The deadly ragworm

Unlike the lugworm, which filter-feeds peacefully in the shelter of its burrow, the ragworm is a voracious carnivore and scavenger that forages relentlessly through sand and mud. Looking somewhat like a cross between an earthworm and a giant centipede, it propels itself along on a mass of bristly ‘legs’ and seizes its food – small invertebrates, alive or dead – with a pair of extendible, claw-like pincers. Red rag are the most common type. They grow to about 20cm long and are usually found in gritty mud. Red rag catch most species but are particularly good in summer for flatfish and bass.

King rag are like red rag but grow to 50cm or more and prefer sand to mud. They are excellent for big bass, cod, smooth-hounds, pollack, coalfish and rays. White rag are nearly as big as red rag but are much less common. They are found in clean sand and are one of the shore match-man’s favourite baits, being deadly for small fish, especially flatties. Harbour rag, or maddies, are red in colour and grow to only 10cm at most. They live in soft estuarine mud and are a superb bait for flounders and mullet.

Digging rag

To dig rag you need a flat-pronged potato fork, gum boots or waders and a pair of old gloves. Always wear gloves because mud and sand beds often contain hidden pieces of broken glass, rusty tin cans and the like.

To find red, king or white rag, walk slowly across the mud or sand looking down at your feet for tiny spurts of water from small holes in the sand. Trench-dig a patch where the spurts and holes are densest. Break open the clods of sand or mud carefully because rag are soft and damage easily.

To help future stocks, take only large, mature worms and only as many as you really need. And always backfill trenches so there are no nasty potholes for unsuspecting swimmers when the tide comes in.

Maddies are much easier to find and dig. Patches of soft mud pitted with tiny holes yield dozens in a matter of a few forkfuls.

Storing rag

Rag require careful handling and storing to keep them in tip-top condition. Unlike lug, they are only useable live. Frozen, they become too mushy.

Ideally you should use rag within a day of digging them, but it is possible to keep them alive and well for a few weeks. Take only whole, undamaged worms. Any broken ones soon die and contaminate the rest.

Red, king and white rag can be kept in shallow tanks or trays of clean, aerated sea-water. Store in a cool, dark place – a fridge, ideally – and check twice a day for dead or dying worms.

The day before fishing, spread the rag out on a tray lined with newspaper or moisture-absorbing particle chips, and put them back in the fridge. If you can get some fresh seaweed to cover them with, all the better. In hot weather or when faced with a long drive, it is best to transport them in a cool box.

Maddies are even more delicate, so need even more careful handling. Rinse them clean of mud in fresh seawater then lay them in a tray lined with newspaper. Maddies keep for up to a week in a fridge.

Hooking rag

Always match size of bait and hook. For flatfish and other small species, thread a single red or white rag on a small, fine-wire Aberdeen. For bigger fish, thread two or three on and above a larger Kamasan B940.

King rag can be used in sections for small fish, or whole for big fish.

Maddies need a very small, fine-wire hook and can be fished singly or in bunches, threaded on or hooked through the middle.