Shore angler Matthew Garbutt reveals how he prepares his cart bait for targeting cod from rough ground shore marks
There’s been a lot of debate on cart over the years, especially about best methods of preparation. The shore lads from Whitby pioneered it and left the rest of us wondering why they were having such incredible results. Their secret of success is out, though, and if you can get your hands on some edible crabs, you’re in luck.
Basically, cart is the inner meat and all-important coral from an edible hen crab, and by removing, preparing and storing it properly, your next shore cod session could well
be one to remember.
Coral is the eggs carried by the crab and stored in the wings before they come into what’s known as ‘berry’. The coral can also be stored in the crown of the crab too. It’s easily and immediately noticeable by its distinct orange colour.
Once you’ve opened up the crab to reveal the flesh and coral, the water must be drained before removing it. After collecting enough, it can then be made into blocks or sausages, wrapped in clingfilm and then frozen.
The easiest way to collect enough crabs to prepare your cart is to buy them from a fishmonger or fisherman who works crab pots. This way, you can be sure that the crabs you are using are of legal landing size.
Ragworms come from a large family of phylum annelids, many of which are polychaetes, or bristle worms. Now you know that let’s identify the ones that are important to sea anglers.
Here we are going to focus our attention on red ragworms, as opposed to the whites and others that anglers will come across. Biggest worm in the range is the spectacular king rag (nereis virens), the common red rag, (nereis diversicolor), and the harbour rag, (hediste diversicolor).
Starting with the biggest, king rag are usually about 30cm long but are known to reach up to a metre in length. If you look carefully at the head of the king rag you should be able to make out two pairs of eyes and four pairs of antennae. Anglers are more concerned about the reversible proboscis containing a very impressive set of pincers, which can give you a sharp nip if you are not careful. King rag are loners and it's rare to find concentrated colonies of the really bigger specimens.
The common red rag grows to around 15cm and is more likely to be found in reasonably dense colonies in harbours and estuaries. These are the worms that are stocked by most tackle shops.
Harbour rag, also known as maddies or wrigglers, grow to around 8cm and are nearly always found in dense colonies. This worm lives in a vertical burrow and can reach quite high densities in sheltered estuaries where conditions are usually unsuitable for other species.
It is easily identified by a red dorsal blood vein, which runs down the centre of its body. It is an important food source for many species of estuarine wading birds.
Reproduction depends on the species. In most species the sexes are separate but there are a few that are both male and female (hermaphrodite). When they spawn the males change to a light green and the females to a dark bottle green.
The ragworm is both a scavenger and an efficient predator feeding on mud, detritus and plankton. When in hunting mode it can rapidly shoot out its powerful jaws to catch other softbodied animals.
They all inhabit much the same type of ground in sheltered harbours and estuaries and favour broken muddy and sandy ground.
They can also be found close to mussel beds and in some cases the king rag will live in very rocky ground where it is relatively protected and where it can grow to a very large size.
Why not collect your own worms?
With a bit of planning you can gather your own ragworms for bait, but first you have to identify a broken muddy or sandy location where the ground is reasonably firm and well exposed during a big low tide.
Be careful in harbours where the mud can be thick black and oozy. If you wear Wellington boots you will get stuck and even wearing waders doesn't mean you are safe from getting bogged down.
Search for rocks and stones, turning them over to find the holes and channels the worms make. If you are careful, quiet and turn the stone over quickly you should be able to grab the odd ragworm in your hand before it disappears down its burrow.
After turning over the rocks to find some tell-tale holes you should dig. If the ground is hard try a flat-tined potato fork that also offers less chance of cutting the worm in half.
Harbour rag can usually be found in the top 30cm of the ground and the bigger worms will be a bit deeper, up to 70cm in some cases. If there are lots of worms dig trench style working back along the trench to expose any worms. Normally it is necessary to have a good look around, find a suitable small area of ground before digging and then moving onto another spot.
Surface water often runs into the hole if the ground is very soft. If this happens use a spade using a small bucket to bale out the water.
You can dig a lot deeper and quicker with a spade. Your tools must be strong because they will be used as a lever just as much as a digging implement.
When exposing a worm try to lift it out of the hole with the next dig rather than trying to pull it out, which can break the worm. Try to vary where you dig as well. On big tides start at the furthest exposed point and leave the top of the beach for smaller tides.
You might find that the worms are easier to gather by digging right on the edge of the ebbing tide when the ground is still wet and the worms have yet to move deeper.
Worms seem to know when the tide is flooding and move upwards in anticipation of a supply of fresh seawater, in which case try digging right on the edge of the water line.
Warm weather usually brings the worms up to the surface, and very cold frosty weather will drive the worms a lot deeper in the mud.
Big king rag are dug individually. Foot pressure can often result in a spurt of water coming out of a hole and sometimes you will find bits of seaweed, that the worm has tried to take, sticking out of a hole.
Dig a small trench at the side of its burrow and then try to follow the hole as it twists and turns down through the ground. This is hard work but can produce some massive worms once you know what to look out for.
Washing your worms
When you have enough bait wash off your tools and then fill your main container with fresh seawater, rinsing the worms out thoroughly.
Separate the broken ones into your smaller baling bucket, which then fits inside the bigger bucket. If you leave whole and broken worms in the same container the water will quickly turn orange and on a warm day in a car boot the worms will die.
Back home the whole worms go into a bucket of clean seawater aerated by an air pump for a few hours; this gives the worms time to expel any mud that is still in their system.
Missed broken worms go into a separate shallow tray with containing a few millimetres of water, while whole worms that may be damaged go into a different tray. The good quality hole worms go into other trays all covered by a few millimetres of water.
All the worms are stored in a fridge, which not only keeps them cool but also in the dark. Change the water twice a day to keep your worms healthy.
● When you go fishing keep bait parcels of newspaper, which helps to toughen them up, in a large bucket. If it's a hot day put a small freezer block in the bucket.
● The size of the worms can make a difference to results. Small worms are more effective for catching small fish, large worms are best for specimen fish. Ask your tackle dealer for the size you need or request a mix of sizes.
● Can't face handling a ragworm because of their pincers? Cut off the head with your scissors.
● Cocktail baits are deadly for lots of species. There are no rules that say you cannot mix two, three or more baits. Beware of masking the hook point though and use a hook size that suits the size of the bait.
● An excellent guide to what hook to use is to match the size and pattern to the bait being used. Long-shank hooks in size 1/0, 1 and 2 are best for worms and sandeels. Use short-shank hooks up to 3/0 for crabs and fish, with mediumshank hooks in size 6/0 suited to squid and live fish.
● Keep your bait out of the wind, rain and sun and it will retain its freshness longer. A cool box is as useful in the winter as in summer to keep bait fresh and alive.
White ragworms have many different local names, such as whiteworms, whites, silvers and catworms, and are an effective bait if you can get it.
They are prized by both match anglers and pleasure anglers, but their slow growth and infrequent spawning makes them vulnerable to over collecting, so research is currently being carried out to see if they can be farmed.
These worms actively swim and burrow, usually in clean sandy beaches or broken ground mixed with sand. They are long-lived, have separate sexes and can breed several times in a lifetime, unlike ragworms which breed once before dying. All mature worms in a local population will breed on the same day, but not always every year.
The larvae drift around for several weeks among plankton before settling to the bottom. A three-inch worm may be five years old, and bigger specimens may be up to 12 years old.
Where and how to dig
Most anglers who dig their own bait usually only come across an occasional bigger specimen by accident. They are rarely found in great numbers and it is unlikely that anyone could just go out and dig a bucket full. It is hard work to dig them in any great quantity.
Best chance of finding them in any numbers will be along the lower shoreline during a big spring low tide. You will usually find them in areas where there are tubeworms and/or razorfish present because the white rag seem to prefer the same type of hard compact sandy ground that is found within sheltered estuaries and harbours.
Unless you are lucky enough to find any washed up after a heavy sea, it is unlikely that there will be many along the more exposed sandy beaches where the upper beach is often a softer sand.
However, if you look around for suitable local areas you should be able to collect perhaps 10 to 15 medium to large worms on a single tide. Remember that you will probably be restricted to just a few tides every year, weather permitting, when you can do this.
The ones that I have found don't seem to be too deep and the traditional flat-tined potato fork would be more suitable for digging them than a spade.
If you find a small local population, I would suggest that you keep the location to yourself.
A flat-tined potato fork is more suitable for digging white rag than a spade
Great ways to whites
Because they are difficult to get, their use is very selective. Use them when the conditions are right for whatever species you are intending to catch or save them for an important match.
They are the classic tipping-off bait for winter cod. A big rag and lug cocktail tipped with white rag is unbeatable. A crab and white rag cocktail will also produce cod and bass where other baits fail. They are also very effective when scratching about for smaller species in clear-water conditions, where flounders seem to find them irresistible.
A few smaller white rag on a suitable- sized hook, perhaps with a few harbour rag or peeler crab claws, or a section of a bigger worm together with a bunch of harbour rag will soon get any reluctant fish feeding. They will often out-fish anything else in such conditions.
As such they are a prized match bait, certainly worth their reputation as a fish-catcher and are almost worth their weight in gold.
If you can find anyone or any tackle shop that sells them don't be surprised to pay a £1 each or even more for the bigger specimens.
Whites are easy to keep alive in a cool fridge. As long as they are not overcrowded and kept cool they will be fine. Place them in a shallow tray, with a slight covering of water, and a bit of clean sand or fine sea coal, where they will keep sometimes for several months just by changing the water every few days.
During most of the year, basic bait like lugworms are readily available, but in the depths of winter they are in short supply, so don’t be disappointed when your local tackle dealer shakes his head and says: "Sorry, squire, the weather is atrocious and I just can’t get bait."
This sort of depressing news just might make you consider setting up a bait fridge so that it will be ready for the imminent flush of spring and that superb bait, peeler crabs.
All anglers need bait and supplies are usually available from tackle dealers, but lots of fishermen find that they can manage their own bait supplies more efficiently with a small domestic fridge, or fridge freezer.
Abait fridge is a valuable aid to the angler because it can be used to prolong the life of live and frozen bait from times when bait is plentiful to periods of shortage.
An ever-ready bait supply also allows the angler to take advantage of an influx of fish or favourable weather conditions – you can go fishing instantly without having to rely on a tackle dealer for your bait supplies.
Most sea anglers use an old domestic fridge to store bait, but a fridge-freezer may be a better buy because it enables you to store both fresh and frozen bait and make the most of limited room, although you could have a separate fridge and freezer.
Unwanted fridges and freezers can be picked up in the local small ads for as little as £5 and in lots of cases the seller is just keen to get shot of an old fridge or freezer when they upgrade.
Obviously, the fridge has to be in good working order and it’s a good idea to get assurances from the seller that it actually works! Check that door seals fit snug and, if the fridge is running, check that the thermostat works by altering the setting, listen for it to click on and off.
If the ice box or drip tray is full of ice then there is a good chance the fridge has a faulty thermostat or has been neglected. Look for pools of water under the fridge, if you see any don’t buy. Watch for rusted casings too.
SETTING UP YOUR ‘BAIT STATION’
Position the fridge with some thought, first choice is an outhouse or garage. Bait storage involves some pretty obnoxious smells no matter how careful you are, so keep away from delicate noses.
Avoid positions close to radiators or where the fridge is likely to be influenced by heat, sunlight or cold weather.
Amajor problem with a bait fridge is saltwater spillage from worm trays etc, which cannot be avoided. Saltwater wreaks havoc with the lightweight steel most fridges are constructed from, so look for plastic-coated shelves and a large salad tray that will catch spills.
Fridges with a small built-in freezer compartment are ideal for storing live bait because the colder section at the top of the fridge near the freezer compartment offers a greater range of temperature inside the fridge. That’s handy for storing and controlling the speed peeler crabs shed their shells.
Here’s what you can store in a fridge
When lugworms are in good supply there is no need to fridge them, but in the depth of winter, when supplies are unpredictable, then lugworms dug in better weather or during the more productive spring tides can be kept for a week.
LUGWORMS – Will keep alive and reasonably fresh for up to a week in dry newspaper. For longer periods they can be "tanked" in seawater, although this is said to wash the worms out and make them less effective as bait. However, they remain a better bait than no worms at all.
Common lugworms are best wrapped in packets of 20 (a score) in a minimum of three layers of newspaper, but beware placing packets on top of each other.
An alternative is to place them in a cat litter tray in a dribble of seawater; this also applies to live yellowtails.
Don’t submerge worms because this allows bacteria to spread quickly and dead worms to kill live ones. The worms don’t have to swim, just be kept wet.
Tougher yellowtails or black lugworms can also be wrapped in newspaper, although they are more often placed in "rolls" of ten. Double over a single sheet of newspaper and place the worms at intervals in the paper as you roll it up, then wrap rolls in scores.
RAGWORMS - Can be kept alive fairly easily in a shallow tray with a dribble of seawater, but limit worms to ten per tray. For storage in newspaper, damp sea peat is ideal because it keeps the ragworms moist. An alternative is garden peat wetted with seawater with 20 worms to a packet.
Vermiculite roof insulation material dries ragworms out and is an efficient way to keep them for several days when a fridge is not available.
When worms are wrapped in newspaper, don’t let water or damp get to the worms. Place packets or rolls in a sealed plastic bag and also renew newspaper if it does become damp. Dampness can often be caused by a full drip tray or that the fridge needs defrosting.
PEELER CRABS – The speed at which peeler crabs shed their shell can be controlled in a fridge. To keep them in prime condition at a time when they are just about to shed their shell they must be kept moist. Asmall spray of seawater kept at fridge temperature is ideal for this.
Crabs can be frozen, but they must be alive when they are peeled and frozen as quickly as possible. Wash under the tap and wrap in foil or cling film and then freeze as quickly as possible.
SQUID – The lazy man’s bait – just freeze it. Like all frozen bait, once thawed they lose their freshness. As a rule don’t return thawed bait to the freezer. The exception is shellfish which fish are used to finding in a smelly state of decay. Razorfish, piddock clams etc actually work better slightly rotten.
FISH BAIT - Remain fresh for a couple of days, otherwise freeze.
SANDEELS – Need lots of air supplied by a pump and stone to keep them alive. A superb frozen bait.
- The perfect bait fridge is the large commercial drinks cooler with a see through door. Hard to come by they offer easy access, maximum capacity and the perfect temperature range for live worms!
- A thin sheet of polystyrene can be used to protect or separate delicate bait stored in trays from low temperatures.
- Cat litter trays and shallow boxes that slot into one another allow lots of bait to be stored in a small space. Check out DIY stores.
- Always freeze bait in small amounts, mark with date so that supplies can be rotated.
- Check your fridge daily and remove dead or dying worms immediately. Keep spare clean saltwater in your fridge so it’s at the same temperature as stored bait.
- If you are also a coarse angler, beware of keeping maggots in a sea bait fridge.
All sea anglers hope to maximise the potential of their fishing baits, not just to help them catch more fish, but to ensure they remain on the hook and don't hinder the casting distance.
Here's a few tips that will help you get more from your sandeel, mackerel, squid and crab baits by using tyhe cut and shut technique...
Cut off the head (pic 1) and tail (2) of a frozen sandeel. The middle-sized sandeels of around 12cm plus are ideal.
Cut the Bluey or mackerel fillet into an arrowhead shape (3 & 4). The tail section is ideal.
Now thread a size 1/0 or 2/0 long-shank Aberdeen hook from the tail of the eel (5) and bring out halfway down the eel (6), then pass back in (7) and out through to the gill’s end (8). This leaves the hook eye and knot prone in the centre of the bait to provide a gripping point for the elastic bait cotton.
Then part cut the fish bait through to the point with the scissors (9). Shape end into point (10).
Place the pointed end of the slice at the tail end of the eel (11) and whip with cotton to the hook point (12). The cut in the fish helps it fold around the sandeel for a more streamlined shape. You can place the skin side or flesh side out. Flesh side out moulds shape better.
Ravenous shore crabs can steal your bait before the fish can get to it. You can move or try to outsmart them by using floating beads, tough bait wraps or even protecting them in mesh, says contributing editor Alan Yates
The most effective way to beat crabs is to check out the range at which they are feeding. If the bait is being removed then shorten the cast. If it isn’t being touched, lengthen it.
Sounds simple, but lots of anglers spend countless hours fishing without bait on their hooks because they fish timed casts and only react to bites. Your first cast will usually tell you how active the crabs are and from then on you can adjust your casting range to improve the bait’s survival time. It is common on many venues to find that crab activity ceases the minute the fish come on the scene – something many anglers are unaware of.
In extreme situations there are a number of solutions, and the easiest is to position floating beads as close to the bait as possible. This method works for some species, like flounders and plaice, because it lifts the bait away from the sea bed where the crabs can’t get it. There could be a problem, because crabs can swim, but floating beads do make it more difficult for the crabs to remove bait.
There are lots of buoyant beads available and they come in various sizes and bright colours. Site the beads as close to the bait as possible using a stop to hold them in place.
Floating beads work well most of the time, but there are species that won’t swim away from the sea bed.
Species that do include mackerel, garfish, bream, pollack, pout, scad, bass and coalfish.
You can also use a flounder spoon and retrieve the bait slowly over the sea bed. This method can work well in estuaries where hungry crabs can clean hooks of bait in minutes. Various beads can be added to the hook snood to introduce colour, noise or lift.
When you sense a bite, stop reeling and pause for the fish to take the bait.
CRAB -RESISTANT BAITS Discover the best choices for your hook
Some hookbaits are more crab-resistant than others, but some tough baits aren’t all that popular with some species. Here’s how I rate them:
Peeler crabs: Although crabs definitely eat crab meat, there are times when the flesh will be ignored, especially when the crabs are peeling and the cocks are looking for a mate. Peeler is a tough bait that most fish like to eat. Scores 8/10
Fish: These seem to be instant crab attractors and they don’t last that long if used in small slivers. Cutlets of small mackerel are much better, but mount them skin side out to slow the rate the crabs can peck it away. Scores 6/10
Worms: Easy prey for crabs. Being soft they can be removed in minutes. If you are fishing an estuary for flounders, try the floating bead trick, adding a head of the toughest and biggest ragworm you have in your bait bucket. You can also strap several lugworms together on a baiting needle using elastic cotton to form a tough worm sausage. Scores 4/10
Squid: Perhaps the most crab-resistant bait. However, many fish, other than cod, bass and congers, will turn their noses up at it. Scores 3/10
Sandeels: Fairly robust and will withstand crab attacks, especially if whipped on the hook. Another way to toughen it up is to wrap it in squid, while a worm whipped alongside a sandeel is a great cocktail. Use elastic cotton to strap the worm the length of the sandeel for a parallel cocktail. Scores 7/10
OFF-THE-WALL OPTIONSNot as bizarre as you might think
Try a float-fished soft crinkly crab, one that has already peeled and is still soft.
Hook it through the side or rear shell so it stays alive and suspend it under a float for bass when fishing from a groyne or pier. A tail-hooked prawn attracts lots of species and is deadly when freelined or fished live under a float. A live sandeel can be presented in the same way.
PROTECTION IN A PACKETTime for armour plating
Carp anglers have long used a soluble mesh bag or net to deposit particle baits alongside their hookbait. Now they are experiencing much the same bait-robbing problem as us, but from small catfish.
They have found a way of protecting their baits by using Arma Mesh, a tough material that doesn’t dissolve and can also be used by sea anglers to keep crabs off sea baits.
There are various ways to increase a large bait’s staying power. Wrapping a prepared crab or fish bait inside a squid mantle is one. The procedure is to clean the skin and fins from a calamari squid, lay it flat and bash it with the knife handle to perforate it, which allows the scent to escape. Load the main hook (a Pennell rig is best) with the squid and then use elastic cotton to wrap the squid around the crab in a sausage.
Use Arma Mesh to encase the bait. Then nick the top sliding Pennell hook in the top of the bait to support it and the mesh. This adds extra protection to your bait from bait thieves. Change the bait every cast.
Another method is shown below.
STOP THE SPIDERS RUINING YOUR LINE
Make life tough for these bait robbers
There is no real answer to spider crabs nipping through mono snoods as they devour your bait, other than to check snoods regularly for damage. If you are fishing for the larger species, then increase the diameter of the snood line and use tougher fluorocarbons.
Continental anglers use a short solid wire biting trace to protect their rigs and you can make one by using a short Gemini Genie boom clipped directly to the hook.
Alternatively, a short biting trace of 80lb Spider wire will make the rig relatively crab-proof.
Ever thought of ground baiting from the beach? It's something we had never considered until Kent angler, Shane Pullen, explained how he does it at Leysdown to catch double-figure thornback ray...
FRESHWATER ANGLERS DO it all the time and boat anglers know it works, but shore fishermen rarely think of laying a bait trial to attract and then hold fish until they sniff out a baited hook.
Strong tides probably cancel out any groundbaiting opportunities, as do beaches where the tide doesn't recede far enough to lay a scent trail. For this to work the beach has to expose all its sand within casting distance to allow the baited bags to be pegged out before the tide turns.
Anglers know that to increase the chance of catching fish the weather, wind direction and air pressure play a major part in the resultant catch.
A rough sea will rip lugworms from their burrows and shellfish, such as razorfish and queen cockles, will get smashed from their shells resulting in the area becoming a feeding zone attracting fish further inshore than would be normally feed.
Dean Humble and I settled on Warden Bay at Leysdown, Kent, as the perfect venue for our groundbaiting experiment. We were fishing on a flat shallow beach where the tide recedes a long way and comes in quickly to meet a shingle beach with groynes set 50 yards apart.
At low tide small sandbanks are visible and, while these banks aren't particularly big or obvious, they are a haven for feeding thornback rays. On the Isle of Sheppey the thornbacks return annually to these shallow beaches to feed on the sandeels and crabs.
Our bait bag technique
THE first thing we had to do was find a bag suitable for the job. Taking a lead from boat anglers we opted for vegetable bags or sacks scrounged from our local greengrocer. They are hard wearing and the holes are just the right size to let the bits of flesh float out.
Cut mackerel, herrings, crabs and sandeels into sizeable chunks and mix with ragworms before filling the bag. I suggest using half fresh, half frozen bait, as I don't think you can beat fresh bait to draw the fish.
By cutting the fish bait into chunks the aim is to gently release the bait trail into the tide, so don't cut them into big pieces which will take longer to wash out in the tide.
Try to arrive at the mark at low water. Make a trial cast and see where your sinker sticks in the sand - this is the area you will be staking out your baited bags before the tide turns and starts coming back in.
Run the line through your fingers as you walk out to where you cast. By doing this you will be able to see where your baited trace will be fishing, taking note of the features nearby that could attract a ray.
Hammer a small stake into the sea bed, making sure it is driven deep enough to hold the rubby-dubby bag in place and prevent it being washed away by the incoming tide. Tie your bag to the stake securely.
Tie off a length of fishing line, 7ft to 8ft should be enough, although it might vary slightly where you fish. Dean and I had talked about depths at high water, the time we would be fishing, and we thought they would be right for us.
We use a marker buoy (a milk carton works well) to give us a target to aim for when the bag is covered with water. This rises with the tide and can be seen from the shore. Milk cartons reduce surface noise.
Using the carton as a target, cast your baited trace slightly downtide where it should sit in the scent trail leaching out of the baited bag. If you fish after dark try tying a starlight to the carton, although this will only work if sea conditions are calm.
Traces and bait tips
I ALWAYS do my research if I am unsure about how a venue will fish. Local angler Alan Godsalve and his fishing pals informed me that there was usually an early run of rays, usually females, during February. The males appear in early spring.
The most successful bait is a whole squid or whole squid wrapped around king ragworms, a single sandeel and large king rag.
Dean and I had decided to use two rods for this trip. Fishing for rays is a waiting game, so two rods would not necessarily increase your work rate. Using pulley rigs we rigged up with 2ft traces tied from 30lb mono line. Thornbacks have extremely strong rough gums so I advise you to check your line frequently for wear and tear.
A friend and local angler Alan Jefferys has given me plenty of top tips over the years on the Sheppey thornback rays and one that always comes to mind is to fish your baited hook a fair way from the lead weight.
The reason for this is that you need a spiked lead weight to hold your baited trace firmly to the sea bed. As the ray settles on its prey (that's your baited hook) the wires from your lead weight could scare the ray away if it feels the steel wires.
I'm not a great fan of Impact shields when it comes to long-range cod fishing with streamlined lug baits, but when using bulky baits, such as whole squid or crab, then they come into their own. When fishing with a sandeel the shield will provide protection during the cast and on impact.
There is a technique for baiting with a sandeel, which will ensure a streamlined and well-presented bait. Start by snipping off the tail, then lift the gills and remove them so the blood will release gently into the tide to boost the scent trail. Finally snip of the nose just in front of the eyes.
I prefer a size 2/0 hook, usually a Viking 79515, because they are sharp and strong. Thread the sandeel tail first onto the hook until the barb comes out through the head. A Pennell rig can be used to hold the bait, but, as I return any rays caught, I try to reduce the risk to the fish by using only one hook. The sandeel is wrapped with elasticised cotton to secure it firmly. Don't secure the cotton too tightly because the bait can be damaged.
If you bait with a whole squid then a Pennell will give perfect presentation, but you will still have to secure it with a cocoon of bait cotton.
Fish with a powerful rod; I use the Zziplex Primo Syncro, a rod that offers excellent bit detection yet has plenty of guts to pull a ray in over the sand. A typical ray bite is a pull down. Don't be hasty because, at this point, the ray will have just settled on your bait so allow time for the fish to manoeuvre over its prey.
The rod tip will pull down once more as the ray moves off after taking the bait. As with many fish, it will pick up the sandeel or squid head first, hopefully hooking itself just inside its mouth.
The reels we use are Abu Mag Elites loaded with 15lb mono line tied to a 70lb shockleader. If the going gets tough I will switch to a Penn 525 Mag and, while both reels are more than capable of handling a long cast, the Penn has, in my opinion, more winding power and guts.
Groundbaiting is not a great way of catching rays, but can increase your chances and is worth a go. Kent's Isle of Sheppey is renowned for its ray fishing throughout the year with fish into double-figures possible.
Remember, as the tide drops away pick up your empty bait bags. ●
Mackerel bait will catch just about every fish in the sea, so why don't we exploit its full potential? Whole or filleted, as flappers or strips, its sheer versatility puts other baits to shame, explains Steve Walker.
Mackerel bait will catch just about every fish in the sea, so why don't we exploit its full potential? Whole or filleted, as flappers or strips, its sheer versatility puts other baits to shame, explains Steve Walker.
If the mackerel were an endangered species we'd treat it with more respect. It's a beautiful swashbuckling fish, a mini-version of the bluefin tuna so prized by game anglers, and a predator in its own right.
Like the tuna it can regulate its body temperature to some degree, so it's not strictly cold-blooded - something anyone who's ever fished for mackerel on light spinning or float tackle will appreciate. They just don't know when they're beaten.
This strange hotheaded property gives them energy and stamina, but is responsible for their 'going off' as soon as your back is turned. All that blood and Omega 3-rich oil is not going to stay fresh for long, which is why mackerel are still the only fish permitted to be sold in London on a Sunday.
The fact remains, mackerel are cheap and plentiful, and their very familiarity means we don't take full advantage of their potential as an all-round bait.
Few fish, even those with specialist feeding habits, will refuse mackerel in its various guises. Strips, chunks, fillets or even the whole fish, depending on the size of the quarry, are snapped up by everything from the largest shark to the smallest dab, and a less obvious use for mackerel strip is as a cod bait, particularly from the shore.
Success in chunks
We have become brainwashed into thinking that worms, crabs and squid are the only hookbaits cod will look at, but it's not so. Several times I have seen fresh mackerel out-fish other baits for winter cod from my local piers, not just as a cocktail with worms but as a big, fresh solo chunk. It seems to sort out the bigger specimens, too, and the only real reason it does not catch more cod is that relatively few anglers use it.
Frozen or iced mackerel from the supermarket is fine for dabs and whiting, and I freeze strips cut from the tough belly to tip off worm baits for these species. The strips keep the worms on the hook and add scent and movement to pull in fish from afar.
In south-west Scotland, where I fish in summer for pollack, coalfish and bass, finger-like strips around 6in long work well under a float, freelined or retrieved slowly behind a light lead.
Larger fare is required for bottom fishing, so I freeze a few fillets in readiness for when the bigger cod move inshore from January to March. Fresh mackerel needs to be frozen very quickly to keep it palatable, so unless you need whole ones for bait it is better to freeze whole or part fillets, which go rock-hard in no time.
Fillet the fish, rinse them in fresh water and dry on a paper towel, then place the baits on a metal tray in the freezer. Once they are fully frozen, wrap them in cling film, squeezing out air bubbles, and store them in freezer bags, sucking all the remaining air out with a straw before you seal them. This helps to prevent freezer burn, and your baits will be all the better for it.
Jumbos and joeys
Theaverage size of mackerel varies greatly around our coastline. In the North East they go up to 2lb, far too big to be used whole for any shore species and probably more than a mouthful for everything except shark, ling and the larger cod. Instead, these jumbo mackerel tend to be fished as fillets or as flappers, with the backbone cut out. In south-west Scotland, on the other hand, joey mackerel weigh only a few ounces and can be used whole for most species from boat or shore.
Mackerel is the toughest and most obvious oily fish to use as bait, but others can be almost as good or, occasionally, even better. Herring are readily available from supermarkets and fishmongers, while live specimens are caught in large numbers off some North East piers by anglers feathering for mackerel.
A herring has more scent than a mackerel but it is a lot softer and unless you are using it whole it will need to be tied on to the hook. As it breaks down in the water it generates a trail of fine fleshy particles, as well as an oily scent trail, and I find that for whiting it outfishes mackerel almost every time. I also prefer it to mackerel when making rubby-dubby.
Mashed sardines are good for groundbaiting, too. The bigger 8in-12in specimens, known as pilchards and bought frozen from supermarkets, are even softer than herrings, and cannot be cast very far, so they make a better supporting cast than a hookbait.
Because mackerel is so plentiful, other oily fish tend to be well down the list of bait preferences, but those willing to experiment could be surprised.
Every angler should carry a sharp filleting knife because it is always better to cut a piece of bait from a fillet than hack away at a whole fish.
A couple of long strips can be cut from the belly flesh and then trimmed to a suitable size. One or two bigger pieces, or several smaller diagonal ‘lasks’, can then be cut from the main body of the fillet and used as bait for the bigger species.
Waste not, want not. Whenever I use mackerel the head, guts and tail go into the water to lay down a scent trail. When I am after mullet any remaining flesh on the filleted backbone is scraped off and mixed with bread to form groundbait. Garfish, pollack, coalfish and wrasse all respond to this stuff, too.
So next time you haul up a string of feathered mackerel, think what a priceless resource is dangling before you. The head, the tail, the whole damned fish - like the proverbial backyard pig, you needn't waste one bit of it.
A mackerel flapper is a great bait for conger eels
Strips of mackerel can be added to feather rigs
A mackerel fillet
A small segment of mackerel on a float rig
Steve Walker believes that razorfish, also called razorclam or razorshell, is a vastly underrated bait, especially for winter cod. He collects them in late summer and uses them in a cocktail or as a bulk bait. Here he shows how to collect razors and present them to the best effect.
Maybe they should have called the razorclam or razorshell the cutthroat clam, because the shape and rough size is much the same at the old wet shave cutthroat razor.
The two halves of the fragile shell, often called the valves, are curved with their colour ranging from a soft cream to a dark brown purple. You may not know this but here are several species and they can be identified by their shape, size and colour.
Some have a straight shell, some have a curved shell and others are only curved on one side. They are very slow growing and a 20cm long specimen may be 25 years old.
However, they probably all look the same to the sea angler. The ones that I collect are a light creamy colour with a straight shell and I have no idea what species they are.
There are several commercial razor fisheries, mainly on the west coast of Scotland, parts of Wales and around The Wash where they are often collected by suction dredger. In the Clyde divers collect them commercially.
Razor is becoming popular as a food source. They are exported to Europe and the Far East where they are considered a delicacy. There is currently a lot of research taking place on the west coast of Scotland to see if the razorclam industry is sustainable.
The Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), recommend a minimum size of 10cm, so if you are collecting your own supply make sure they bigger than this limit.
On the west coast of the United States gathering razor in season is a major social event and highly regulated with collectors often using 'clam guns' to lift the shell. I wonder if anyone tried collecting them using a bait pump in this country?
Razors are filter feeders and live along the lower shoreline with the main concentrations often extending well out to sea beyond the reach of anglers. They are filter feeders staying buried in the sand with only a siphon protruding from their burrow.
If a predator grips the siphon it will break at a weak spot and then regenerate. They are also known to be good swimmers so colonies must be able to move around, particularly when they are washed out during heavy seas.
They are sensitive to light and vibration and can burrow to great depths very quickly, often quicker than you can dig for them, especially if they are living in wet sand.
The thick muscular foot can propel a specimen through the sand at up to one inch a second and when they are in their burrows they can move considerably faster than that.
How to locate your razorfish
Razorsare difficult to find and the only sign that they are in a particular area is the empty shells washed up along the shoreline. They can be located by either looking for very shallow dimples on the surface, often a small round or keyhole shaped hole.
One trick is to walk slowly along the beach putting pressure on the surface where you think a razor might be. If a razor is in residence then you may see a plume of water ejected from the hole.
I dig close to the shallow dimples in the sand. Several years ago there were hardly any razors in my area but now they are widespread. Local water quality has certainly improved so perhaps they prefer cleaner unpolluted water.
They are relatively easy to dig and the biggest ones are usually around 20cm long, with the vast majority around 10cm to 15cm.
I use the same technique as if I were lifting black lugworms, in other words by pushing my spade into the sand alongside the hole.
I then dig away the top surface of the hole, revealing the burrow to see in which direction it goes and follow this down until the clam is exposed. I use a long trenching spade and have to dig very quickly to get the bigger clams, which may be down quite deep.
Once the top of the razor is sufficiently exposed, I quickly grab hold of it and carefully pull it out. The amount of suction that the razor’s foot can exert while burrowing is considerable and often a tug of war follows, but with consistent pressure you will find the razor can eventually be extracted.
I have tried pouring a thick saline solution down the hole and this does work with the razor ejecting spouts of water as it eventually nears the surface, but I can dig them out much quicker. The salt method may be better for those very big specimens that are too deep to dig or for anglers who are unable to dig quickly for prolonged periods.
There is also a much older method of collecting them by using a spear-shaped implement that has an end a bit like an arrowhead. The sharp end is thrust down the hole into the clam and is then twisted and extracted with the clam on the end. I have never used this method or heard of anyone who has.
Tackle shops usually have a frozen supply of blast frozen and vacuum -sealed packs, and fresh ones if you're lucky, but they are relatively expensive to buy. My local wet fish shop sells 30cm long ones for the table, but they cost a £1 each.
How to prepare your bait and freeze it for later use
Razor is an underrated bait in my opinion because I know they are a great bait for many species from the humble dab to cod and bass.
One or two whole ones will make a big cod and bass bait, and smaller portions or strips cut from the siphon part will make an equally effective bait for flatties, pouting and whiting.
They make an excellent cocktail and I very rarely use them by themselves. For me they make an ideal winter cod bait, when tipping off a big lug bait with a bit of razor will often out-fish anything else. A razor and frozen crab bait is also a very effective winter cod offering in my area.
They are easy to use and clean. Just break open the shell along its open edge - you may need to use a knife - and then scoop out the razor making sure you remove all of the clam body.
They are always full of flesh unlike other shellfish, such as mussels, which you may notice are often a watery mess. A big razorfish will slice down into four or five tipping baits.
Razor are easy to freeze and will last a long time in the freezer. Give them a quick rinse in warm water to clean off any dirt and dry them out on some tissue paper or hand towel.
Lightly wrap them up in cling film in their shell, place on a metal tray in the freezer and once frozen wrap them up in a sealable sandwich bag.
I get a large supply during the big low tides of August and September and always have enough for fishing through the winter.
Depending on the conditions and what I expect to catch I will take sufficient amount with me to last a session. If I don't use them I give them away, and I never refreeze frozen bait.
If you want to maximise their use then shell them before cleaning, freeze them in the same way, and then they should be small enough to place inside a wide-mouthed flask so you can bring back any you don't use.
They don't seem to survive very long once collected and at best they keep for a day, although this doesn't bother me because I freeze them down on the day I gather them to see me through the winter.
How to fish razor
Razor needs to be tied on the hook with elastic cotton. I use a Pennell rig with Aberdeen or Viking hooks for cod, threading a section of clam up the hook after some worms or a crab have been loaded on.
Sometimes the bait doesn't look big enough, so to avoid the clam sliding down the hook shank I finish off with another worm or small piece of squid tentacle, cocooning it all in cotton so it looks like a sausage.
If you are sceptical then make up a bait without tying it on, cast it out, retrieve and see the mess.
When using several hooks for flatties or whiting I ensure that the bait is secured to the hook with elastic cotton. The Aberdeen hook with barbs on the shank, helps to keep the bait in place.
Shrimps or prawns?
Well, actually they seem to be the same type of creature. If you buy them in the shops they are all called prawns, regardless of size. In the world of marine biology the bigger ones are generally referred to as prawns and the smaller ones as shrimps, but the real differences in characteristics are difficult to recognise.
I am going to stick with the smaller shrimps and cover the use of the bigger prawns in a future article. There are lots of different types of shrimps throughout UK waters, but the ones of interest to anglers are generally referred to as the common shrimp, brown shrimp or sand shrimp.
They are usually translucent with little colour to them, other than a few faint stripes, and the bigger ones can grow to around 90mm long. In some areas they can be collected in a small net in rock pools, or by pushing a shrimping net along a sandy beach.
A shrimp is a crustacean, just like a crab, and needs to shed its shell to grow bigger, so there will be hardly any fish in the sea that will refuse a soft, juicy shrimp. You just have to look at the stomach contents of cod, bass, whiting, pouting, and probably all of the more popular flatfish species to see that they eat shrimps. Most other species of fish, at least in juvenile form, will probably eat shrimps at some time, and in some parts of the country shrimps will actively take thornback rays and cod.
A traditional shrimp net has a triangular timber frame with a few struts for strength and a very small-meshed net with a deep drop.
A triangular carp net can be used, but requires a length of timber or metal pipe tied along the bottom end with cable ties to strengthen it – this is the part of the net that makes contact with the bottom and disturbs the shrimps and small flatfish that are then caught in the mesh. This is not as efficient as a proper shrimp net, but it still works.
Time and technique
Shrimps are underrated and not often considered as bait. In some areas they are used for catching estuary flounders and as a cod bait for uptide fishing, when 20 or more whole specimens are threaded up the hooklength, usually in conjunction with lugworms, to make a really big cocktail bait.
Availability, at least of freshly-caught shrimps, seems to be the reason why they are not widely used, but cooked and peeled versions available in the supermarkets are effective as a bait for flatfish and whiting. Most anglers would consider them expensive. Bigger imported prawns are, but smaller ones are not, and £1.25 will buy you around 100g (40 to 50 in number) from your local wet fish shop.
Some anglers might suggest you can get fresh mackerel for a similar price and catch the same fish, but I think that you will be surprised at how effective shrimps can be for certain species. If you net your own supply there is no cost involved. A calm sea in summer, perhaps with just a bit of surf to stir them up, will be the best conditions.
Wade out to around waist depth and push the net along the sea bed in front of you, parallel with the shoreline, making sure you keep in contact with the bottom. Trial and error should tell you when to lift the net for inspection.
A good 50-metre push usually suffices before emptying the contents on to a plastic sheet and sorting out what you want to keep.
Shrimps won't stay alive for very long, even in oxygenated water, so be prepared to use them soon after capture, cook them to use later, freeze or eat them. The smaller ones can be a bit fiddly to peel, so if you have a good supply it would be better to select the bigger ones for ease of use. Simply snap off the tail section and break open the shell along its length, and the meat should pop out.
How to hook shrimps
Shrimps are quite easy to use either freshly caught, cooked (either peeled or unpeeled), by themselves or as a cocktail. They require a fine-wire hook, such as an Aberdeen pattern.
Hook a few whole specimens through the length of the body and push them up the hook snood, add a few worms or a strip of mackerel and then compress the bait back down on to the hook and use a bait stop, such as a piece of telephone wire, to hold it in place. One or two whole shrimps on a small Aberdeen hook make a scratching bait for flatties or pouting. Tipping it off with a thin strip of mackerel, squid or ragworm makes it even more attractive.
Cooked peeled shrimps are quite tough, but can be of a crumbly texture, so it requires a bit of care to bait up with them. Tie on the elastic thread, but not too tightly because it will cut through the bait, causing it to fall off the hook. Short casting for estuary flounders will be okay – a clipped-down rig will be needed for anything else.
You will need a lot of peeled shrimps to make a big cod bait. Therefore the peeled ones are best as either a bait for smaller species or in a cocktail for bigger quarry. They are also a good bait when floatfishing for small coalfish, pouting and pollack. When used live, the bigger specimens can be hooked lightly through the tail, either alone or in groups of two or three, so that they can move about in the water. They have been known to take bigger pollack and bass when presented like this.
If any of you collect old angling books, as I do, they all tell us that shrimps or prawns of whatever size were a favourite bass bait in the past.
COOKING AND HOOKING
USING UNCOOKED SHRIMPS
How many of you have looked at anemones clinging to rocks and thought they look rather attractive? I bet there aren't many of you who have considered putting one on your hook.
They have been given some rather unflattering names, such as parp, suker and gumboils. Here I'm interested in the small beadlet anemones found clinging to rocks at low tide.
There are about a dozen species found around our shoreline and the beadlet is the most widespread. In a bid to camouflage themselves against the rocks their basic colours are red and green, although you might see variations with yellow stripes and dots. These two colours of anemone are the ones used as fishing bait.
The red one is the most obvious to see and is found inhabiting the ground further up the shoreline, while the yellow version tends to be a bit harder to spot and inhabits the lower shore. If you see them in rock pools you might find them with their tentacles extended, which they use either to sting prey or to fight off other anemones.
The only fish known to actively feed on them are certain species of blennies that inhabit rock pools, but the usually marauding crabs steer clear of them.
If you have not heard of them, try asking some of the older generation of anglers because they were a popular bait in the days when there were plenty of cod.
They were widely used on the commercial longlines as a cod bait off the North East coast many decades ago. I can remember seeing lots of them in the stomach contents of cod after a good north-easterly sea had washed them off the rocks, so the cod obviously feed on them at certain times.
I remember, albeit rather reluctantly at the behest of an older angler, using the ones out of a cod's stomach as bait but I have no recollection of actually catching anything.
It seems anemones must have been a popular and successful bait because a lot of the older anglers and retired commercial fishermen in the North East remember using them.
There are varied accounts of how these were used in the past. Some left them in a bucket for a few days to go ripe and then used them from the rock edges when trying for cod out of the weed beds. Others say that you should tie several onto a hook to make one big bait, or use one or two smaller ones to tip off a worm bait.
Several older anglers revealed that the best method was to use the smaller red ones, and/or sections of the bigger yellow ones in conjunction with a big mussel bait.
They tied it all onto the hook – they used wool at the time because there was no elastic thread then - and tipped this with a bit of tougher parp and, in the depths of an old angler's memories, cod were virtually guaranteed.
When anemones are found in a fish's stomach they resemble a small doughnut because the inner soft tissue, where the tentacles and stomach of the anemone should be, have gone.
Perhaps they are washed out in heavy seas rather than being digested by the fish, so I assume that the main tougher outer body of an anemone is the more edible part.
There is no reason why they should not catch fish now, but I doubt there is a single angler who would use these as bait today, never mind risking ridicule by actually being seen doing so.
Whether they will take any fish other than cod from the north-east shoreline is unknown. However, as with any unusual bait, a bit of experimentation is required to find out if they are actually productive in a particular area.
I can see the attraction of mixing them with mussel baits and there is the possibility of using them in a peeler crab cocktail, but you might have to wait a long time in today's relatively cod-free seas to catch a cod on parp by itself.
If anyone knows any different I will be willing to be re-educated, but in the meantime I am going to try some small pieces on tiny Aberdeen hooks to see if any flatfish species will take them. I might just try some in bigger cocktail baits this coming winter.
How to prepare your parp bait
Preparing them seems easy. I cut a few from the rocks with a sharp knife, slice them in half and tie a few onto a hook. They are surprisingly tough and juicy. Despite having tentacles that sting their prey they will not sting you, the tentacles just feel sticky, so don't worry about picking them up. I found a few bigger ones that I them into sections to make a cocktail bait with mussels and, I have to say, it looked quite attractive.
Old-timers say the smaller red anemones, and/or sections of the bigger yellow ones should be used with a big mussel bait.
Being one of the most abundant species in the seas, sandeels are a very important food for many species of fish, birds and other marine animals, and more or less hold the marine food chain together.
Just about everything that swims in the sea will feed on these silver fish at some time during its life, and some species are entirely dependent upon them. They have been fished for commercially for many years in the North Sea and are pulped and then used for fertiliser or fish food for salmon farms, among other uses.
This year sandeel numbers in the North Sea are estimated at only 150 billion fish, which is way below critical levels to sustain any fishery.
The North Sea sandeel fishery was expected to be closed indefinitely within weeks of writing this (September 2007) and the Danish fishery has already ceased. This is good news for the many species of birds that feed on sandeels, some of which have been in severe decline due to a shortage of the eels. Obviously any fish species that feeds on sandeels will now have a better chance of survival.
There are several species present around the British Isles, including Raitt's sandeel (lesser sandeel), Corbin's sandeel, and the greater sandeel (launce) that features on the British rod-caught mini-species record list at just over 8oz.
Collecting, buying and storage
Live specimens are usually difficult to obtain, and are usually caught by accident on small lures, although there are areas where very small lures can take them in numbers. They are keenly collected for bait and either used immediately or frozen for later use. The bigger specimens, or launce, are often hooked on mackerel gear.
Sandeels can be collected by digging on a sandy beach. In areas where they exist in numbers, a special tool known as a vingler can be used to collect them. This is a long-handled rod with a curve at the end, which is drawn through the sand. Individual eels are then caught in the inner bend and extracted.
They can be kept alive for a few hours in a bucket of seawater, and a bit longer in cool, aerated water, but it is difficult to keep them alive for more than a day or so. A wooden container with holes in it – known as a courge – can be used to keep them alive while you are fishing. Alternatively, you can use a wicker basket that allows oxygenated water to pass through, but stops the sandeels from getting out. The container is then hung over the side of the boat or pier.
The good news is that there are some companies that catch and blast freeze sandeels for use as bait, and most anglers will be very familiar with vacuum-packed frozen sandeels. The even better news is that frozen sandeels often outfish fresh ones. The frozen eels should be kept in a small cool box with freezer blocks and used selectively as the fishing session progresses, or they can be removed from their wrapper and stored in a vacuum flask. Once defrosted they are surprisingly tough, but will eventually become soft if not used within a few hours. Treat them well and they won't let you down.
Where to fish
Sandeels like highly-oxygenated water and will be present in large numbers along the surf line, in strong tidal flows, and around sandbanks, where water movement adds oxygen to the water.
Predatory fish that favour this type of ground, particularly turbot and bass, will take a sandeel bait, and the thrill of catching one on a live sandeel is a great experience.
Similarly, a rocky outcrop or reef that has a good tidal movement will have its resident bass, pollack or coalfish eagerly awaiting a passing sandeel.
The effectiveness of sandeels as a bait has long been realised, but their use depends on the size and species you expect to catch.
SMALL SANDEELS: The smaller ones, say up to 5-6in long, can be used singularly or in pairs to make a slightly bigger bait. The tail of the top eel overlaps the head of the lower eel, and both are secured with elastic cotton to give the effect of a much bigger bait.
LARGE SANDEELS: The bigger ones can be used either whole for bigger fish such as bass or rays, cut into two or three sections, or filleted into strips by running a sharp knife down the flanks. The full-length strips are cut into a bait to either freeline or troll for bass or pollack, floatfish for various species, or cut into smaller strips to tip off a worm bait to pick out the bigger whiting, pouting or flounders. Winter flounders seem to like a worm bait tipped off with
a sandeel, rather than mackerel.
SECTIONS: A small, thick body section from a bigger eel makes a cocktail bait for bass, rays, congers and various dogfish. A body section around 6in long, either whole or with the backbone removed, is threaded up a wide-gape hook exactly as if you were baiting with a big worm. It is secured with elastic cotton and finished with either squid, ragworms or a chunk of mackerel.
FLOATFISHING: Smaller eels can be used for floatfishing; a strong hook such as a size 2/0 Mustad Viking will handle a bigger pollack or bass. The eel is hooked once through the upper lip or eye socket. Fish as light as possible to give the eel a more natural movement.
FREELINING/TROLLING: Use when fishing from the shore or boat. The smaller eels can be hooked through the top lip with a single hook. Bigger ones can either be lightly lip-hooked, or held on a Pennell rig for more security and to give a greater chance of hooking a bigger fish. To do this, pass a hook through the top of the middle body and then push a Pennell hook through the upper lip. The trace line can be passed through the gill opening and out of the mouth first before the Pennell hook is used. Securing with elastic cotton makes casting them out a lot easier.
FLAPPER: Bigger eels can be used as a flapper on a long trace when boat fishing. The backbone is exposed and removed by running a sharp knife along each side. This bait has a lot more movement to it, as well as giving off a scent trail. As with shore fishing, use just enough lead to get to the bottom and overcome tidal movement. That way the bait will look more appealing.
Sandeels are very fast swimmers, so when you are trolling or freelining you need to retrieve quickly. A fast-retrieved bait – often retrieved a lot faster than you think would be necessary – will often outfish a much slower bait.
Found in huge numbers in some locations, cockles are an important food source for several wading birds, crabs, shrimps, and flatfish, particularly flounders.
The cockle is a widespread bivalve mollusc that is usually found on sandy and muddy estuary ground or sheltered harbours and beaches where they burrow just a few centimetres down.
Wherever they are found they are usually easily collectible. They have been a human food source for many centuries and are traditionally collected by hand raking. Fears of over-exploitation, like dredging, has resulted in legislation limiting their collection to hand methods only in Scotland and parts of England and Wales.
Shells show prominent ribs, usually numbering around 22 to 28, with concentric growth lines crossing them.
General colour of the outer shell is off white, yellowish or brown, and the smooth inner shell is white. They can live for up to nine years and feed by siphoning particles out of the water.
There are several species found around the British Isles, but he most abundant is the common cockle (Cerastoderma edule), a big specimen around 5cm in diameter.
They are unmistakable and easy to collect, yet seem to be rarely used for bait, although I rate them highly because they are an outstanding bait to tip off worms when fishing for cod.
The cockle is also extremely effective for flounders, dabs and smaller species that can be targeted using hook sizes between a size 4 and a 1/0.
There are a few locations close to where I live where I can collect them by hand, taking my time to pick out the bigger ones. They are never present in the huge numbers that exist elsewhere, I can sometimes rake a lot together and then pick out the bigger ones.
Cockles tend to work best as bait on the clean ground beaches when a heavy sea is dying down, because this is when they are going to get washed out and any fish will be expecting to find them.
A rag and lug cocktail tipped off with several cockles is a superb bait for cod on one of my favourite beaches.
They are also effective at most other times when fishing from either piers or beaches, particularly when flatfish can be expected. They can be either used in conjunction with a worm cocktail or just by themselves.
When flatfish, pouting and other smaller species are expected, three or four cockles tied onto a size 1 or 2 Aberdeen will produce some good results.
I have also had some success fishing for coalfish with a ragworm tipped with cockle, and with just cockle by itself. A crab bait mixed with cockle can be very productive for smaller cod and coalfish.
A multi-hook rig used with light tackle, such as a carp rod, and baited just with cockle can be effective when scratching about when sport is poor.
By holding the rod and just twitching the bait gently by reeling in, gives some movement to the bait, and also causes a plume of sand along the bottom, which will induce a curious flounder in particular to take it.
Twenty or 30 bigger specimens are usually enough for a decent session when using them with other baits.
If I have time, I will open them before I go fishing and dry them out a little on some newspaper. If not I will open them when fishing, either by inserting a knife into the shell and then twisting it open or just by cracking the shell open by hitting it on the ground or a rock.
The soft body of the cockle is quite small in relation to the size of the shell, so quite a lot will usually be needed for a longer session when using multi-hook rigs. They are usually only used as a cocktail addition when fishing with other baits, or when fishing with small hooks for smaller species.
Imagine going fishing with only cockles for a decent session of several hours, you would need a few big buckets full and then plenty of time to prepare them as you fish. Fortunately they are easily frozen and a fist-sized lump of them in a freezer bag, together with some fresh ones, should last most fishing situations.
If you want to freeze them they should be prepared in the same manner as most other frozen baits.
You can either take your time to open fresh ones individually with a knife or by breaking them open, or for a quicker result you can blanche them for a minute or so first by pouring hot or boiling water over them.
This will open the shells and removing the soft inner part of the cockle will be much easier. I prefer to open them fresh because I think the hot water washes out a lot of the fish-attracting juices. Lay them out on some newspaper as you go to dry them a little. When there are about 20 to 30 bigger ones ready, transfer them to a metal tray in the freezer for an hour, then move them in suitable amounts into a freezer bag.
Because of their relatively small size, cockles can be fiddly to mount on a hook and it would be almost impossible to make a really big bait out of them.
Other shellfish, such as razor clam, are a more obvious choice for a bigger bait.
I have managed to thread several cockles up the shank of a size 4/0 Aberdeen hook to tip off a worm bait, and then tied them on with elastic cotton to make a very attractive bait for bigger species, such as cod or bass. It is worth the effort and patience as there will be times when tipping off a bait with cockles will produce a lot more fish than just a worm.
Did you know there are at least four different names for the clam? Depending on where you live, it could be called a gaper, soft, sand or steamer along with other countless local variations. It is another shellfish that doesn't seem to be widely used even though it is common along most sandy/muddy shorelines.
The bigger, very fast growing specimens reach 150mm long and can live for up to 28 years. Smaller specimens are generally found in the upper regions of the shoreline and the bigger ones lower down towards the extremes of big low tides.
They can burrow up to around 50cm deep and are easy to dig. Most anglers who dig their own bait come across them by accident, but they are easy to identify having a cream/grey/black colour and ovoid shape with the feeding siphon protruding at one end.
Like razorfish, they feed through a siphon tube that can extend up to 40cm in the bigger specimens. They can be found in large colonies in some estuaries and, like razorfish, can often be found by their tell-tale key-shaped or round hole found on the surface.
To dig them you first need to find any tell-tale hole or depression in the ground. A spit or trenching shovel will be a lot more effective than a fork for this type of work.
Start by digging a hole around 40cm deep alongside the surface hole and then cut away the ground where the hole is to follow the exposed burrow down to the clam. With a bit of practice you should be able to uncover the clam very quickly with little effort as they rarely burrow very deep.
WHY AND WHEN CLAMS WORK
Clams are excellent bait for winter cod, both from the shore and boat. They used to be one of my favourite winter baits, only recently surpassed by the increasing availability of razorfish in my area.
I still use them a lot and tend to use shellfish baits a lot more than other local anglers. When I was younger my biggest cod of nearly 8lb was caught on a single big clam and it was many years before I beat that fish, so the humble clam is a top cod bait for me.
The problem is that several other baits can also outfish everything else. So the trick is to choose the right time to use a particular bait type rather than taking a lot of different baits with you, which can be expensive.
Like most shellfish, the clam tends to fish best after a good heavy sea or in heavy surf when fish will be hunting the surf line for washed out, smashed up natural food. Here on the North East coast clams are seen as a hard weather bait, only used in severe conditions when most fish don't seem to be feeding on the more obvious worm or crab baits. I use clams as part of a cocktail bait together with lug and rag, but occasionally use them on their own.
HOW TO PREPARE THE BAIT
A clam is easy to open with the edge of a knife or pair of scissors. The body is usually quite big and full, so together with the siphon will make a single big juicy bait or several smaller ones.
The clam is scooped out of the shell in one go with a simple cutting movement of a knife or can be broken open by tapping the shell on a hard surface.
Cut away the siphon part from the main body and remove the brown membrane, then cut the siphon lengthways down the middle into two halves. Tip off a worm bait with each half to make a bigger bait. When using smaller baits the siphon can be cut in half, then each half cut down its centre to get a total of four baits.
The softer body can be cut up to make smaller baits and is effective for flatfish, particularly flounders. You will have to bind this soft bait on the hook with elastic cotton.
The tough lip or skirt of the clam that runs along the inside of the shell can be used to tip off another bait. Just hooking a strip of this through the top can make a bait look very attractive, especially for smaller species.
Keep clams alive in a bucket of aerated water for several days, but you can freeze them for later use. They are easy to freeze and I leave them in their shell.
Give them a quick rinse in fresh water, dry them out on some paper, then lightly wrap them in cling film and freeze in the usual way by placing them on a metal tray in the freezer.
If you want to make them last then take them out of their shell first and freeze them cut in suitable sizes. They go from freezer to beach in a wide-mouthed flask, any unused ones going back in the freezer.
I have found it deadly for cod, bass, flatties and whiting.
STEP BY STEP GUIDE TO USING A CLAM
With more legs than a chorus line and brainier than most contestants in the Big Brother house, squid, cuttlefish and octopus are possibly the weirdest inverts on the planet. These cephalopods (it means “head-footed”) all have well-developed heads, large eyes and beaklike jaws, and the larger species of octopus are the Masterminds of the invertebrate world.
Squid are voracious predators that prefer to hunt over clean sand or mud, and they are more abundant around our shores than you might think. The common squid (Loligo vulgaris) grows to around 50cm, the long-finned squid (Loligo forbesii) gets to 80cm, whereas the little squid (Alloteuthis media) struggles to get much beyond the 20cm mark.
OVER THE COUNTER
Calamari squid (sold for human consumption) is a most under-rated shore bait here in the North East, although boat anglers swear by it for big cod or bass. Public demand for ever-more exotic food means you can usually find it on the fish counter of supermarkets, or you might like to check out buying it in bulk over the internet.
In winter, numbers of smaller squid sometimes mingle with the sprat shoals off the North East coast. When this happens, the cod and whiting will be feeding on nothing else. It takes a good heavy sea to disperse them and bring the cod inshore in search of other food items. An obvious bait squid may be at such times, but few anglers seem to cotton on to it.
TIME FOR COCKTAILS
I am a recent convert, if only because I refuse to waste quality worm or crab baits on winter whiting when I can bulk up the hook bait with squid. Inshore cod, if they are around, will also wolf down a cocktail of squid tipped with a worm, razorfish, mussel or mackerel, and they are equally partial to large whole squid baits.
I always play safe and when going for whiting with smaller hooks I make sure they are strong ones, just in case something more substantial comes along.
My local tackle shop sells frozen baby squid no more than a few inches long, known as ‘squiddly diddlies’ or party squid. These can be fished solo, in multiples, or as a worm/squid cocktail.
Boat anglers uptiding for winter cod in the Teesbay area have taken several 20lb-plus specimens in recent years on party squid. Come February and March, when the spawning cod move inshore, I put in some serious effort with a big squid bait. I tie the last few squid on to the hook, then slide a top Pennell ook down the trace to push them into a nice compact shape.
Presentation, as always, is key. A tentacle from a baby squid is just the right size to add zing to a small worm bait for flatties or whiting, but it’s a fiddly process mounting it. Supermarketbought squid tend to be that bit bigger and easier to manage.
Tip off a cocktail bait with a tough tentacle or a strip cut from the mantle and it will wave alluringly in the tide and ensure your worms stay on the hook. The possibilities are endless.
For example, whole squid are used for conger and various ray species in some parts of the country. I have even had some success float-fishing squid strip and larger tentacles for Pollack at rock marks in South West Scotland.
Tough squid is, and tough it needs to be after multiple hits from these greedy little denizens.
KEEP IT SWEET
Dabs will sometimes take an old, smelly squid, but other than that it is essential that your baits are fresh, or at least freshly frozen. The baby squid I use seem to have been frozen individually, so they separate easily straight from the freezer and I can take just enough for one session, rather than hump along a huge block and wait for it to defrost. It is a waste of time re-freezing squid or any pre-frozen baits, for that matter, so discard any leftovers after your trip and you won’t be tempted to do it.
Supermarkets and fishmongers also sell fresh squid on ice. These may or may not have been frozen and defrosted, so it is safest to assume the worst. You can tell a fresh squid by the thin, purplish membrane covering the body. If it’s not there, chances are the bait has come out of the freezer and been refreshed.
It’s time squid came out of the shadows. It’s a cheap, tough and dependable bait and you might even develop a taste for it yourself.
When you are fishing store your squid in a cool bag or box to keep them in top condition.
If you have not read the first part to the lugworm mini-series, click here.
Why are blow lug much easier to dig? Because they are more common for a start and inhabit a wider area of any beach.
They also live closer to the surface and can be found in quite dense colonies so trench digging them with a flat-tined potato fork can be very particularly productive.
As with black lug I keep them in shallow trays and if there is not enough room in the fridge they are usually quite happy just placed on the floor in the garage and covered with something suitable to keep them in the dark.
I believe that keeping worms in the dark makes them last longer, probably because there isn't any light at the bottom of a lugworm burrow.
Blow lug will generally last longer than blacks and rather than keep them for more than a few weeks, after which they become washed out and look like bloated sausages with flimsy tails, I freeze them.
This is done by drying them out on newspaper, putting about 20 into a sandwich bag with salt in the bottom, and then shaking them until they are covered in salt. After sealing the sandwich bag I place it on a metal tray in the freezer to speed up the freezing process and, once frozen, place the bag into a plastic container with holes in the lid.
They are not the best bait to freeze because the salt creates some liquid in the bottom of the bag, which is why I keep them in a plastic container in case the bag leaks.
They don't remain in good condition for long and if I haven't used them within a few weeks I throw them out regarding them as a top up bait.
When preparing blow lug for a session I place several handfuls of worms onto sheets of newspaper laid in the bottom of a bucket where they will stay healthy.
Black lug need more care because often you pick them up and they burst. I place just two or three onto individual sheets of a paper hand towel and layer these into a small container that fits inside my bucket.
I try to work out how many worms I expect to use and never take any more than this because I try not to disturb them in their trays. I have put plenty of effort into getting them so I am not going to waste them by causing them to burst and having to freeze them.
They are still a very effective frozen bait so I haven't really wasted them as such, but I still like to use fresh bait when possible. However, I definitely do not like wasting them on whiting, which exist in almost plague proportions along my local shoreline in winter.
So if conditions only look suitable for whiting with perhaps an opportunity for cod I will only take half a dozen black lug with me and use these usually over high water, or whenever I think the chances of hooking a cod are best.
LUGWORMS: THE CLASSIC COD BAIT
There are times when a foraging winter cod will look at nothing else but a bunch of lugworms. At other times they will account for most species and are particularly effective for whiting and various flatfish.
The classic North East bait of one or two big runnidowns tipped off with a white ragworm or clam is hard to beat and has accounted for many cod over the years.
Black lug are seen as a far superior cod bait and even a single big worm will take cod.
I have tried this on a my local beaches to see if it works and, although a hooked single worm looks small, it has still accounted for plenty of cod over the years.
This is not the big-mouthed cod bait that most anglers are familiar with but it does work.
Most anglers are more confident using a big bait when fishing for large mouthed species, such as cod or bass, and if the big black worms are not available then several blow lug will be needed to form the foundation of a hook bait.
Lugworms are often best used as the basis of a cocktail tipped with a tougher bait, like squid or a piece of crab.
This should prevent the worms from sliding down the hook shank into a messy blob, although this usually only happens with blow lug as the black ones are a lot tougher.
If you are fishing for whiting use a small sliver of mackerel or squid and, if necessary, tie the bait onto the hook. If chasing cod go for a bigger section of squid, clam or peeler crab, again tied with elastic thread.
When it comes to hook choice, I go for the classic Aberdeen made from thicker wire, even in small sizes for whiting or flatties, just in case something unexpectedly bigger comes along.
With the exception of fishing over the heaviest rocks or thick kelp beds I always use a Pennell rig armed with a size 4/0 Aberdeen and a 4/0 Viking, which should be strong enough for average size fish.
Even when using smaller hooks for whiting or flatties I will still use a tandem Pennell rig comprising 1/0 to 2/0 Limerick hooks. It may look a light outfit but it will hold a decent surprise cod.
Hooking several smaller lugworms together to form a bigger bait works and I don't think it matters what end of the body you hook them through first, as long as the finished product becomes one big juicy bait.
If using just one or two or a big black lugworm I always hook it or them through the tail first as this means that the juicy body part is at the hook point, assuming that the fish will prefer the body part rather than a tail end, and find my hook!
Lugworms could help cancer patients recover
Scientists have long recognised the need for an efficient, non-toxic, oxygen carrying protein molecule, which could have medical benefits.
Professor Peter Olive and his research team at Newcastle University have identified how oxygen-rich blood extracted from lugworms could help the recovery of cancer patients, stroke sufferers and accident victims. The research team is now among the world leaders in producing the worms and last year they bred 200 million of them for fish food and commercial use, such as the now famous Seabait company.
Their technical knowledge will be made available to French firm, Hemarina, who will develop the use of the worm's oxygen-rich haemoglobin.
A group of five worms is about the right width to store in a wide-mouthed flask for fishing and you can get four parcels in a flask.
Where woud we be without lugworms? We take them for granted, moan like hell when the tackle shop hasn't got any and probably waste more than we use. Steve Walker looks into their lifestyle and explains how to collect and care for black lugworms.
Sea anglers have known for years that not all lugworms look alike, that they inhabit different types of ground and that there are surely more than one species.
Swansea University researchers uncovered the fact that black lug is a different species to blow lug, and having attended a lecture at the Dove Marine Laboratory at Tyneside I found out there at least two more types of lug living around our shoreline.
You know what lugworms look like but did you know the thicker thoracic part of the body has bristles (chaetae), the last 13 segments of which also have feathery gills, and the much thinner tail end or abdominal part has no bristles or gills.
Actual genetic differences between blows and blacks may be difficult to spot, but anglers can usually tell them apart by their different colour, size and the different type of casts they make.
Black lug can grow to 40cm or more and, as their name suggests, they are a dark colour, varying from an almost black, very dark green, to a more recognisable mid-green, to a dark brown.
The cast is usually a neat coil resembling a rolled up hosepipe, but sometimes it is just a small blob that is difficult to see. Black lug are often found at the lowest reaches of a low tide and can burrow to considerable depths.
When handled they will leave a yellow stain on the fingers. They are not as common as blow lug and are difficult to dig because they are only usually available on bigger low tides.
Blow lug are much smaller, rarely exceeding 20cm, their casts are often a large squiggly mess, accompanied by a round depression in the sand created while feeding in their u-shaped burrow.
Black lug casts don't have this depression because they live much deeper in a j-shaped burrow possibly using a different feeding method.
Blow lug are more likely to be found on the upper and middle reaches of a beach and are more likely to be a pink, reddish-yellow colour, although in some places blow lug actually look black.
They are generally easy to dig because they inhabit most of the beach and don't burrow very deep. Large colonies of immature blow lug congregate in nursery areas usually at the top of a beach, but immature black lug have never knowingly been found and it may be that they live below the low tide mark.
To confuse matters lugworms are also known as yellowtail or browntail, which also leave a yellow stain on the fingers. This has a cast somewhere between the blow and black lug, which is often not quite as neat as the black lug, but also not quite as messy as the blow lug. This worm tends to live in the middle regions of a beach and may be an almost mature black lug or a different species.
This is just interesting biology because whatever worms you either dig or buy will catch fish, so I am just going to stick to calling them black and blow lug.
Blow lug are normally available from tackle shops because they are more readily available and easier to dig. Black lug, or runnidown as they are known in the North East, are more difficult to get, and are usually only available from tackle shops by special order; don't be surprised to pay £5 or more for ten.
Digging for victory - your simple guide to how it’s done…
Digging your own bait is relatively easy once you have found the worm beds, but it depends on the ground they inhabit. Black lug are usually dug on big spring low tides and are usually lifted one at a time, although occasionally you may be able to trench two or three out of a single hole before moving to find another cast.
Because of the depth at which they go to, a trenching spade or spit is a better tool to use than a fork. Find a suitable cast on a bit of dry beach and then dig alongside the cast.
Carefully dig away the cast to reveal the hole left by the worm and then dig down deeply again in the first hole to repeat the process and follow the wormhole down until the tail is exposed.
When you get to this stage, dig the worm out in one go if possible. If it is difficult to find the tail section, then you will have to thrust your hand down into the wet sand, grab hold of the tail, then carefully work it free.
If the sand is heavily rippled and holding water then you will need to dig a drainage hole somewhere away from the cast to drain surface water away from where you want to dig. If the beach is heavily waterlogged and the worms are deep, then digging could be difficult and the rewards few.
You could use a bait pump to extract worms from a roughly straight burrow, but it takes a bit of practice to get it right. Anglers pumping for the first time make the mistake of pumping down to the worm and, as a result, cut it in half. You should keep the pump just a few inches below the surrounding surface and suck the worm upwards. Pumping tends to be more effective when the ground is wet because this improves suction. Sometimes it is necessary to pour more water down the hole to increase suction.
Now your freshly dug lugworms need some intensive care…
Whether they are dug or pumped a lot of worms will blow their guts when exposed and they need a lot of attention to keep them in good condition.
You will need two buckets to do the job properly; a larger main bucket and a smaller one that fits inside to hold the damaged worms.
Blown worms can either be used immediately, just wrap them up in newspaper ready for fishing or freeze them for later use.
For freezing I give the worms a quick wash in fresh sea water then dry them out for a few minutes on some thick absorbent paper towels. I then wrap them up in tissue paper, which soaks up any remaining body fluids and place them on a metal tray in the freezer until they have frozen properly.
Finally wrap them up five at a time in cling film and place four parcels of five worms into a sealed sandwich bag. A group of five is just about right to store in a wide mouthed flask to take fishing and I can usually manage to get around four parcels of them into a single flask.
I keep worms in shallow trays in a fridge, taking care not to overcrowd them. I change the water once a day, just a few millimetres is all that's needed, and keep a careful watch on them, removing and freezing any that look a bit worse for wear.
If a worm bursts and you get to it too late all of the other worms will quickly do the same, which is why some anglers prefer to gut the worms prior to freezing by squeezing out all of the body contents. When defrosted they look like a tough stick of liquorice. I prefer to keep all of the guts in because it holds all the scent.
The best places to dig are often those most sheltered from a prevailing wind and sea, such as an estuary.
For information on preparing, preserving and presenting lugworm baits, click here.
A crab is ready to peel when it has just started to blow off its outer shell. You will see a crack along the side of its body where the upper carapace is parting away the lower body section to reveal the softer tissue that is located underneath.
If you are not sure, then break off a crab’s leg segment because the softer flesh underneath will be perfectly formed and solid but still soft.; this crab is the perfect hook bait.
The next step happens very quickly and this is when the top shell lifts right off the soft under-body and is hinged at the eye sockets. The crab is said to have popped and is in the process of extracting itself by moving backwards out of the old hard shell.
At this point it is also in perfect bait condition, but it won't stay like this for long because the new soft shell will quickly start to harden, so it should be used either immediately for bait or frozen for later use.
It is possible to speed up or slow down this process by regulating the amount of water a crab drinks and the amount of time that it is in it. The less amount of water and time spent in it, the longer the whole peeling process takes. Be aware that there is the danger of the crab dying because it still needs a regular supply of seawater and needs to be kept damp to survive.
You can also slow down the process by lowering the temperature in the fridge. For this, you will need to keep a thermometer in the fridge so you can check the temperature on a regular basis to make sure it is constant and a few degrees above freezing.
On at least a couple of occasions I have lowered the temperature setting too far and the fridge compartment has frozen solid along with the crabs. This is not quite the disaster it sounds because shore crabs are very hardy and can withstand extremes of temperature, but only for short periods.
Give a crab more water and the process speeds up as it takes in water to blow off the hard shell, but again you need to check them regularly so you can sort the softies for hook baits.
You can also speed this process up considerably by putting the crabs in a bucket of relatively warmer oxygenated water fed by an air pump, but you practically need to stand and watch them as the peeling process for advanced crabs can take just a few minutes. You are looking for crabs that have not quite got rid of their old shell.
More experienced match anglers regulate their supply of crabs so that they are in perfect condition for match day, but it takes a lot of practice. The average angler will probably be happy enough to look after them by making sure that they stay in a damp cool environment, checking regularly, and when they are ready, peel and freeze them for future use.
Undressing a crab
Let’s assume you have a crab ready to peel or that has already popped and you have caught it in time before it starts to harden to what we call a crinkleback.
You will need to remove all of the remaining shell before using it as bait. Kill the crab by piercing it between the eye sockets with a suitable tool. Carefully break off each leg and claws at the first segment next to the body, so that the whole thing comes free, leaving each last softer leg segment attached to the body. Remove the top shell, followed by the side shells and then remove the shell from underneath around the leg sockets. Now pull the shell free from the abdomen flap.
There will probably be some translucent white shell tissue remaining in between the lower body leg segments, so remove this using tweezers, if necessary, and then completely remove the eye socket and mouth assembly. Finally, by pulling apart each side of the soft body you will reveal the crab's lungs still attached at each side. Carefully remove all of this material and the crab should now be free of shell and ready for use.
The legs can also be used for bait. By pulling each leg segment free, starting from the pointed end, the whole leg can be extracted segment by segment. This is a good way of telling if the crab was ready to peel in the first place because the legs should be easy to extract. If not then you have probably peeled the crab slightly too early.
If you are freezing crabs that have already popped and become softies, all you need to do is remove the new lung tissue.
Frozen crabs should be treated it as if it were for human consumption. Do not use crabs that have died naturally because as soon as a crab dies its tissue starts to break down and produces toxins, which fi sh can easily detect.
The crab needs to be frozen as quickly as possible and, unless you have access to liquid nitrogen, then here’s the method I use. Rinse the crabs in fresh tap water and place on strong tissue paper to dry them out for a few minutes. Then place each crab, complete with peeled legs, on a sheet of metal, such as a biscuit tin lid, which has been in the freezer a couple of hours. This speeds up the process.
Then tightly wrap each semi-frozen crab in some cling film or tin foil, but do not overdo it. The crab needs to be frozen not insulated.
Place it back on the metal tray until properly frozen and then wrap a dozen or so in a sandwich bag.
Don't put too many crabs together in the same bag because this produces an insulating effect. Make sure you suck the air out of a sandwich bag using a drinking straw before properly sealing it to avoid the same effect. Store the frozen bait in the bottom of the freezer.
How to present a crab bait the fish can't refuse
Crabs are fished on a short-shank hook, which improves presentation and stops the crab bait from sliding down the shank of the hook.
Some long-shank Aberdeen and worm hooks have barbs on the shank to prevent this happening. If you are using a cocktail of a crab and a worm you may need a hook with a longer shank.
The Mustad Viking is the classic crab hook for bigger species, such as cod and bass, while the smaller Limerick hook is ideal for smaller species, such as flounders and eels.
There are several ways to bait with a crab. A whole crab, say two to three inches across the back, will make an ideal big bait for bass and cod. It can be mounted whole on the hook by pushing the hook through the back of the crab’s body and out through one of the front leg sockets. Secure the bait with elastic thread, adding a few crab's legs to make the whole thing look more natural.
Using a whole crab retains a lot of fish-attracting juices so you will have to release them by piercing the bait with a pointed knife to allow the scent to leach out slowly.
For a really juicy bait that releases scent in a quick initial burst, simply cut the crab into two halves and mount both of them on the hook the same way by passing the hook point out through a leg socket and then securing with bait elastic.
A big crab can be cut into several pieces to attract smaller species, but remember to scale down the size of your hook to match bait and fish. A size 2 Limerick with half a section of a crab around an inch across, plus a few peeled legs, is a fine bait for flounders and eels.
If you don't have any big crabs available then several smaller ones can be combined to produce larger baits. Use a minimum amount of elastic thread to secure the bait because the presentation of a crab bait is very important.
If you are fishing in rivers or estuaries where short gentle casting is required then don't use thread, but use several leg sockets to lock the bait on the hook.
1. Pass the hook through the rear body of the whole crab
2. Then twist the hook and push it through a leg socket
3. Secure with a minimal amount of bait elastic
4. A nice juicy finished peeler crab bait. What fish could resist?
Don't waste those legs and claws - here's how to peel them
1. Twist and snap off top nipper, then extract the soft claw
2. Pull to reveal next segment, then twist and pull to reveal the next
3. A complete soft claw with the detached hard shell segments
4. A completely peeled crab and peeled legs and claws ready to use
When sport is expected to be fast, some anglers often only use frozen crabs because peeling enough to constantly feed a two or three hook rig is far too time consuming.
Frozen crabs tend to wash out slightly quicker than fresh, but are no less successful because sometimes a quick release of juices can produce bites quicker when the fish are feeding hard.
It is usually a good idea to take frozen and fresh crabs, just in case the fishing suddenly speeds up. If a retrieved bait is reasonably intact, quickly tipping it off with half of a frozen crab and cast out again. This can produce a bonus fish in the time it can take to clean the hook and re-bait.
A peeler crabs is the only bait to use for cod during the summer along the North East coast, where the red-backed fish feed in the kelp beds. They are rarely taken on any other bait. Coalfish, pollack, and wrasse are the other main species here and again crab is the top bait.
Crabs work well into October and November, then the fish tend to switch to worms, but crabs will still take some fish right through the winter.
Crabs are the foundation of any cocktail bait, especially where cod or bass are concerned. The classic crab and mussels cocktail is a killer, with the mussels helping to bulk out the crab if it is in short supply. Lugworms, ragworms, white rag and razorfish are all very effective winter baits. Small worms tipped off with a few peeler crab legs can often produce big bags of dabs and flounders from local piers.
Peeler crabs are a must for most match anglers...for everyone else they are an enigma, being misunderstood and rarely used. They are certainly not a license to catch fish and there are times when worms are a better hook bait. Along my local North East coast peelers are seen as the top bait for cod and coalfish most of the year and for flounders and eels during the summer, particularly for fishing estuaries and rivers.
A juicy crab will also tempt whiting, pouting and plaice. It's a good bait for dabs if mounted on a small hook; try a few peeled legs mounted as if they were worms on a small Aberdeen.
In other parts of the country the powerful scent given off by a crab will take smoothhounds, bass and rays. Wrasse are fond of crab baits and will even take a float-fished hardback.
The scientific way to measure a crab is across the back of the shell (carapace) from between the eyes to where the rear legs join. All crabs have ten legs, including the claws, and of all species the one that interests most anglers is the common shore crab (Carcinus maenas).
There are a few other species that are also of interest to anglers, such as the edible and the increasingly common velvet swimming crab, both of which make an excellent bait if they can be obtained and kept alive in cool oxygenated seawater.
Edible crabs are subject to size limits, which vary from area to area and in the north-east region it is illegal to use them for bait. There are moves to limit the collection of commons in the same area. Crabs are crustaceans, their soft body being protected by a hard outer shell, which unfortunately, for the crab, doesn't grow. Instead a soft shell forms under the old hard carapace and when the crab outgrows the old shell it discards it to reveal the new soft shell underneath.
This new shell takes time to harden, so to stay out of the way of predators it hides. If you find a crab in this soft stage it is a 'softie' and can be used for bait. However, at this stage the crab is full of water, which it uses to pump itself up before the new shell hardens.
It is far better to find a crab actually in the pre-moulting stage before the hard shell is discarded, in this condition it is a 'peeler' and is a lot more effective as bait, because it is full of natural body juices and not inflated by excess sea water.
How to harvest crabs
There are two main ways to collect crabs. You can either scour a rocky shoreline by turning over boulders and weed and searching rocky crevices. Alternatively, you can actively trap crabs by placing sections of drainpipe or old car tyres along the shoreline.
The best place to do this is in sheltered harbours or muddy estuaries where there is not too much natural cover for the crabs to hide. By placing traps in this type of environment the crabs are almost obliged to seek refuge in them because there is nowhere else to go.
They are hard work to set up, but, once installed, they can produce a regular supply of crabs throughout the summer and in some regions even in the winter. Some anglers might have several hundred traps and they are jealously guarded against thieves.
I know of some anglers who turn up just after high water where their traps are and wait for the tide to ebb just in case anyone else gets there first. The general view is that traps belong to the person who set them but the crabs belong to anyone, however, I wouldn't advise that you rob another man’s traps.
I'm happy to forage along the shoreline making sure that any rocks turned over are replaced in the original position. Make sure any weed is always left showing on the top, and not underneath a rock because it quickly turns into a smelly gooey mess, which prevents anything from seeking shelter.
Here in the northeast the main peeler period is around mid-May when the male crabs start to peel and there is usually a two-week period when the majority of them peel, which is usually triggered by water temperature and daylight hours. Either side of this period there will still be peelers available but in lesser numbers.
They tend to show in the sheltered estuaries and harbours first and then they can usually be found along the rock edges a few weeks later. So, the angler who has traps in place can have an extended season by starting off in the sheltered estuaries where his traps are and then moving onto the local rock edges later.
By the middle of June the male peelers have nearly all disappeared, but by July the females start to peel when they can often be found as 'carriers'. This is part of the reproduction process as mating can only take place shortly after the female crab has moulted.
The male crab finds a female prior to moulting and carries her around beneath his body for a number of days, and after she has moulted fertilisation occurs. The female then creates a cavity by burrowing in sand, where she lays her eggs. While positioned over this cavity, she then attaches the eggs to her legs and underneath the lower flap on her abdomen and carries them around for several months. In this state the crab is said to be berried.
If you are lucky enough to find a sandy/muddy sheltered beach on a big low tide it is often possible to pick up a great number of carried female peelers by looking for the top of the male crab buried in the sand. After the eggs hatch the larvae are planktonic for two to three years. They then settle as young crabs and reach maturity after around a year.
To quickly tell the difference between a male and female crab you need to turn the crab upside down and look at the abdomen flaps. The female flap is larger and rounder than the male, which is smaller and narrower and has a more pointed end to it.
There's a second moult
Around late August and early September the male crabs undergo a second peel and again you may find that they peel over several days.
Big low tides are prime collecting times when crabs can be found in large numbers around the lower rock edges. Not all crabs are peelers, but with a bit of practise you can tell a peeler crab from a hardback. Generally crabs collected from the open shoreline are more colourful than those gathered in an estuary, which tend to be a more uniform dirty green-grey colour.
Shoreline peelers tend to be a brighter yellow orange colour than non-peelers, which are more uniform green/yellow. It is difficult to tell peelers collected from an estuary by colour alone and the best way to tell is to gently break off the rear segment of a back leg.
This will reveal a soft new leg section underneath if it is a peeler or just some white muscular tissue if it is not. If you do this carefully it will not harm the crab as it is designed to suffer the loss of legs, a membrane quickly covers the broken off section which stops the crab from bleeding. The lost part either grows or is replaced at the next moulting stage.
Why they walk sideways
It due to the fact that it’s the way their legs bend. Muscles work in pairs and can only retract or extend, one muscle relaxes and is then pulled back by the second muscle to produce movement.
The muscle pairs in crabs are attached to the inner surface of the skeleton, including the legs and claws.
Crabs do not have ball and socket joints like us, but have legs that pivot at numerous push-in socket joints that are sealed by a flexible membrane. They can only move in one plane. Each joint on a leg, however, moves in a different plane and when co-ordinated to work together these crabs can move in all directions.
Keeping a diary will enable you to track the best times of the year and venues to collect crabs. You can also use it to track your catches, best venues and tides. Don't let your mates see it, though!
To learn more about undressing, freezing and presenting a crab bait, click here.
Common mussels are easily gathered from most rocky shorelines, sheltered harbour walls and muddy estuaries. They make excellent bait, so why don’t more anglers use them?
Many would say that they take too long to prepare for the hook and it’s easier to buy worms wrapped in paper. True, but after a little practice it is possible to clean several in the time it takes to prepare a peeler crab, which, by the way, needs just as much thought when it comes to collection, storing and preparation. Yet mussels can outfish crab baits.
The biggest problem is finding mussels that are firm and fleshy, rather than a watery thin mess that offers little to put on the hook. Being filter feeders the fatter specimens are nearly always found lower down the tidal range closer to the bottom, preferably in a muddy estuary or harbour. These are submerged longer and therefore feed for greater periods in between tides on natural food particles that live in the silt and mud.
Along the North East coast it is cod, coalfish and various flatfish that are the main species taken on mussel baits. A big, and I mean big, cocktail of a crab and mussels is a killer for cod, especially from the rock edge marks, while smaller cocktail baits are effective for coalfish.
Both species will take mussel baits but it is more usual to use it as a cocktail along with a crab, worms or other shellfish such as razorfish. Many anglers claim it is the best bulking bait. Mussels make a good visual bait; a big ball of bright, yellow-orange mussels stands out against a dark background of rock and kelp. As the bait breaks down it releases small fish-attracting particles, as well as a scent trail, that drifts downtide.
Smaller mussel baits on a size 1 or smaller hook can be deadly for dabs, especially when tipping off the bait with a tiny sliver of mackerel or squid. It will pick up the odd flounder and plaice as well. It is also a deadly bait for fishing down the side of a pier where it can lure big bags of coalfish, small codling, pouting and other species.
Never underestimate how close fish move inshore and be aware that you don’t have to cast out to the horizon to catch them. In the past when coalfish were more plentiful, anglers used to groundbait before fishing a match by crushing up a big bag of mussels and possibly adding hardback crabs as well then hanging the bait bag over the pier side. If the match was not pegged they would throw shelled mussels into their swim the day before and make sure they got up early enough the next day to claim their spot.
Being a soft bait it needs to be tied on to the hook prior to casting. You can fish close in by wrapping it around the hook, although failure to tie it on can result in small fish quickly nibbling the bait off the hook.
1. You need is a reasonably sharp knife with a rounded end, plus a bait container. Hold the mussel in one hand with the pointed end towards you and insert the knife into the shell about halfway down
2. Push the knife through to the other side of the mussel, then away from your hand towards and around the rounded end of the shell and sever the tendons holding the shell together. Now open the shell by hand
3. Scoop out meat and tougher fringes and sever remaining tendons. Once you have enough, tip onto newspaper to get rid of excess liquid. Keep in newspaper and put into a container to use, or freeze in small quantities
4. Hooking your bait is quite simple: Push the hook point through the foot end of the mussel and then up the shank of the hook…
5. Now wrap it around hook shank a few times. If you want a big bait, push it up past the hook eye onto the line, then add more mussels
6. Secure with fine elastic cotton. Don’t tie it on too tightly because the cotton will cut through the soft tissue and the mussels won’t stay on the hook
Wrap the empty shells in several carrier bags before putting them in the dustbin, otherwise after hot weather they will smell. If going bait digging or fishing the same or next day take them with you and tip them in a rock pool where small blennies and crabs pick them clean when the tide floods.