Fishing for Sandeels

Once a summer bait, sandeels are so versatile that anglers now use aquaria for year-round supplies. Live, dead or in lasks, sandeels can be spun, trolled or float-fished to deadly effect’

The sandeel is not only one of the best baits for sea angling, but a very important part of the food chain for most species of fish. Three varieties are found in British waters: the greater sandeel (Hyperoplus lanceo-latus) which can be easily identified by the black spot on the sides of the snout, the sandeel (Ammodytes to-bianus) and the smooth sandeel (Gymnammodytes semisquamatus). They have elongated bodies and no spiny rays in the fins. The upper jaw is extensible and shorter than the lower; the tail forked and separate from the dorsal and anal.

When and where to find sandeel

Sandeels shoal in very large numbers but are seldom seen in daylight as they lie buried in the sand. They emerge after dark, and the light from a torch will often reveal what appears to be a solid shimmering mass in the shallow water of sandy estuaries. Sandeels are generally caught by towing a fine-mesh seine net from a small rowing boat off sandy beaches, or by digging and raking in the sand on the beach. The latter is best done at low tide right at the water’s edge, as the eels like to hide in very wet sand. If there is a freshwater stream running down the beach this is a good place to search.

The speedy sandeel

Most sandeels are dug for at night when it is customary to work by the light of a pressure lamp. Once an eel has been lifted out of the sand it must be picked up immediately as it has the ability to tunnel back extremely quickly. In fact, a 7in eel, when placed on very firm sand, can disappear beneath the surface in less than two seconds.

Collecting by hand will produce about 30 eels in a couple of hours—more than enough bait for a day’s fishing. A seine net, however, will trap as many as 10,000 eels in a single run of less than half an hour. The net is weighted at the bottom with rolling leads and supported by cork floats which keep it upright and level with the surface. It is paid out from the stern of a rowing boat which slowly describes a circle about 50 yards out from the beach. One end of the holding rope is kept onshore by a member of the three-man team, and when the net has been completely laid, the other end is brought ashore. The seine is then pulled smoothly in until the bag is clear of the water.

During sorting, a careful watch should be kept for poisonous weeverfish, which are frequently caught during sandeel operations. Eels over 5in are retained and the rest quickly returned to the sea.

Keeping sandeels alive during transportation was a problem until quite recently. Sandeels depend on a high level of oxygen in water and, if this falls below a certain level, they die within a few minutes. Fortunately, small, battery-operated air-pumps are now on the market, and can run as long as 30 hours on a couple of 1.5-volt dry cell batteries.

A reliable aerator

The Shakespeare company produces a reliable pump which is light and compact and currently retails at £7.33. A matching heavy duty PVC livebait-carying bag currently costs £2.88. The bag, which holds a gallon of water and becomes rigid when full, is perfect for keeping bait in good condition. It also features a water level gauge that indicates the maximum volume of water that can be aerated by this motor-pump. In many ways this outfit is one of the best contributions to sea angling for many years.

As sandeels are plentiful in the summer but extremely scarce after October, livebaiting during the dark months will necessitate keeping a stock of sandeels at home. All you need is a large glass tank of the type sold by shops catering for tropical fish enthusiasts, a couple of filter boards, and a mains air pump. A tank 3ft long by 1ft wide and 18in deep holds enough water to keep 200 eels alive for a long period. The bottom of the tank should be covered by 8in of sand for the eels to bury in, and it is advisable to remove 10 gallons of water every so often and replace it with a new supply of seawater. Sandeels do not require feeding as they filter plankton from the water and find other forms of marine life in the sand.

A few large pieces of seaweed should be added from time to time. The tank can also be used to keep King rag and lugworm, but the level of the water should not be more than a few inches for these baits. The technique is now used extensively by tackle retailers as it cuts dramatically the number of worms dying as a result of being closely confined or simply drying out.

The undoubted effectiveness of live sandeel has made them a familiar sight in tackle shops alongside more traditional baits like marine worms. In areas where the fish is common, an average size eel sells for about 10p, but you should be prepared to pay considerably more if they have to be transported long distances. Tidal conditions effect the commercial catching of eels, so it is always best to reserve a supply as far in advance of your trip.

Before the introduction of air pumps, the angler had to use a floating courge to keep sandeels alive. For hundreds of years they were made professionally from wickerwork in a variety of sizes, but the trade died out in the 1920s. They were pointed at both ends with a trap door in the top and could be towed behind a sailing or rowing boat so the eels were maintained in an almost natural environment.

The modern equivalent, and a very recent introduction, is a polypropylene container with a weight fastened to one side of the bottom which keeps it the right way up when it is trolled behind a boat. Streamlined in design, the Piano Troll can hold enough large eels for a good day’s sport. It features a clear door panel mounted on a strong spring which prevents water slopping out while the container is being transported. Eels and live prawns can be seen and removed quite easily. The only modification required is a small hole drilled in the top of the container to take the tube of an air pump. Slots at the rear of the bait carrier hold the pump securely. The current retail price is something in the region of £15.

It should be observed, though, that a wooden box with a pointed end and many holes to admit the passage of water, does more or less the same job at a fraction of the cost. It can be towed behind a slow craft without damaging the eels, but is usually placed in the water on a tether, when the boat is either drifting or at anchor over a mark.

During the journey out, the eels are kept fresh in a plastic drum to which buckets of seawater are con-stantly added. Some boats with glassfibre hulls have livebait tanks built in at the waterline. A constant change of water can be obtained by simply opening a sea-cock. With this refinement, both eels and other fish can be kept alive indefinitely.