Four distinct species of large sandeel live in British waters – the greater, the smooth, Raitt’s and Corbin’s. These can be anything from 23 to 33cm long.
Few anglers can distinguish between species so, in practice, all large sandeels are regarded as greater sandeels.
They play a vital role in the marine food chain. Essentially a shoal species, they live over extensive areas of coarse sand or sand and shell grit. Here they are preyed on by fish, birds, crustaceans – and increasingly by man.
Large sandeels are commercially caught by the ton in fine-meshed nets, but the only practical way an angler can catch them is to fish for them.
They are active predators and can be readily caught in large quantities on small, specially constructed sets of feathers. Worked in much the same way as mackerel feathers, they make a highly attractive lunch for a launce.
The best sandeel feathers come from France and incorporate a white or silver body fished behind a small fluorescent green bead. For some reason as yet unknown, the bead turns a standard set of sandeel feathers into a lethal catching machine. The tiny feathers aren’t on sale in this country but anglers visiting the Channel Islands can buy them in local tackle shops. Or you can make them up yourself using size 4 or 6 O’Shaughnessies tied with something bright and flashy such as Flectolite tubing and jazzed up with a green bead or varnished red thread.
You can feather for greater sandeels right round the British Isles. One of the best places to catch them is over offshore sandbanks subjected to a good run of tide.
Frozen sandeels are sold in tackle shops and five sandeels by commercial netters and some tackle shops.
Make the most of them
Like nearly all natural baits, sandeels are best when fished alive.
Some anglers use a double hook rig to present live eels. This is a mistake as even the lightest of hooks weighs down the eel. They are delicate fish and quick to die if handled roughly.
It’s better to use one hook nicked through the skin at the back of the eel’s neck. An even safer hold is to pass the hook through the mouth and out of the gills. Finish by nicking the hook point lightly through the bait’s belly skin.
Freshly killed sandeels can be used whole and big ones as flappers. To cut a flapper use a very sharp, slim-bladed craft knife -anything heavier and you’ll ruin the bait.
You can also use the larger sandeels in halves or sections bound securely on to the hook with elasticated thread.
Where possible, freeline five sandeels or fish them with the lightest possible lead. Fish dead sandeels uptide or downtide on standard rigs.
Once dead, sandeels spoil quickly. Freeze only the very freshest of eels and use them as soon as possible after freezing — even in the freezer they don’t keep for ever. In perfect condition a sandeel is a wonderful fish catcher, but once it has deteriorated it’s a put down for any fish.