Tackle and Tactics
I wrote this piece a long time ago but most of the information still stands today and there are always plenty of anglers using lugworms for bait:-
The spring tide is ebbing fast across the ripple-marked beach. Sanderlings scuttle along the water’s edge halting to pick up the occasional sand hopper and halfway down the shore an oyster catcher is hammering away at a cockle which it has unearthed. Close to the banks of a little stream the sand is much darker because of the amount of silt washed down from inland. On the muddy sand a curlew probes deeply, with its long curved bill, in search of worms.
Crustaceans, bivalves and worms make up the vast bulk of burrowing animals around our shores: altogether there are many hundreds of species in these three groups and most of them fall prey to fish - yet few are used as bait by anglers why should this be?
Of course, many sand and mud burrowers are rather small and until sea anglers have to resort to size 18 hooks and 11lb lines these tiny creatures are safe. Of the bigger animals - crabs, shrimps, clams, razorfish, ragworm, white ragworm, and lugworm are all, at some time, dangled in the drink to attract fish. By far the most popular of these baits is the lugworm (Arenicola marina) which reigns supreme.
Pick up a plump, plum coloured polychaete from the sand trench you have just dug, and take a few seconds rest to examine your hard-earned prize. The living lugworm lies stiffly on your hand: a veritable sausage balloon of tissue firmly inflated with body fluids. This is a hydraulic burrowing machine, designed by nature to ram its way through the sediment and create neat, U-shaped, burrows within which it can feed.
If you have been careful not to damage the worm you will notice that the front half is thicker than the rear. As well as creating the burrows the thick portion is an efficient piston for a superb biological pump which ripples with waves of muscular contraction to drive water through the tunnels. Run your fingers the ‘wrong way’ along the animal’s body and you will feel the many bristles or chaetae which give this group of worms their name polychaeta. These bristles give the worm a firm 'grip' on its burrow.
Careful inspection of the worm’s chubby flanks reveals bunches of delicate red gills, much easier to see if you plop the animal in to a shallow pool of sea water so that the tufts of filaments spread out. The gills, filled with red blood, enable the worm to breathe in the confines of its burrow, even deep down in the black, airless, poisonous layers of sediment which underlie the clean surface of the sandy beach. In fact the worms will, by using their tails, sometimes trap air bubbles from the surface and take them down into the poorly aerated burrows.
The thin ‘tail’ of the lugworm is a fairly simple tube containing an extension of the gut which is used as a store for sediment in between production of casts. It even seems possible that our familiar, sand burrowing, worm has evolved the fragile ‘tail’ as a sacrifice to fish. Lugworms are pretty safe from predators swimming round above, however, every time the worm produces a bit more cast (roughly every half hour) it must expose it’s back end to the beady eyes of flatfish, bass and other foragers. Rather like many lizards the general idea is that it is better to lose the end of your “tail” than to lose your life. After it completes its toilet activities the last piece of every casting is used to plug the burrow.
Lugworms cannot easily burrow in hard, compact sediment and scientists have shown that they need a good depth of sandy mud to be successful. As already mentioned the tail end of the burrow is characterised by the curly cylinders of reject sand which we call worm casts. At the other end, the ‘head shaft’, is a conical pit. The soft sand in the pit is loosened by either pumping of water or by the movements of the worm’s front end. This loose sand is the food of the worm and is enriched by material filtered from the current of pumped water. The worm eats by turning its ‘mouth’ inside out. The sand which adheres to this sticky out folding is then drawn back in and swallowed.
There are a few times each year when the lugworm, normally safely buried, becomes an easy meal for fish. Heavy seas occasionally excavate numbers of unfortunate worms by deeply disturbing the sand in shallow water. These events are unpredictable but often provide excellent fishing for a short period after a storm on suitable stretches of shoreline. A second event is much more regular. Each year, around October, between the full and new moons, the lugworm gets its annual sexual urge. At this time a large proportion of them may die and, although spawning occurs from within the burrows, dead and dying worms can be abundant on the surface. Despite their portly appearance lugworms can swim freely in the water and, particularly in the spring time (round about April-May), they are known to recolonise depleted areas of sand by migration. At this time they may again provide easy pickings for fish.
If you want to dig up a worm then the standard method is to use your spade to take out a couple of ‘spits’ of sand between the cast and the head shaft pit. If the worms are particularly numerous, as they may be in the rich muddy sands of a harbour or estuary, then it can be more efficient simply to dig trenches through areas where there are lots of casts. Some years ago I used to fish with an angler who only used the tails of lugworms as bait. The system worked quite well because I was perfectly happy to bait with the juicy front ends. The logic of my friend’s choice was that the tails were firmer and stayed on the hook better. He also thought that he stood a better chance of hooking his fish with only a thin cylinder of bait.
To be absolutely honest I never detected any real difference between the catches which we made, mostly of wrasse, but it would seem reasonable to think that a large bulk of worm on the hook should hold its chemical attraction for longer than a small portion.
This brings me to the business of baiting up with large, soft dollops of lug. It is usually necessary to thread lugworms up the shank of the hook and several devices have been described for keeping them there including barbed hook shanks and the tag ends of knots. Indeed, the whole business of bait clips, capsules and so on which has occupied many thousands of words in magazines stemmed largely from the problem of retaining the delicate tissues of Arenicola in one piece during an ‘explosive’ cast.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of beach casting techniques and fish attraction there can be little doubt that lugworm will remain the premier beach fishing bait. The popularity of this worm, much like that of the maggot in freshwater fishing circles, lies in the fact that it is easily obtained, simple to use and attractive in some degree to a wide range of fish species. In years to come the good old ‘blow lug’ and ‘black lug’ will continue to catch their fair share of fish ranging from coalfish to cod and from whiting to wrasse, not to mention plaice and almost everything else with fins. When it won’t work as a single bait, it can be twitched in to action or bulked up as cocktails with lumps of fish or squid. In a few words then, if you simply want to 'catch something' (anything) you could do a lot worse than thread a couple of fat, juicy lugworms round the bend of your hook and lob the lot in the sea. Having said that it's so many years since I used a lugworm for bait - I've lost count.
If you have any comments or questions about fish, methods, tactics or 'what have you.'get in touch with me by sending an E-MAIL to - firstname.lastname@example.org