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The eel fishing season on Lough Neagh opened again at the start of May.  The season can run until 10th January, however weather normally dictates when the season closes, usually sometime in October or November.

 

There are two traditional methods of fishing for Lough Neagh eel.

The longline method is the most common.  Lines for fishing can be up to 4 miles long and are set in the evening and lifted very early next morning.   The fishermen are permitted to set up to 4 lines with 400 hooks per line.  They lift the lines by hand and store the caught eel in barrels of fresh water to keep them alive. The catch is brought ashore and graded, with eels less than 40cm being returned to the lough.

 

 

The draft net is one of the oldest methods of catching fish. It is used to catch eels, pollan, trout and perch. The eel draft net is about 80-90metres long. It has a ‘bunt’ or bag at the end where the fish are caught. It has floats on the top line and weights on the bottom. One end is attached to two wooden stakes that keeps the net open.  The net itself must be hauled in by hand, not towed by the boat. Fishermen rely on experience and knowledge of the lough to find the best catches whatever the weather conditions.

 

The catch is collected in aerated water tanks and transported to LNFCS Headquarters in Toomebridge. Initial intake checks are made and the good quality eels above the minimum size of 40cm are weighed. The batch is then sorted by size, either small or large and stored in aerated water tanks, to keep them alive until packing.

 

Later in the afternoon, when all the eels have arrived on site for that day, they are removed from the tanks for packing. The eels are shipped by air, live in perforated bags and cartons with some ice. The packaging has been developed to ensure that they have sufficient oxygen and moisture to keep them in good condition, until they arrive at their destinations; London and Amsterdam.

 

Lough Neagh Eel was awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status by the EU Commission in 2011. This was the first PGI for Northern Ireland.  It recognises the heritage,
tradition and authenticity of what is regarded by consumers as the best eels available in Europe. It puts Lough Neagh Eel in the same category as the food elite of Europe such as Parma Ham, Champagne and Feta cheese.

 

Lough Neagh eels are considered a delicacy in Europe because of the taste and texture. The fat content in the Lough Neagh Eel is ideal for the smoking process. Most of the eels sold into continental Europe, are retailed as either whole smoked eel or smoked eel fillets.  Smoked eel can be eaten straight from the pack or simply with wheaten bread and salad.  It is a great ingredient to cook with also and delicious in chowders or lightly fried or grilled

 

There is a wonderful tradition around Lough Neagh of eating fried eels, often at gatherings known as Eel Suppers. The eel is cleaned, skinned and then chopped into ‘cuts’, around 5 cuts per eel. These are placed in a medium hot griddle or pan with little or no oil. The eel releases oil as it cooks. The eels are cooked for over an hour, until the skin is brown and crispy and the flesh white and fluffy. When cooked the flesh falls off the bone easily. Eel suppers are usually served with fried onions, soda bread, salad and potato salad.

 

Traditional fried eel photo credits: Brian Morrison Photography & Mid-Ulster District Council