With a huge amount of attention being placed on rods, reels, line and terminal tackle, it is easy to forget that the only thing fish are interested in is the bait. Many anglers will happily spend hundreds of pounds on equipment and then waste their time by going out fishing with substandard bait which has only been bought as an afterthought. Other anglers may purchase good quality bait but then fail to make the most of it by through poor bait presentation, preparation or storage. This article provides an overview of the baits used by UK sea anglers and explains how to get the most out of the wide range of different baits which are available today.
Choosing a Bait
There is a huge range of baits available to UK sea anglers today available from fishing tackle shops, fishmongers, supermarkets and by anglers collecting bait themselves.
The range of different baits means that anglers can tailor their choice of bait to the species of fish they are targeting and the conditions they are fishing in. Anglers can also use a range of different baits so they can change their bait during a fishing session if their first choice is not getting results. The following broad categories contain the most commonly used baits:
Worm Baits: Marine worms are one of the most popular types of fishing bait for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are common around all of the British Isles meaning that fish regularly feed on them, making them an effective bait. Secondly, they are relatively easy to get hold of either through fishing tackle shops or by digging worms from beaches. Finally, they are fairly straightforward to use and present on the hook. Ragworm and blow lugworm are by far the most commonly used baits by UK anglers, although there are also a number of other worm species which are used as bait such as harbour ragworm (maddies), white ragworm and black lugworm
Fish Baits: Fish baits are some of the most commonly used and effective baits. Mackerel is the most often used as its high oil content means that fish are attracted to this bait, and its relatively firm flesh makes it withstand casting and impact with the water. Mackerel can also be easily bought from supermarkets or fishmongers or caught on feathers and daylights all around the UK in the summer months. Herring is another oily fish which makes a good bait, while Pacific saury (an imported species usually sold to anglers under the name bluey) has become very popular as a bait in recent years. Sandeels are another excellent bait for a wide range of species such as bass, rays and pollock, while less common baits include sprats, pilchards, garfish and lampreys.
Squid and Related Baits: Squid has long been a top sea fishing bait. Easily available in frozen form from fishing tackle shops and fresh from fishmongers and supermarkets, the firm white flesh of squid stands up well to casting. Most species found around the British Isles can be taken on squid baits. Smaller species will be caught on small strips of squid, while larger species such as cod, big bass and conger eels will be tempted with full squid. While squid which has been washed and processed for human consumption (often sold under the name of calamari) is an effective bait many anglers prefer to use unwashed/dirty squid (often sold as loligo squid). This is because it is believed that the washing process removes some of the natural scents of the squid, meaning that unwashed/dirty squid will be a more effective bait. The closely related cuttlefish is also a good sea fishing bait, while octopus – although much less commonly used as a bait – can also catch fish.
Crab and Prawn Baits: Crab provides one of the very best sea fishing baits but they can only be used during a certain stage of their life when the shell is soft and they are known as peeler crabs. During the majority of their life cycle the shell is hard and they are much less useful as a bait – although they can still be used to catch a few species such as smooth hound and wrasse. Although they are an excellent bait peeler crabs can be difficult to obtain with fishing tackle shops only stocking them on a sporadic basis when they can get them from their suppliers. For this reason, many anglers who want to use peeler crabs as bait have to collect their own, although peeler crabs can be frozen to allow them to be stored indefinitely. Prawns do not appear to be commonly used by anglers, although they can be a good bait for a range of species such as cod, whiting and flatfish species. Prawns can be easily bought from a supermarket or fishmonger. While although it is important to check that raw (and not pre-cooked) prawns are purchased.
Shellfish Baits: As there are a range of shellfish found all around the UK fish will naturally feed on this food source, making it a useful bait. Shellfish can be particularly effective after a storm or prolonged period of bad weather which will have dislodged shellfish from rocks and fish will be feeding on this easily available food. Mussels and razorfish are the most common shellfish baits, with anglers able to collect their own or buy from a supermarket or fishmonger. Cockles, winkles, limpets and whelks can all also be used as a bait, although they are less effective as all-round sea fishing baits and are best used to bulk out cocktail baits.
Other Baits: Anglers specialising in fishing for species such as mullet can have success with baits associated with freshwater fishing such as maggots, bread and processed meat such as ham. Earthworms can also prove effective for mullet and anglers fishing far inland for species such as flounder also report that earthworms can catch this species. Some anglers have reported that experimenting with using meat such as bacon, ham, pork and chicken as bait can catch sea fish species, although using a more conventional sea fishing bait is almost always likely to prove more effective.
Cocktail Baits: Cocktail baits are simply two or more baits combined together on the same hook. An example of a large cocktail bait would be a lugworm and squid combination presented on pennell hooks to catch cod, while smaller cocktail baits could consist of tipping off a ragworm bait with a strip of mackerel as a flatfish bait. For a full article looking at cocktails baits click here.
When fishing anglers will often talk about ‘the scent trail’. This refers to the juices and blood that emanate from a bait once it is in the water and attract fish. When night fishing the scent trail is the only thing a fish can use to locate food (and therefore anglers’ baits) and even in daylight and clear water the scent trail will be an important factor in fish finding the bait. A good quality bait will leave a good scent trail for some time before becoming washed out and needing to be reeled in and replaced. By accurately casting in and around the same place a scent trail will be built up in that part of the sea, and it stands to reason that a number of anglers fishing together will leave a stronger scent trail than an angler fishing alone. Once baits have been cast out they should not be cast out a second time as the vast majority of the scent and juice will be washed out and they will provide little, or at least reduced, attraction to fish.
Buying, Gathering and Storing Bait
Fishing tackle shops are the most obvious place to start when getting bait for a fishing session. Ragworm and blow lugworm are generally available all year round. Most tackle shops also sell a range of other live/fresh bait such as peeler crabs (when available), razorfish, as mussels, as well as a selection of frozen bait such as black lugworm, mackerel, squid, blueys and sandeels. With this selection available many anglers seldom look anywhere else for their bait other than the local tackle shop.
There are other places where high-quality bait is available. Local fishmongers can supply mackerel and other oily fish such as herring as well as squid, cuttlefish and mussels, while supermarkets are becoming increasingly popular places for anglers to buy similar bait. Most anglers support their local tackle shop by making that their first choice for bait, but the supermarket or fishmonger is a great back-up if the tackle dealer is closed or out of stock. Another alternative is online bait retailers who send frozen bait out by post. These can stock a large selection of frozen baits and most have a good reputation for getting bait to anglers the next day and in great condition.
Alternatively, anglers can collect (or catch) their own bait. Ragworm and lugworm can be dug from many beaches around the UK by anglers who how to find the signs which show these species are present. Shellfish such as mussels can also be relatively easy to collect, and peeler crabs can also be collected, although it requires more skill and patience to find crabs which are in the peeler stage. Prawns can also be caught, although this takes time, and sometimes specialist equipment. Finally, mackerel (and to a lesser extent herring) can be caught on feathers and daylights around most of the British Isles over the summer months, meaning many anglers can catch their own supply of this bait, which can be frozen for future use. Although a little knowledge and effort is needed to gather bait it can be an enjoyable activity and saves money compared to getting bait from a tackle shop or supermarket. Full details on how to store, keep and freeze baits are included in the relevant section for each bait.
Fresh, Frozen or Both?
While most anglers will say fresh bait is best it is difficult to beat the convenience of having a wide range of bait at home in the freezer ready to use at short notice. Some baits, such as peeler crab, are impossible to get in winter and the only way to have this bait in the colder months is to freeze a supply in the summer for use later in the year. Other baits, such as bluey are not caught in British waters and therefore can only be used by UK anglers in frozen form. While worm baits such as ragworm and blow lugworm do not freeze well, black lugworm do, meaning that anglers can have a supply of this bait frozen and ready for use in the winter.
While frozen baits are useful, convenient and effective many anglers do not like to rely on frozen bait alone when fishing and supplement their frozen bait with at least some fresh bait. For example, a winter cod fishing session could use frozen peeler crab and squid, while also including fresh lugworm and mussels at some point in the session (or possibly combine the fresh and frozen as cocktail baits). It is also important to note that one a frozen bait has been defrosted it should not be re-frozen as during the thawing process the juices that are essential to attracting fish and building up the scent trail will have leaked out and the bait will therefore not be of the same quality when it is re-frozen.
A way around this is to store some frozen bait in a thermos flask or packed in ice in a cool box while fishing. If this bait is not used it can be returned to the freezer as it will not have been thawed out. Some companies manufacture small cool bags which are designed to store bait in, such as the one pictured above.
Today there is a range of preserved baits on the market. These preserved baits are usually vacuum packed and do not require freezing or refrigeration meaning they can be stored at room temperature. Almost any bait can be preserved with squid, mackerel fillets, sprats, prawns, sandeel, mussels and both ragworm and lugworm all commonly available. The appeal of preserved baits is clear to see – since they do not require any special storage considerations they can be kept at home until needed for fishing, and as they keep for years there are no worries about wasted or unused bait if a fishing session is called off. However, the way these baits are preserved destroys much of the natural scent and texture meaning that the catch rates of anglers using these type of baits rarely matches that of anglers using fresh or freshly defrosted bait. Despite this, there are still a few uses of preserved baits. Anglers can keep preserved bait in the tackle box and use it to make cocktail baits and eke out a dwindling supply of fresh bait. Preserved sandeels can also be used for float fishing or fitted with hooks and used for spinning as these types of fishing rely more on the visual appeal of the bait meaning that the loss of quality caused by preservation is less of an issue.
Bait presentation is one of the most important parts of fishing. Fish are only interested in the bait so it must look attractive to them. Anglers should take care to thread baits onto the hook carefully so that the bait is presented in the best possible condition. With soft baits such as mussel, blow lugworm and black lugworm a baiting needle can be used. This is a long needle which has a hollow end which the hook is placed into. Soft baits can then be threaded along the needle and onto the hook. Hollow Point Baiting Needles made by WSB Tackle can be bought from Sea Angling Shop for only £1.39 for a pack of two by clicking here.
Hook Size and Bait
It is also essential that the hook is able to pierce the mouth of a fish so that the fish becomes hooked securely and can be reeled in. In order to achieve this a number of factors come into play. The hook must match the fish that is being targeted. For big cod hooks sized 3/0 to 6/0 are generally used. When smaller species such as flounder, whiting and small codling are on the cards (with most being around the 1lb mark) hooks sized around 1/0 will be used (there is much more on this topic in the hooks section). However, once the hook size has been decided upon it is just as important to match the bait to the hook.
A size 6/0 hook may need to take a full squid or fillet of mackerel, whereas the 1/0 or 2/0 hook can at the most take a full ragworm or half a smaller peeler crab. Matching and balancing the bait with the hook size is very important as this leads on the most important point of all: the point of the hook must be visible once the bait is on the hook. The reason for this is simple – a point that clearly stands out from a bait can pierce the mouth of a fish and provide solid contact to reel the fish in. A point that is masked, obscured or buried within a bait will not. Many anglers create massive cocktail baits with the hook point hidden somewhere inside which reduces the chances of successfully hooking a fish that takes the bait.
Bait Must Survive Casting and Impact with the Water
Another often overlooked area is the impact that casting has on bait. What looks like a perfectly presented bait on the shore may not look that way after it has been launched into the air, flew over one hundred yards, impacted with the surface of the water and then sunk to the seabed. However, there there are steps that can be taken to protect baits. The first is the nature of the bait itself. Ragworm and squid are fairly tough baits that are better able to withstand casting, while soft baits like peeler crab and mussel may need extra protection such as securing to the hook with bait elastic. Koike Bait Elastic is available in standard or extra fine variations, click here to purchase from Sea Angling Shop for £1.79 per spool, and dispensers for this bait elastic can be bought by clicking here for £1.19.
Failure to properly secure soft baits with bait thread may see these baits come off the hook on impact with the water, or even fly off during the cast. Anglers should also think about the distance that is being cast and the type of casting style which is employed. Baits that can easily withstand a twenty-yard lob might not fare as well if they are launched seaward with a hundred-yard power cast. When fishing at a venue that demands long-range casting it is wise to use impact shields or bait clips to ensure that the bait is not too damaged by the casting process. Genuine Breakaway Impact Shields are ideal for this purpose and can be purchased from Sea Angling Shop, although some anglers prefer cheap simple bait clips. Similarly, big baits such as whole squid, sandeel, or large mackerel baits can flail around wildly due to their size, even during short range casts. Therefore it is best to clip down these baits as well.
It is always difficult to judge how much bait to take on a fishing session. While running out of bait will bring an end to any fishing session, taking too much bait is an unnecessary waste of money. It can be useful to think about how long a fishing session will last, how many hooks each rig contains and approximately how many casts will be made in order to make a rough calculation of how much bait to buy and take. Worm and shellfish beds are under pressure from the demand for bait, and avoiding wasting bait is beneficial for everyone involved in sea fishing.
If fishing comes to an end and bait is left over it may be re-usable. Live lugworms and ragworms can be taken home and stored in the fridge in a little seawater. If this is done correctly they can live for up to a week and can be used on the next fishing session if it falls within this time (see the article on each bait for details on how to store ragworm and lugworm). Live peeler crab can also be taken home and frozen for future use, and other frozen bait such as sandeels, squid, mackerel and shellfish can be returned to the freezer if they have been stored in a vacuum flask or cool box and have not defrosted over the fishing session. If there is no way of storing unused bait at home it will have to be disposed of at the end of a fishing session. The best way of getting rid of bait is to give it to a fellow angler fishing nearby who will use it. Failing this bait can be thrown into deep water where it will be consumed by some form of marine life. Anglers should of course never leave unwanted bait lying around fishing marks where it will create a terrible impression of anglers.