Pilchards (which are often sold as sardines, scientific name: Sardina pilchardus) are a common and commercially important fish found throughout European waters. Although they are a seldom used bait in UK sea fishing they do have some uses and can produce good results in the right situation.
Gathering Pilchards to use as Bait
Pilchards for bait are best purchased from a supermarket or fishmonger’s wet fish counter, where they are often sold under the name of sardines. They are relatively cheap with five or six usually available for around £1 or so. Only fresh pilchards are worth using as bait, as frozen or tinned pilchards are too soft to use. Sometimes sardines are sold as fresh fillets which have been washed and cleaned. These should be avoided as bait, as the washing process removes the blood and scent which attracts fish to the bait.
Pilchards Bait Presentation
Pilchards are an oily fish they will produce a strong scent trail, potentially attracting plenty of fish to the bait. However, the main drawback of pilchards is that the flesh is very soft, meaning that pilchards are liable to fly off the hooks during casting. This is particularly true if strips of pilchard are used on smallish hooks to target species under 1lb in weight. While using bait cotton such as ghost cocoon can help stop pilchard and the hook parting ways during the cast anglers looking to use a strips of fish for bait would be better off using mackerel or bluey instead.
For this reason pilchards are best used whole or in big sections to target large species. If a large hook is put through the mouth of a pilchard and out through the head it provides a strong hook hold. Pilchards can be used whole in this way to go for conger or tope, or cut in half (as the photograph shows) to target big bass and cod. Used in this way pilchards can be a very effective, underrated oily bait which can attract a range of large predatory fish. The silvery scales also act as an additional visual attractant to predatory fish, especially in shallow or clear water.
Their oily flesh also means that pilchards can be used as a groundbait to attract other species, with many anglers targeting mullet choose pilchards as one of the fish they use to attract mullet to the area where they are fishing.