Mike Ladle


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Tackle and Tactics.

THINK LIKE A FISH Part 29 Lampreys.

My wife Lilian is a Geordie and some of her relations still live in the town of North Shields at the mouth of the River Tyne. For fifteen years I also lived, and did most of my fishing in that area. Much of the boat fishing in the North East is for cod and codling. The tackle has probably changed a bit these days but it used to be traditional northeast coast boat gear designed for hauling fish out of kelpy, rough ground. The rods were, to say the least, stout and the reels were often home made, large diameter centrepins with very thick line.

I have no intention of discussing the right's and wrong's of different sorts of tackle, but a conversation that I had with one of my in-laws ( a keen angler), last time I was up there, stuck in my mind. He was telling me about the pleasures of catching codling when he recalled that among the other species that he caught on the same tackle were lampreys. He said that when lampreys appeared on the scene other fish vanished.

Now I am talking second hand so it would not be wise for me to speculate too far. I am not sure what sort of lampreys he was talking about nor even that by "lamprey" he meant the same thing that I do, I have been caught out by local names before! However, I would be interested to hear from other anglers with experience of these interesting creatures, in particular from anyone who has caught them on bait or encountered them in the course of fishing for other species.

My own encounters with lampreys have been of a different nature. Some years ago I used to catch small eels for bass baits. The technique was simply to swish a pond net through the mud and weeds of a small local river and then pick through the contents of the net for the eels. I found that many of the eel like creatures trapped in the bag of my net were not Anguilla anguilla at all but muscular, greeny-brown, pencil-like animals with sucker mouths and tiny eyes. Along each side of what passed for a neck, just where the single gill opening of an eel should be, were neat rows of little holes (hence the local name "nine eyes").

These were the larvae (ammocoetes) of brook lampreys, curious little creatures which spend several years sifting microscopic algae from the river-bed mud before changing into mature brook lampreys. These adults are silver-skinned actively swimming wrigglers with more than a passing resemblance to marine sandeels. The sole function of these mature specimens is to dig a shallow nest in the gravel of the river bed where they can lay their eggs.

Why should a 'fish', which spends its entire life in or on the bed of a river, be of any interest to sea anglers? Well, apart from their value as baits, of which more later, our other species of lampreys spend a good deal of their lives in the sea. They are, in fact, parasites of other fish. Having passed their juvenile stages in riverbed mud feeding on algae and detritus they transform in to the vampires of the fish world.

The river lamprey looks exactly like the bigger version of the brook lamprey but at the end of its mud-burrowing larval stage it dons a silver skin and heads down to the sea. River lampreys don't go far from the estuary. They fatten up and develop their eggs and sperm on a rich diet of estuarine fish and migrants such as sea trout and shad.

Around the mouth is a sucker-like disc by which the parasite clings tenaciously to its unfortunate hosts. Within the sucker a set of sharp teeth assist clinging and other teeth on the tongue rasp a hole in the skin through which the lamprey extracts the blood and body fluids of the fish. Enzymes in the lamprey's saliva dissolve the tissues of the host and these are also sucked up.

The largest of our lampreys is the sea lamprey which can be a yard long and weighs several pounds. Like the other species the larvae live in the river mud but the adults are sea fish with a skin the colour of a camouflaged combat jacket.

Victims of the sea lamprey include a wide range of popular fish such as cod, haddock, coalfish and pollack. Salmon are also attacked and, to add insult to injury, the sea lamprey spawns on the same river gravel's as the salmon, by excavating a greater crater in which to lay its eggs. The sucker mouth is brought in to play for nest building. Lumps of gravel, stones and cobbles are picked up and carted out of the nesting area to be dumped round its edge. The adults die after spawning.

To return to lampreys as sea baits I have used them in two different situations. Swanage beach boasts a long, golden, sandy strand. At the eastern end are a series of low wooden groynes designed to reduce longshore movement of the sand. When the wind blows from an easterly quarter the surf pounds sand into suspension and as the tide floods bass work along the sea's edge picking up small creatures disturbed by the wave action. A legered bait cast into the boiling sea stands a pretty good chance of attracting bass. Young lampreys are better baits than many for this purpose. In fact it doesn't seem to make much difference whether the bait is a brown ammocoete larva or a silvery adult the schoolies gobble them up as fast as they can.

The other place where I used brook lampreys for bait was from the old ferry bridge on the Portland to Weymouth causeway. Adult lampreys were collected in a pond net from their communal spawning areas and fished as live-baits on a flowing trace and size 6 hook. As at Swanage there were very few large bass about so early in the season but pollack and schoolies took the lampreys as keenly as they devoured any sandeel.

I have never caught a lamprey while angling although I have heard of them "taking" legered worms in rivers. I am sure someone can enlighten me and it would also be interesting to hear of experiences similar to those recounted by my wife's cousin. Does the presence of lampreys really put fish off the feed? This does not seem to fit in with their obvious value as bait.

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


Think like a fish.


Yellow eel.

A long, thin fish, adapted for burrowing - just like the young lamprey - the eel has only one gill opening.

River lamprey (top) and brook lamprey adults.

Note the big eyes and rows of gill openings.

The mouth of a river lamprey.

Large rasping teeth - just right for a parasitic fish.

Sea lampreys spawning.

Each as long as your arm this pair have excavated a huge spawning crater.