Sandeel as Bait

Sandeels are a vitally important part of the marine ecosystem.

Sandeel is a term for a number of species of small fish (despite the name they are classified as fish, not eels) which are found in huge numbers throughout the waters of Britain and Europe. This abundance means that almost all species of fish found around the UK will have fed on sandeels at one point or another, making them an excellent bait. The two main species of sandeel in British waters are the small lesser sandeel (Ammodytes tobianus) and the larger greater sandeel (Hyperoplus lanceolatus), along with three other obscure species which live in deeper, offshore waters. The smaller lesser sandeel is the species most commonly used as bait by anglers.

Description and Habitat

Sandeels have elongated eel-shaped bodies, with a long dorsal fin running two-thirds of the length of the back and a small, distinct tail. The colour is can be grey, green, blue or black on the back with a silvery-white underside. Greater sandeels (also known as launce) are usually 20 – 30cm in length, with lesser sandeels being around half this size. They generally prefer shallow, inshore waters with sandy seabeds Lesser sandeels can be used to catch small species such as whiting, dab and sea scorpions, while larger sandeels can be a top bait for highly sought after species such as rays and big bass and cod. Sandeels are also an excellent bait to use when float fishing.

Gathering and Storing Live Sandeels

As lesser sandeels bury themselves in the sand they can be dug out of the intertidal zone at low tide, although gathering them can take a fair deal of effort. One method involves using a long, thin hook-like device known as a vingler which is cut through the upper sections of the sand until it comes into contact with a sandeel which can then be lifted up out of the sand. Other methods involve using a push-net to scoop sandeels out of very shallow water, while other anglers have had success getting sandeels out of the sand by dragging garden rakes through wet sand very close to the low tide point.

Lesser Sandeel Bait
Lesser sandeels collected to use as bait.

Live sandeels can be stored in a bucket of seawater for a few hours, although if there are too many in the bucket they will soon die due to lack of oxygen, although adding fresh seawater or constantly changing the seawater can prolong their lives considerably. Anglers who are keen on live baiting with sandeels can invest in a battery-powered live bait aerator or a bucket with a built-in aerator – such as these available from Amazon – which will keep the sandeels alive for a much longer period of time. If none of the above methods is available then live sandeels will live for a short amount of time if they are wrapped in some wet newspaper and stored at the bottom of a cool box. However, the sandeels must be kept cool as the rising temperature will soon see them die.

Buying Sandeels

Many anglers find it is a lot easier (and a lot less effort) to simply buy sandeels from a fishing tackle shop where they are sold in frozen form. Some companies sell sandeels in small, medium and large sizes with anglers able to choose the most appropriate size for the species they are targeting. Since sandeels are not caught for human consumption they are not available from supermarkets or fishmongers.

Sandeels bought frozen should simply be kept in the freezer and defrosted prior to going fishing. The smaller lesser sandeel is an ideal size to fit into a vacuum flask so that they can be defrosted as needed on a fishing session and any that are not used can be taken back home and returned to the freezer. Like all sea fishing baits, sandeels should not be re-frozen once defrosted as they will be an inferior bait which is liable to burst and split when put onto the hook.

Lesser sandeels are too small to be caught on a rod and line but greater sandeels can be caught by anglers using feathers and daylights to fish for mackerel.

Lesser Sandeel Bait Presentation

General fishing bait: The lesser sandeel is a great all-round bait which can be used to catch almost all species in UK waters when it is presented on the seabed. Anglers prepare a sandeel for bait by snipping off the tail or head of the sandeel as this will allow the scent and juices to flow from the sandeel and attract fish.

A sandeel with the head removed secured to the hook with bait elastic.

With the tail removed the sandeel can be threaded onto the hook in a similar manner to a worm. If the sandeel has been freshly frozen then it should slide along the hook easily and should not split or burst. Once it is on the hook the vast majority of anglers use bait cotton or elastic – such as Koike Bait Elastic – to secure the sandeel to the hook and ensure that it will not come off the hook during casting or on impact with the water. Cocktail baits can also be made with sandeels – a popular option is to wrap a sandeel in squid and then secure the bait together with bait elastic. This is very effective when targeting rays.

Sandeel Float Bait
A dead sandeel presented as a float bait.

Float fishing sandeel: Sandeel also make a great float fished bait with pollock especially keen to take this bait, although coalfish, mackerel and a number of other species can also be caught. Wiuth fresh or defrosted sandeels it is best to feed sandeels along the hook but have the hook point exit from the middle of the sandeels belly. This will leave the tail to move in the tide and provide an additional visual attraction. Live sandeel can also be used to float fish with most anglers hooking the sandeel through the mouth with the hook coming out of the gill.

Live baiting: Sandeels are one of the most popular species to use as a live bait. As with float fishing, it is best to put the hook through the mouth and then out just behind the gills, although some anglers believe that hooking sandeels through the tail allows them to move around in a more natural manner. The main problem with live baiting is that a cast of any force will be likely to kill the sandeel, although anglers fishing from a deep rock mark or pier may be able to lob out a gentle cast and still keep the sandeel alive. From deep water rock marks and piers, it may be possible to simply lower the baited rig directly down into the water which will see the sandeel live for much longer.

Greater Sandeel Bait Presentation

A greater sandeel caught when using feathers to catch mackerel.

The greater sandeel is a much bigger bait which can only be used whole for fishing for large fish such as bass and rays. Many anglers fishing for mackerel end up inadvertently catching greater sandeels, and then retain them for bait. As greater sandeel can be up to 30cm long they can be cut in half or the tail section cut away in order to make them a more appropriate size. Once they are at the right size they can be fed onto the hook in the same way that the lesser sandeel are. Due to the size of this bait it should be secured to the hook with bait cotton or thread and clipped down behind an impact shield to protect it from impact with the water. It is also a good idea to use a pennell configuration so that there is a hook at either side of the bait.