Tackle and Tactics
Almost all marine worms belong to a group that scientists call polychaetes. These bristle worms are noticeable for the many and varied hooks, filaments, paddles and jointed rods which adorn the sides of their bodies. Earthworms have only simple, blunt bristles of one type.
Polychaete worms are generally separated in to two types known as sedentary and errant. The sedentary worms sit about in burrows and tend to be rather plump and lifeless. Errant forms, in contrast, are vibrant, active creatures and, even when they spend they’re lives in burrows, are always on the move, writhing and squirming beneath the muddy, sandy or rocky covering.
The best-known examples of the two types are the lugworm and the king ragworm. But so far as the fish are concerned, most of the many and varied forms of polychaetes are good to eat. So why are so few of the multitude of worms used as bait? Some of the reasons are obvious. The great majority of species are tiny and would need hooks far smaller than those normally used in salt water to allow decent presentation. Even the mullet angler’s favourite “the small harbour rag” is a giant compared to many of Its cousins. Is it possible that with the present enthusiasm for match fishing we will one day read of a huge bag of flounders taken on single Scoloplos on size 16 hooks? Quite a few of the larger worms, which would probably be cracking baits, live in deep water, and could only be obtained by dredging.
We are left with just a few species which are used as bait, and chief among the errant worms are several types of ragworm. Next time you use a ragworm for bait take a good look at it. It consists of a chain of segments, tapering to a point at the back end, which terminates in a couple of thin filaments. The front end is blunt and chunky with a set of fine tentacles and a couple of jointed, finger-like palps. These appendages are obviously the worm’s feelers and sensors, which it uses to find food and to provide an early-warning system in times of danger. Touch the “nose” of your specimen and very likely you will be seized by the claw like jaws. Normally the jaws are safely tucked down inside the throat, to be thrust out when the tube is unfurled. If you look closely at the extended throat tube you will see that it is decorated with a pattern of tiny, hard teeth. Each species has its own characteristic pattern.
Ragworms have red blood, and this is clearly seen in the harbour rag. Just under the thin skin of the back is a bright red line a blood vessel which carries the blood from tail to head. The body colours of the worms range from purplish-red or glistening bronze in species like Platynereis dumerilii and Nereis pelagica (a common rock rag worm) to bright, iridescent green in the well-known and much-used king rag. During the breeding season pigments deposited in the body wall turn the worms to an even brighter green paler in the males than the females. At breeding time it is not only the colour of the worms that changes. The little “legs” along the sides of the body expand and turn into leafy paddles suitable for swimming. There is a good reason for this change because in many cases, breeding takes place while the worms are swimming in the water. For example, the males of the king rag leave their burrows on the ebb of a big tide in spring. Swimming in the water above the mud flats they fertilise the eggs shed by the females which are still securely in the safety of their tubes.
A big female can produce well over a million eggs and those which survive will develop into microscopic, swimming larvae before settling on the mud. Scientists from the Dove Marine Laboratory in Northumberland who have been studying the biology of the worms have now learned to breed and rear them and a commercial bait “factory” has been set up.
Is ragworm farming a worthwhile proposition? I can only quote the figures. In this country many millions of worms are used by anglers each year and in a single American state (Maine) it has been estimated that the value of the king rag trade could be as much as half-a-million pounds (almost a million dollars) every year.
No doubt the majority of British sea anglers will continue to dig their own worms it can be an invigorating and interesting experience, as most will realise. However, it is not convenient, nor even possible, for many inland or town-based anglers to collect their bait. Even for someone like myself, living within a few miles of decent digging areas, it is definitely cheaper to buy a dozen rag than to drive down to the coast and dig them. Twelve worms are usually more than enough to enable me to catch enough wrasse, pouting or poor cod for conger or bass baits. An experienced digger will take just enough worms for his needs. In the course of his excavations he will pick up a few peeler crabs and small eels from beneath the flat stones as he digs lug and white rag from the sandy patches, and he may well gather information about the fishing potential. For instance, as the tide floods into the diggings the ripples of mullet may reveal a future quarry. Out in the Channel fry spraying from the water show where the bass are active. Wading back along the foreshore through the shallow water reveals just how close to the sea’s edge big flounders are prepared to venture in search of food. These and many other benefits are the reward of the ragworm digger. .
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Ragworm in action.