Ragworm is a generic term for one of the most effective and popular sea fishing baits. They are classed as polychaete (segmented) worms, with hundreds of species existing on a worldwide basis. There are two main types of ragworm used as bait: the larger king ragworm (Alitta virens) and the smaller common ragworm (Perinereis cultrifera), which is also known as red ragworm. Click here to read about all of the different species of ragworm which are used by anglers in the UK.
Description, Habitat and Life Cycle
King ragworm range in colour from reddish brown to black, ragworm have hundreds of small legs (parapodia) running down the side of their body which are usually yellowish in colour. They are armed with pincers that are capable of giving a painful nip to an unwary angler. King ragworm can grow in size to around 90cm (3 feet), but the average size is around 30cm (12 inches). Common ragworm are similar colours but smaller, growing to an average of around 15cm (6 inches). They also have a set of pincers in their head which can deliver a bite to anglers.
Both species are found across the vast majority of the coastline of the British Isles. They live in burrows located between the high tide and low tide points on sandy and muddy beaches, and are often found in areas which offer some form of shelter, such as coves, harbours and estuaries. They can feed in a predatory manner, consuming tiny sea creatures, but can also feed on microscopic organisms suspended in sea water and on organic plant matter. Ragworms reproduce when they are two to three years old, when they emerge from their burrows and freely swim in sea to spawn, after which they will die. Ragworms are a source of prey for a wide range of fish and wading birds, and play an important part in the marine ecosystem in many parts of the world. Ragworm also have significant commercial and economic value, see section below.
Use as Bait
The smallest ragworm that are likely to be useful as bait are likely to be around 9 to 12cm (3 to 4 inches) in length and can be hooked in bunches of several worms, whereas larger worms can be used individually as bait – see bait presentation section below. Ragworm is a top bait when targeting cod, whiting, coalfish, pollock, wrasse and all species of flatfish – in fact most fish found around the British Isles will take ragworm, and highly sought after fish such as bass can also be caught on ragworm in the right conditions. Ragworm are a tough and durable bait and a worm that has been pierced with a hook and cast out to sea is usually still wriggling when reeled back in, meaning that ragworm have a useful additional visual attraction to fish. This wriggling action means that ragworm are also an excellent choice of bait when float fishing.
Ragworm are commonly sold from fishing tackle shops and are usually available all year round. They are usually sold in packets for around £2 to £3, with the individual number of worms included varying depending on the size of the individual worms.
Tackle shops usually supply ragworms in wrapped in newspaper, with the worms themselves being in vermiculite (a natural mineral used in insulation) or sawdust. If they are kept in this packaging and placed in the fridge they will usually remain in good condition for one to two days.
Digging Your Own Ragworm
Ragworm can be found on a wide range of beaches made up of mud, sand or clay. However, it is important to check local regulations because some councils restrict digging to certain times of the year, whereas others ban bait digging altogether. Ragworm live in U-shaped burrows between the high and low water marks, so look for a pair of small holes in the sand. Stepping down near to these holes may result in a spurt of water rushing out, which is confirmation that a ragworm burrow has been located. In areas where ragworm is abundant a single footstep can result in several tell-tale spurts of water.
Once located the best course of action is to dig down between the two holes and locate the worm and carefully dig it out of its home. Many anglers prefer to use a three or four pronged garden fork rather than a spade, as this results in less cut and broken worms. Generally the smaller common ragworm will be found in greater numbers, meaning it is possible to dig a large number of these worms from a relatively small area. King ragworm do not live in such close proximity and many only be found individually. Anglers usually find a mix of both king and common ragworms during a bait digging session.
Ragworm can burrow down to depths of one metre, especially in cold and frosty weather, meaning it can take considerable physical effort to dig for this species. Always fill holes back that have been dug on the beach back in before heading for home – leaving craters on a beach looks terrible and certain beaches around the UK have seen bait digging banned due to the state anglers leave the beach in after a bait digging session. Always check ragworm prior to storing and separate any damaged or cut worms from the full ones and store these separately. Worms that are damaged will not keep for as long as those that are in good condition and the presence of dead worms will severely shorten the lifespan of live ones.
Whether ragworm have been collected or bought from a shop they will keep for several days by simply wrapping them in newspaper and placing them in the fridge at 1-2 degrees. Keeping ragworm for longer than this involves keeping them in water. Use a shallow plastic tray – a cat litter tray is ideal – and fill it with just a few millimetres of seawater and place the ragworms in (they should be partially, but not fully submerged). Cover with a large cloth which has been dampened with seawater and store the tray in the fridge. Check the worms every day and remove any dead worms. Also, change the water if it discolours. It is best to keep a supply of seawater in the fridge for water changes as the worms may die if room temperature seawater is poured over them. Ragworm kept in this way will keep for around five days to a week. Unfortunately ragworm cannot be frozen as they simply turn to mush when defrosted.
King ragworm spawn in spring. During this time the ragworm change to a greenish colour and leave the safety of their burrows and swim openly in the sea. During this time the ragworms bodies are full of a slimy green/white milky liquid which they will release when broken. The usefulness of spawning ragworm is disputed. Some books such as A Complete Guide to Fishing (1992) state: “during this [breeding] season … the worm is of very little use as bait.” However, other anglers claim that the ragworm is still a good bait when it is spawning, with some even saying it will out fish other baits. Many anglers successfully catch fish with spawning ragworm, and it stands to reason that if ragworm are swimming freely through the sea then fish will be ‘switched on’ to feeding on them, and they will therefore make a good bait.
Generally, ragworm which are six to eight inches long are the ideal size to use as single baits and can have the hook pushed through their head and then fed through their body. The hook then exits the body and leaves the tail of the worm to wriggle and attract fish. Smaller ragworm can be hooked in the same way for single baits for small flatfish, or several can be hooked at once to provide a bigger bait for fish such as cod. Small worms are also ideal to use as part of a cocktail bait. Very large king ragworm can be cut in half and used as two separate baits.
Some anglers believe there is benefit in head-hooking ragworm, leaving the vast majority of the worm to wriggle freely about in a natural manner. However, this hooking technique can lead to ragworm snapping or breaking up during the cast or breaking up when hitting the water if anything other than the gentlest casts are used. For this reason many anglers prefer to feed the hook further down the worm so that only the tail is free, as this provides a much more secure bait for casting. Be careful when baiting up with ragworm as lively ragworm can give a surprisingly painful nip with their jaws. Ragworm is commonly used as a cocktail bait and can be combined with any other sea fishing bait. Anglers often use a decent sized ragworm and tip it off with a strip of mackerel or squid. Peeler crab legs or claws can also be used to tip off ragworm baits and this combination can be deadly for cod. As stated ragworm can be an excellent float fishing bait as the wriggling tail attracts fish which are active in mid water. Pollock, wrasse and mackerel can all be tempted by float fished mackerel.
Commercial Ragworm Farming and Economic Value
With a huge number of anglers throughout the UK purchasing ragworms on a regular basis ragworms have considerable economic value. There are an estimated 3,500 tons of ragworm dug across the UK each year, equivalent to around 600 million individual worms. The trade of ragworms is worth over £8 million per year in the UK alone and ragworm sell for around £50 per kilo which compares with £4 per kilo for valuable food fish such as cod and haddock.
In the early 2000s it was announced that a large ragworm farm would be Carmarthenshire, Wales. Originally intended to consist of 270 tanks and employ over one-hundred people the farm would supply ragworms to both fishing shops and provide a sustainable source of feed to the fish farming and aquaculture industries. Over £1million of public money was provided to get the farm up and running. However, the farm was never fully completed – only seventy-four tanks were ever built – and never employed more than ten people. In 2011 the company owning the farm went into administration, and people were later arrested in a fraud inquiry over the operation and closure of the farm.
Ragworms as Food
As unusual (and unpalatable) as it may seem to UK-based anglers, ragworms are used as a source of food in some parts of the world where insect cuisine is commonly eaten. The Vietnamese dish of Cha ruoi is made by shaping ragworm, pork, egg and onion, chilli, salt and pepper into cakes and then frying them. For those with adventurous tastes the recipe is available here.