Mike Ladle


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Tackle and Tactics.

THINK LIKE A FISH Part 30 Bait additives.

Forty-odd years ago I spent the whole of one summer working as a summer student at the research laboratories of the Marine Biological Association. The labs were situated on Citadel hill and overlook the waters of Plymouth sound, sheltered by a huge stone breakwater and (in those days at least) the area was teeming with fish.

Most of the my evenings were spent fishing from the local rocks and jetties and, as I remember it, the weather was perpetually sunny and warm. That summer was notable in two respects, firstly for the episode in which I accidentally blocked the lavatories of the YMCA (where I lodged during my stay) with an enormous parcel of reject squid and subsequently spent the entire evening up to my arm pits down the pan trying to remove the offending molluscs. Secondly and more pertinent (if less amusing), were the many hours of mackerel fishing. The method which I used varied a little with the wind, time and tide conditions but by far the most interesting sport was obtained by light-float fishing.

My teacher was an angler who worked at the laboratories and whom I remember only as Les. He showed me how to set up his favourite sliding-float gear and told me how the best depth at which to fish varied from six to fourteen feet (shallower in good weather). Les also demonstrated how to catch the brit which we used for bait. Although the brit were often abundant near the water surface, they were distinctly nippy and difficult to catch. The only way in which it was possible to obtain decent numbers of the little silver fish was by using a large dip-net on a stout pole. To build up enough speed in the head of the net it was slashed edge on into the water and then twisted to catch the brit.

I kept my baits in an old plastic maggots box and Les kept his in a small tobacco tin. Our tackle was almost identical and the fine wire hooks were baited with small bunches of two or three dead fish hooked through the heads. Despite the fact that I was eager to learn and slavishly copied the 'masters' tactics, he, almost always, had about twice the number of bites and fish that I did.

It was only after several weeks of friendly competition that Les let me into his 'secret'. In his tackle box he carried a small bottle of pilchard oil with which, before each trip, he would anoint the interior of his little bait tin.

Now, in view of the fact that the mackerel is basically a sight feeder using its large and efficient eyes to find and recognise its prey, I am not sure whether oiled baits really made the difference between our catches but I began to use oil and gradually my take improved. Possibly the improvement was simply a result of my increasing skill with the method but it was my first inkling that bait additives might have a place in sea angling.

Additives such as aniseed, custard powder and sugar have been mixed with bread paste and used (doubtfully to any good effect) in freshwater fishing for many years. Nowadays amino acids, peptides, polypeptides, proteins and a wide range of other compounds (many of them flavours which the anglers themselves like the taste of!!!) are sold to anglers and added to their baits in the belief that carp (in particular) will find them either distinctive, attractive or stimulating.

Now it is logical that fish feeding mostly by the use of their scent and/or taste on highly specialised diets should be well able to identify and locate substances given off by their potential victims. In much the same way that we are attracted (and our hunger is increased) by the odours wafting from the ventilator of the fish and chip shop or from the oven door when the Sunday joint is cooking, so the carp may detect buried midge larvae or worms by traces of 'moulting fluid' or excretory waste leaking into the water.

There is no doubt that the sort of effect which I describe is real and worthwhile to the fish catcher because for some years the hunt for artificially flavoured crab, lobster and tuna baits has been gathering momentum in the scientific world. There is now quite a lot of evidence that both freshwater and marine fish use the 'key substance' approach to food location and identification.

In the book (and website) 'Operation Sea Angler' I described how cod locate their prey by means of scent trails, the fish turning 'up-current' and searching for the source of squid juice released from a tiny pipe into the flowing sea water. Although this work is now pretty old the results are, no doubt, still valid.

The above study was made by Mike Pawson, of the (then) Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, and Dr. Pawson also tried to identify the attractive fraction of lugworm extracts by using a choice-tank experiment. The fish employed for this interesting work were whiting and cod. It was already known that, at night or in dirty water, both species locate their food largely by the chemicals which ooze from it. To test the reactions of the fish to natural attractants a specially designed tank was used.

Food extract was introduced at one or other of the inflow pipes and the behaviour of the cod or whiting in the middle part of the tank was observed. The activities of the fish were classified according to the amount of interest which they showed in the extracts more or less as follows;

1. No interest or response.

2. Aware of presence.

3. Feeble searching.

4. Persistent searching.

5. Searching, backing up and biting at the food pipe.

6. Directed searching, backing and biting at the pipe.

The fish were tested first for their reactions to plain sea water flowing from the food pipes. Invariably, it was totally ignored. Whole extracts of lugworm, ragworm, mussel and squid were prepared in a blender (liquidiser) and the bits were filtered off before the tests. Various fractions of the lugworm extract were also used for tests.

For most of the time the cod and whiting swam about in the central part of the tank in mid-water with their thin pelvic fins (feelers) tucked tightly against the body. When they were disturbed or frightened they swam near the bottom or walls of the tank, the fins were all laid flat and a patchy 'camouflage' colour pattern developed on the backs of the fish.

Both species noticed bits of food moving in mid-water but whiting, in particular, did not seem to be aware of food lying still on the bottom of the tank. In contrast cod occasionally went straight to such items and ate them whole. Both cod and whiting reacted to the presence of all four 'bait extracts' by going to the bottom of the tank, extending the pelvic 'feelers' downwards to contact the bed and by swimming faster. In fact they were simply aware of the presence of the chemical and responded without knowing where it was coming from.

After becoming aware, the fish began to search by swimming along and trailing their 'antennae' on the bottom of the tank. They twisted and turned until they found the opening of the food pipe. If the trailing fins touched a piece of food the fish backed up and ate it or, if it was buried, they dug it up, rejecting the inedible particles of sand or gravel. All four extracts produced the same sort of behaviour.

Some fractions of the liquidised lugworm produced similar response to the whole worm extract and the active portion seemed to include seven amino acids. Serine and glycine produced grade 4 responses (as listed above) even at very low concentrations.

Whiting failed to respond to a mixture of amino acids if glycine and alanine were absent. Several other amino acids, alanine, arginine, taurine, aspartine and cysteine, gave only the very lowest level (grade 1) responses. At extremely low concentrations the fish were unable to find the source of the attractant, even though their behaviour showed that they knew it was there. Mixtures of amino acids generally produced stronger responses than individual compounds, showing that NO SINGLE SUBSTANCE WAS THE PERFECT ATTRACTANT.

Although for cod and whiting, glycine seemed to be the basis of attraction it was STILL LESS ATTRACTIVE than natural lugworm and other substances are certainly involved. This account shows that we are only scratching the surface of the possibilities suggested by our meagre knowledge of bait additives. Certain amino acids act as a feeding stimulant for sole and many anglers have commented on the 'pulling power' of baits such as peeler crab for bass and cod. Sadly, it is only too easy to be deluded into buying expensive bait additives and it is even possible to convince yourself that they are working. However, in most cases, fresh natural bait (which is what the fish are seeking after all) will be better than any artificial mixture of chemicals.

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.

Bait additives.

Choice tank in plan.

The food extract can be fed separately in to any of the sections.

Choice tank.

The fish use their sense of smell/taste to locate the pipe releasing the food 'scent'.