Harbour ragworm (Hediste diversicolor) are a small species of marine worm which goes by a wide range of different names including Maddies, Muddies, Mudworm, Creeper Rag and a range of other regional names. Although they are harder to get hold of than the more common king ragworm (due to most tackle shops not selling them) they can be an effective bait in many areas, especially harbours, estuaries and other inshore areas.
There is considerable confusion over the number of different British ragworm species which are used by anglers – see here for further information.
Identification and Habitat
Harbour ragworm are much smaller than the king ragworm, growing to a maximum of 10cm (4 inches) in length, but are often around half this size. The colour is usually red/orange to brown but can change to greenish in the breeding season. A clear red blood vessel is often visible running along the centre of the body. Harbour ragworm are found in the intertidal zone in – as their name suggests – sheltered inshore areas such as coves, estuaries and sandy areas within harbours. They can also be found surprising far up rivers in areas where suitable sand or mud provides a suitable habitat.
Harbour ragworms live in shallow U or J shaped burrows in sandy, muddy or clay seabeds, although they will also be found in fairly rocky areas where there are stones and shingle present in the sand. They will emerge from to feed on microscopic organic particles and plankton which are suspended in seawater and will also retreat back into their burrows when they are threatened by predators such as wading sea birds or fish species such as flounder or plaice. Indeed, harbour ragworm play an important role in the marine environment as they are an important source of prey for a wide range of creatures. They are also collected and bred commercially, most often to use as a food source for farmed fish.
Collecting and Buying Maddies
The vast majority of anglers using harbour ragworm dig their own. Rather than trying to find individual worms the best method is usually to find an area which is likely to hold harbour ragworm and begin to dig, turning over one section of ground at a time (a technique sometimes known as ‘trenching’). As harbour ragworm live close together this will uncover any worms which are present. It is not necessary to dig deep when searching for harbour ragworms as most live at a depth of around six inches (15cm) and even the largest deepest-dwelling worms will not live much deeper than twelve inches (30cm). Using a three or four-pronged garden fork can be more effective than a spade as it will not cut through any worms, although in soft mud a spade may be necessary.
Many anglers find that harbour ragworm are more numerous nearer to the sea, with the lowest spring tides producing the most harbour ragworm. As always anglers should be careful of getting bogged down and trapped in soft mud or sand, and as always only take a reasonable amount of worms from one area. It is also important to check that bait digging is permitted on beaches.
For anglers who are not able to dig their own harbour ragworms then it can be difficult to find this bait. Most tackle shops don’t usually sell harbour ragworms, although they may supply them on an occasional basis or be able to order them in. There is a number on online bait retailers who may also be able to supply harbour ragworms through the post.
Storing Harbour Ragworm
Live harbour ragworm which are wrapped in newspaper and kept in the fridge are likely to only remain in good condition for less than a day. They are best stored in the fridge in shallow trays with a small amount of seawater inside – enough so that the worms are not fully submerged, with a very light cloth which is soaked in refrigerated seawater placed over the worms. It is difficult to predict how long harbour ragworm will last in these conditions but it can certainly be several days or longer if the water is replaced with fresh refrigerated seawater daily. Broken or damaged worms should be stored in a separate tray and any dead worms should be disposed of immediately. Dead or broken worms can easily spoil a supply of healthy worms if they are not removed.
Due to their small size it can be necessary to use several harbour ragworms on a single hook to create a suitable sized bait. This is usually done by head hooking each worm and pushing them up the hook until the bait is the required size. If the harbour ragworms are quite large than only three or four may be needed, but with smaller worms it may be necessary to use a bunch of worms to make a decent-sized bait. The body of the harbour ragworm can also be fairly soft, so placing a reasonable number on the hook can be a good idea to compensate for any which may come off either during the cast or when the bait is being pushed around by the tide on the seabed.
Harbour ragworm as a top bait for flatfish such as dab, plaice and flounder, with size 4 – 1 hooks in a fine wire pattern such as Aberdeen being the best choice to avoid damaging the small, delicate worms – Cronus Black Aberdeen Hooks are a good option. They are also effective for a wide range of other species such as cod, pollock, whiting and especially bass will take them. When targeting these species is can be a good idea to use larger worms and step up to size 1/0 or 2/0 hooks in a stronger pattern, such as Mustad Long Shank Beak Baitholder Hooks. Alternatively, if larger species are being targeted then harbour ragworms can be used to tip off other baits such as peeler crab, squid or mackerel strip. Anglers fishing for mullet also use harbour ragworms or even small sections of harbour ragworms as an effective bait, and they can also be float fished for species such as wrasse. Due to their small size, they can be useful for anglers using small hooks to fish for species such as pouting, poor cod and rocking, while competition anglers often use this bait to try and catch a small (and potentially match-winning) specimen when the larger fish are not biting.