Tackle and Tactics
Mike Ladle


Information Page.

Trench Warfare.

03 November 2008

Someone recently asked me when I'd last used a lugworm for bait and to be absolutely honest it's such a long time back that I can't remember. Anyway, I thought it might be worth digging up a bit of my old information about these popular baits. Think about it. That fat, juicy, whole lugworm we thread up the shank of our hook in the hope of luring a fish is a pretty rare sight on the marine menu. We know that, generally, the only bit of the worm the fish regularly sees is the tail! For that’s the only section of the creature’s anatomy that pokes out of the sand as the cast is deposited. Only a few bottom-living fish, such as flatties, actually make an eyeball to eyeball contact with Arenicola marina, let alone get a taste of it!

Okay so the lugworm is pretty much a rarity on the normal diet of fish, yet anyone knows that it is a first-class attractor for a wide range of species, like pouting, bass, bream, plaice and sole, which all fall victim to the allure of the juicy old worm. Because it has universal appeal, demand for the lug increases year by year with bait-diggers venturing further afield each session in order to satisfy the need. Fortunately for us the lugworm is a prolific creature, and every autumn countless tiny specimens settle on the upper shore to replace the millions dug for bait. In some areas, however, the stocks dwindle as more and more anglers compete for fewer worms. It used to be assumed that the only way to get worms for bait was to dig for them. Every week bait-diggers wait for the receding tide to reveal the neat, little, sandy coils scattered between the ripple marks on the sand. The digger matches a chunky cast with a nearby miniature crater and pushes his fork or spade between the two in the hope of lifting a suitable hook bait.

Somewhere below the worm is lurking, filtering the salt-water that trickles down the crater. This is how a lugworm feeds. As the digger prepares to lift and turn the sand, he notices that the sediment surrounding the fork or spade immediately dries and hardens, a process known as thixotropy, a complicated state of affairs caused by water moving through the sand. Lugworm 'know' all about thixotropy, clever little devils, aren’t they? The worm doesn’t try to force its way through the hard sand, much preferring to slosh its way through the softer stuff. You can get the same effect if you hit moist sand with your hand the bit you whack goes soft, the surrounding area hardens for a second or two. The boring old lugworm has got it down to a fine art! It may also use some sort of slime to help it on its way.

As the first spit is lifted the digger spies a tunnel, a round hole probably discoloured at the edges. Another good spadefull of sand is removed and… a yellowish tail is revealed protruding from the wall of the excavation. A darting hand grabs the shy worm and gently pulls the wrinkled, red body from its hidey-hole to join its fellows in the bait bucket. Oh, the delights of lugworm digging when the sun is sinking over the horizon and you feel you may never be able to stand up straight again!

Because worms can be dug only when the tide is out, most of the worms on any beach are safe from disturbance over the greater part of the day. However, with increasing demand from anglers, especially in a season when there are plenty of fish about, it was only a matter of time before some sort of mechanical extractor was developed. The mechanical break through hasn’t happened here, as far as I know, but across the North Sea in Holland, a country where the seas are shallow and the worms plentiful.

The Wadden Sea, on the Dutch Coast, is a massive area of lug-inhabited sand and mud. It has been estimated that four billion lugworm live in this bait digger’s paradise. Yet even here, where heavy manual digging takes place, only about two out of every thousand worms are removed during low tide. In contrast, mechanical harvesting takes place at high tide. The digging machine, actually it is a mini-suction dredger anchored on massive cables, moves along sucking in sand which is worked through under jets of water flushing out the worms which are then strained through a coarse sieve. The machine leaves trenches about a foot deep starting at the centre and radiating out for 300 yards, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. When an area has been ‘dug out' the anchor point is simply removed to a new site. It is estimated that four machines dig 18 million worms a year more than all the hand-diggers put together. Now that’s only about one percent of all the worms in the Wadden Sea, which is an area as big as the Isle of Wight. However, environmentalists aren’t at all happy about this high-tech bait-digging. For, although the worm harvesters are more efficient and relieve all the back-breaking work, it is feared they cause much greater losses of sand living creatures, many of which play an important part in the vital food chain for bottom-living fish. Samples of sand taken between six and twelve hours after the machine has operated, show total destruction of all living things. The animals are assumed to have died from asphyxiation, presumably after burial, or by having dried out when the tide receded.

Traditional bait-digging does cause deaths among many small creatures, but not on the same scale. Losses may be between 80 and 100% if sand is piled beside the trench, although it drops to around 40% if the trench is immediately re-filled. Machine digging is comparable with the worst type of manual digging. Patches of sand excavated by the machines do recover from the trauma. With in about five months creatures have swum, crawled or burrowed back in to the area. So while heavy digging of either kind hand or machine is quite likely to destroy the entire population of some larger creatures, such as cockles, there is probably no real permanent harm. It seems that, in the longer term, machine digging causes not much greater loss of wildlife than that due to those using traditional fork tactics. Nevertheless, the Dutch approach used in the Wadden sea is not a development which should be encouraged elsewhere unless the area colonised by lugworms is enormous. So far as bait-gathering is concerned, it seems the old methods may still be the safest…

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 - docladle@hotmail.com