Prawn and shrimp as bait

Whether or not you acknowledge prawn as a sporting game bait, there is no doubting its appeal, and nothing to deter the coarse angler from putting both prawn and shrimp to good use.

Of all game fishing topics, the use of prawn as bait for salmon is among the most contentious and most likely to raise the blood pressure of all involved. That the prawn is an effec-tive bait, there is no doubt. In fact, it is perhaps the prawn’s oversuccess that first arouses the critics, for under the right conditions the prawn can be so deadly that its use seems close to unsporting, virtually too easy.

Prawn’s two extreme effects

Why the salmon—a fish that does not feed naturally in freshwater—takes any bait or fly is something we may never know. Why it should take a prawn, often after refusing all other offerings, is equally baffling. Perhaps it awakens a memory of food taken during its period of intense sea feeding. If so, why a bright red prawn should be attractive only adds to the mystery, for while boiled baits are red, a live prawn is almost colourless.

However, apart from inciting fish to take, a prawn can also frighten salmon, and even make them leave the pool completely. Those are the two extremes, but at other times, salmon just ignore the prawn, with the same disdain as for other baits.

The real acrimony that surrounds the use of the prawn is probably due to the fact that it can disturb fish, but whatever the reason, the hostility of some anglers is aroused, with the result that the prawn is banned completely on some waters. In some cases the ban is enforced through a bye-law applying to the whole river or area; in others it may apply only to a particular fishery.

The author does not intend to discuss the ethics of this well-documented practice, except to make two points. On public, association and other waters fished by a large number of anglers, a ban does make for greater accord. For the author, this justifies the restriction, for fishing is truly worthwhile only when undertaken in an atmosphere of complete harmony.

Secondly, because of tremendous environmental and commercial pressures, the survival of the salmon, together with a catchable surplus, is currently the subject of great concern. If the banning of any form of fishing, sporting or commercial, allows the survival of more fish to spawn, then it must be to the long-term good. Faced also with the anger that the bait causes, prawning could end up banned for reasons, ostensibly, of better conservation.

Now to the prawn itself and how it is fished. In most cases the natural prawn is used—either fresh or preserved—although artificials made of plastic are available.

Prawns preserved in glycerine are obtainable from most tackle dealers. This convenient practice makes bottled prawns very popular. Some meticulous anglers prefer the bait to be ready for mounting before preserving. This they achieve by inserting a cocktail stick through the body of the prawn to keep it straight.

Colour problem in prawns

Another method is to straighten and wrap each prawn individually in kit-chen foil before placing in the deep freeze. As to colour, orangepink is generally thought to be best, although plenty of fish are taken on pillar-box red prawns, and some experienced salmon fishers favour a deep magenta. Prawns bought straight off the fishmonger’s slab will catch fish, but they tend to be dry and discolour quickly, so that in water they look almost white. Moreover, as they are also brittle, the shells of shop-bought prawns are liable to break along the back.

Many experienced anglers like the bait to be ‘in berry’—that is, with the prawn’s eggs present. Others feel the long antennae (whiskers) are important and go to great pains to add more artificial feelers made of dyed nylon line. Some believe that the sharp horn of a big prawn should be removed lest it prick the salmon’s mouth and prevent hooking. These approaches, although not necessarily important, may be worth trying and may give the user confidence.

The prawn is usually fished with a standard spinning rod and reel, although in some conditions a long, double-handed fly rod gives better bait control. There are two basic methods of using the prawn—spinning and sink-anddraw, or trailing. In both methods the prawn is straightened and mounted, tail first, on a needle. For spinning, the needle will have a set of spinning vanes to make the bait revolve. With the sink-anddraw technique the vanes are omitted and movement is given to the bait by raising and lowering the rod tip. Depending on the force and depth of the water, some prawn tackles have lead incorporated on the hook mount (not on the needle, as on a sprat mount). The bait is secured with fine copper wire or better still, prawn-coloured elastic thread. For both spinning and trailing it is best to nip off the prawn’s tail as otherwise this will flap open and interfere with the bait’s action.

Versatile prawn

The prawn can be used in all conditions of water—high or low, dark or clear. In summer, when the water is low, it is often the only bait that will take. Despite its versatility, many anglers consider the prawn solely as a summer bait, preferring to use a conventional minnow, or a natural sprat, in the early spring.

Spinning with a prawn is very like normal spinning. The trace is leaded to suit conditions and altered as circumstances require. The aim is to bring the bait through the fish’s lie as slowly as possible. When covering a broad river the spinning mount is best. When fish are lying in narrow gulleys between rocks, the sink-anddraw method allows you to present the bait in a more subtle way, particularly if the line is slowly lengthened so that the bait drops steadily through the pool.

Coarse fishing with prawns Because of its long association with salmon fishing, not many anglers realize that the prawn can and indeed often is used as an excellent bait for coarse fishing.

The fact that you may be unable to obtain a supply of uncooked prawns does not matter at all. The boiled prawn is a much better bait, being tough and hard-wearing. It can be used freeline, on ledger tackle, or suspended beneath a float, depending upon the requirements of the water that you are fishing and the species sought. With it, chub, barbel and perch can readily be caught, as can eels and even the occasional pike.

The whole prawn is used, and the hook (which should be size 8) is passed just once through the tail section—not the tail itself, but the meatier section just above the tail.

In waters where there are stocks of freshwater crayfish, it can be a good idea to dye the prawn, and leading household hot water dyes are ideal for this. Select a mid-brown colour, and make it up to the manufacturer’s specifications but with only half the suggested amount of water. As the dye is cooling down, drop the prawns in and leave them for half an hour. Inspect them to see whether the colour is satisfactory: it is a good idea to remove a few as soon as a brown shade has developed, then a few more half an hour later when the colour is darker, and so on, until you have a range from light to dark.

After dyeing, the prawns should be thoroughly washed, dried off, and preserved until needed by popping them into a freezer or the ice-making compartment of a refrigerator.

Deep-frozen shelled prawns

Shelled prawns, as well as whole prawns, make an excellent bait for all coarse fish, and these days they can be obtained deep-frozen. Remember to buy the pack described as ‘free flow’ because then the prawns will all be separate—some catering packs turn out to be solid blocks of ice with the prawns frozen into them. With the free flow packs, you can take out just as many as you need for a day’s fishing, returning the rest to the deep freeze for another time.

Just as with the whole prawn, shelled prawns can be used for float fishing, ledgering and freelining, and they will be taken enthusiastically by any coarse fish large enough to eat them. If groundbaiting is necessary, a few chopped prawns can be mixed into a cereal ground-bait, but it is cheaper (and just as effective) to buy a small jar of prawn paste from the grocers. If you cannot obtain prawn paste, buy crab paste—a good substitute when mixed in with your groundbait.


Unfortunately, prawns are an expensive bait whether you buy freshly boiled whole ones or a freezer pack of the shelled variety, and it may seem a pity to waste them on the fish when you could be eating them yourself! It is almost certainly true that you will be just as successful if you can catch freshwater crayfish and use these.

They are easy enough to catch if you can find a clean river or stream that holds large numbers of them. All you have to do is fasten a piece of stale fish or meat to a drop net, lower it into the water until it is resting on the bottom and pull it up at intervals to transfer your catch to a bait box. This bait box should con-tain a generous amount of damp waterweed but no water.

To use crayfish as bait, kill them by pinching the head firmly with finger and thumb, and put your hook through the meaty part of the tail, just as with the whole prawn. If you use a big crayfish that has large claws, you can break these off after it has been killed. If you prefer to use cooked crayfish, drop them into boiling, salted water, where they will immediately turn red. Once cooked, you can use them whole or shelled.

Freshwater shrimp

Many fisheries, where the water quality is good, contain large numbers of freshwater shrimps. They look exactly like the sea shrimp but are very much smaller, and they make an excellent hookbait for many coarse fish, particularly roach and dace.

To collect freshwater shrimp, you need a piece of plastic sheeting—a big polythene bag will do—and something with which to pull weeds out of the water. Quickly pull a mass of weeds out of the water, hold it over the plastic sheet, laid flat on the ground, and shake it. Shrimps, nymphs and all manner of odd creatures will drop out of the weed on to the sheet and they can all be tipped into a bait box, where they can be sorted out.

Great care must be taken in hooking a freshwater shrimp because it is very fragile. Obviously, a tiny, very fine wire hook is needed—Nos 18, 20 or 22—so, clearly, the hook link has to be correspondingly fine. Using a No 18 hook, it is often possible to put on two, or even three small shrimps at a time.