Float or ledger fishing with a live sandeel is a successful and exciting way of fishing, and a good alternative to other live baits. The good thing about sandeels are that they are fairly easy to collect. Failing that they are also a good dead bait whether from frozen or fresh.
There are five varieties of sandeel that are indigenous to British waters:-
Ammodytes marinus (aka Raitt’s sandeel) – This is an offshore species preferring depths down to about 175 metres, although occasionally they can occur very close inshore around estuaries – grows to about 10ins.
Ammodytes tobianus – This is the most common inshore variety and rarely exceeds 20cms in length
Gymnammodytes semisquamatus (aka Smooth sandeel) – This is also an offshore species in depths of up to 600ft, with a maximum length 25cms.
Hyperoplus immaculatus (aka Corbin’s sandeel) – This is yet another offshore type in depths of between 100ft and 750ft and grows to around 30cms.
Hyperoplus lanceolatus (aka Greater sandeel) – This is common in depths from low tide level to 200ft. It is often referred to as ‘launce’ and grows up to a length of around 38cms.
Sandeels are mainly thought of as a summer bait as that is the time that they are mostly available to catch around estuaries and coastal areas. This is not the case, however, as they can still be caught when the water is at its coldest in January and February especially in the southwest. As a bait, they can be used all year round.
They are so called as they seek out sand and shingle banks to hide/bury and protect themselves when threatened from predators. Other places that they seek for protection are around pier supports, large mooring buoys. They try and keep close to the fringes of the mud flat creeks and drainage channels, and can be seen swimming close to weed beds and the edges of breakwaters and jetties.
How to catch Sandeel
Push Net – You need a push net made from a wooden frame, Y shaped and wider at the front than the back with a section of fine meshed netting to trap the fish/prawn/shrimp. A good set of waders is also advised as it involves wading in to the low water surf on a fairly calm day until the water is just over knee deep. Put the front of the net on the seabed at a shallow angle, then walk pushing the net in front of you across the surface of the sand as you go and stop every 10 – 15 meters or so, and without pausing lift the net clear of the water and empty the contents in to a bucket of fresh seawater. You never know what else you will find in respect to other bait in the net such as peeler crabs, prawn, shrimp, small flatfish etc.
Clear seas are not as good as when the surf is carrying a little a colour, sandeel panic easily when in clear water, but seem less cautious and prove easier to net where the surf is churning up the sand.
Raking – the main way that sandeels are collected inshore are by the way of raking using a thin curved laded tool known as a ‘Vingler’. It is drawn through the upper layers of sand along the upper edges of sandbanks – any wet sandbank next to standing pools of water will do. The Vingler is drawn repeatedly towards you in short zigzag strokes of about 8 to 10 cms. Once a sandeel is caught in the curve a resistance is felt and the blade can be lifted up out of the sand. Make sure that you are ready for the sandeel as they can get away extremely quickly.
Net/Trap – These are nets or baskets that are cylindrical in shape and are open at both ends with a mesh of some kind to stop the captured bait escaping. There is normally a place to put in some bait to attract the fish etc. The trap is then lowered into water and left for a few hours before being retrieved. These traps also attract crabs, prawns, shrimp and other small fish, or as in one of my recent forays a dogfish (probably gorged on all of my caught bait as there were none in the trap).
Feathers – The larger sandeels will quite happily take mackerel feathers, but you can substitute these for feathers with a smaller hook size. I have used white feathers with red binding and size 6 or 8 hooks in the past with some measure of success.
There is still the possibility of getting sandeel on other very light tackle with small hooks (down to about size 18) if you are that desperate to catch your own, or there is always the alternative way of getting them – buy them from your local tackle and bait shop – when in season you can get live sandeel, failing that you can get the frozen ones.
How to look after Sandeel
If you have taken the effort to catch your own (or if you have bought live ones) then you have to invest in an aerator and a bucket to keep them alive. If you don’t have an aerator, ensure you change the water in the bucket VERY regularly to provide ample oxygen to keep them in good shape. You can also keep them in wet newspaper/wrapped in a wet teatowel or cloth for a surprising amount of time (almost like they are when they are in the sandbank). To do this, dunk your cloth in sea water, carefully layer the eels and wrap them over with the cloth. If the layers of cloth are thick enough, resting the whole wrap on a frerezer block will keep them cool (whilst avoiding freezer burn.) I’ve kept eels alive overnight in the fridge many a time this way.
Frozen sandeels are best kept frozen whilst in transit to your mark, either in a cool box with ice blocks, in a thermos or failing that insulated well with newspaper.
As with all frozen fish baits the best quality bait is governed by how quick after capture it was frozen down, the longer it takes to be frozen the less effective it can be. Top quality frozen sandeel is normally blast frozen within an hour of being caught. The longer the fish is left, then the flesh starts to deteriorate and discolour with blood, and when the fish is thawed it will be soft fleshed and difficult to cut and present on the hook.
More evidence of this is if there is evidence of excessive blood weeping from the eyes and gills. The best test with frozen sandeel is to bend them round into a U shape after thawing them, if they burst at the sides and belly then they are not that good a quality.
How to bait up using Sandeel
Live – you can present the sandeel on either one or two hook rig in varying ways. With a one hook rig either up through the roof of the mouth, or lightly though its back just behind the head, or lightly through its tail so it can remain alive and kicking. With two hooks it is one through the roof of the mouth with the other ¾ the way down its belly. Live sandeels don’t work so well when ledgering, and are best used on a float or a freeline rig.
Fresh or Frozen – These can be presented in similar ways to above with the addition of being able to thread the bait all the way onto the hook, or by cutting the sandeel up into different chunks. You can also hook dead sandeel through the eyes.When you bait up as in the picture above (with a frozen sandeel), whipping a bit of bait cotton around it will ensure it stays where you want it to and not slump down the hook. Apart from not looing as much like a sand eel, it will also cause it to spin peculiarly in the water onthe retrieve and/or as it sinks – not only will this not look as natural, it may also twist and tangle yr snoods up. Removing the tail fin will also reduce this spin.
In a Cocktail – There is another method and that is to add other baits to make up a cocktail. One such cocktail to wrap the sandeel in a slice of squid and secure the squid with a bit of bait elastic, leaving the head and tail of the sand eel protruding. This method helps to protect the eel and it should keep a lot longer on the hook before having to change it.
What can I catch using Sandeel?
Fishing from the shore then you can expect just about anything. Live sandeel is good for bass, mackerel, garfish, pollack, sea trout, salmon and flounders. Frozen sandeel will take rays, bull huss, Pollack, wrasse, dogfish, whiting, coalfish.
Fishing offshore then sandeel is very effective over wrecks for pollack and Coalfish, over reefs for pollack, bass, codling, coalfish, rays and turbot, and over clean ground for turbot, huss, ray and tope.
Using small chunks you can expect whiting, dabs and dogfish.