please, so take a look at their website. Windrush are craft weavers and among the few people who keep the art of willow eel traps alive, but in times past, eel trappers made their own, cutting willows from the bank, often using the same trees year after year in order to guarantee a constant supply of new, supple growth. Every family had their own way of doing things and just as lobster pots vary from one area to the next, so did eel traps, the general features remaining the same, while the details varied enough that every man could tell which were his own traps. The willow was cut green and oozing sap, carefully split into three with a wooden tool called a clove, softened by repeatedly pulling it backwards and forwards around a table leg and then woven around a dozen or more vertical ‘splits’ of willow; stringers that act as formers for the body of the trap and which were propped up on a grooved wooden cone.
Eel traps all work on the same basic principle, which is that after the eels have swum in through the mouth cone at the upstream end of the trap, they have to pass through another, narrower cone to get further in and reach the bait, assuming there is any. One of the peculiarities of eels is that they can’t resist investigating dark holes and a trap will keep on catching long after the eels inside have eaten all the worms and so a few trappers dispense with bait completely.
The second cone is usually only just large enough to admit a good-sized eel, the sharp edges on the soft willow canes bending to let it in, but making it difficult for the fish to find its way back; the more sophisticated traps use a cunning arrangement of willow ‘petals’ that separate to allow the eel through on the way in, but completely bar its way back out. When the trap is lifted, the owner holds a sack over the ‘downstream’ end, releases the bung, and pours his catch out - as easy as that. It must be one of the most efficient ways of catching fish ever devised, given that a well-made trap could be expected to last two or three seasons if the owner remembered to dunk it in the water occasionally during the summer to stop it drying and splitting. Considering how little effort was involved and there must have been worse ways of living, but if you wanted to catch eels on a commercial scale, you needed to build a stage and mount a team of half a dozen eel bucks, the mothers’ of all eel traps.
A stage filled with eel bucks bore a strong resemblance to a field of greyhounds poised in the traps and it is a shame that the last ones built in the traditional style with wooden frames vanished so long ago, because for such an efficient instrument of destruction, there was something indecently sensual about them. Stages had to be carefully placed because although they could be very productive, the season lasted three months at most - unlike grigs, the mouths of bucks faced upstream, because they were used to catch migrating adult eels. The ideal place for a stage was where a strong current formed as a big river split around an island - hence the obstruction caused at Bucks Ait, or by the set that used to exist just below the bridge at Maidenhead. Bucks mounted on stages were the largest sort of eel traps made, most of them fully nine or ten feet long, with yawning mouths and a siphon woven in at right angles near the downstream end in which the eels would hide from the current. When the run began in October, the eel men would go out each afternoon and lower the bucks using a windlass, the frame that held the buck sliding down in a groove between the stage and movable posts called ‘rimers’, the bottom ends of which were slotted into staples fixed into the base of the stage. Raising and lowering bucks was usually a one man job, but in very heavy water, an extra hand might be needed to help push the traps under water using poles braced against the frames. Theory had it that most eels were taken between nine and midnight and when the bucks were raised in the morning, each was emptied by pulling out a pin that held a wicker stopper over the finely woven end of the buck. On a good night the take from a team of six bucks could top half a hundredweight, which, considering that eels sold for a shilling a pound in the 1870s, wasn’t bad money at all.
Bucks were such heavy things that they were normally left mounted on the stages all year round. Made as they were from green willow, the colour of the baskets varying from olive green to brownish-purple and set against the weathered timber of the frames, many sets were extraordinarily picturesque. But despite the undeniable grace of the designs, it was a brutally unromantic trade and as better materials became available in the late nineteenth century, the stages were replaced with heavy iron frames and the willow traps with more durable wire ones. In many senses, it is probably just as well that increasing pollution meant that the eel trade fell away quite sharply after 1850, because God alone knows what sort of a mess we would be looking at now. But for a time, eel traps - and particularly those big stages - turned labour into an art and there really will be nothing quite like them ever again.