Simon Everett explains how to get hold of a vital bass livebait. This article first appeared in Saltwater Boat Angling magazine.
I am not sure why, but live prawn as bait seems to have fallen out of favour. When I was growing up, live prawn was a popular bait for many inshore species, especially along rocky shorelines or over reefy ground. There isn’t much that won’t eat a prawn and they make excellent bait for flatfish in estuaries, on broken ground they are eaten by virtually everything that swims, including squid and cuttlefish. The most popular use for them though was to target bass, pollack and ballan wrasse, all of which will take a live prawn with the utmost confidence.
There are two main methods used for fishing a live prawn – under a sliding float or freelined with a light bullet weight, but they can be legered from an anchored boat with great success in certain cirumstances. However, before you can use live prawns for bait you have to collect them and this requires some effort.
Pots and traps
There are prawn pots, or traps, available on the market which, provided you have a good, overhanging ledge or similar prawn holding feature, can supply you with sufficient numbers to use, but it takes time and a sustained effort. You would need several pots and soak them several times to collect enough prawns for a trip. Another successful method that I used to great effect was working three drop-nets in rotation at night along the harbour wall. Obviously, this can work for one or two anglers, but it is very easy to fish a place out if too much pressure is put on them and I have seen fights where a few people have been trying to work the same stretch of wall.
By far the best way of getting a ready supply of prawns is to use a hand net and get wet. Although in these days of breathable waders there is no need to brave the water by wet wading in shorts, thereby remaining dry and comfortable. If the water is too deep to wade, then you aren’t in the best spot to catch prawns anyway. By wading on an incoming tide and targeting harbour walls, rock ledges or weed banks, especially stands of bladderwrack, you should be able to catch a few dozen decent prawns in an hour, or in prolific areas, much less than an hour.
When gathering your prawns be very selective, it is very easy to kill the goose that lays the golden egg by taking too many and the wrong ones. I always put the berried females back, irrespective of size. The females with eggs are recognised by the dark patch under the belly and they are the basis of your stock, take these and you will soon empty your patch. I also discard those that are too small, these are no use as bait and are your future big prawns. The best ones are the size of your index finger, or larger and these are the ones that will catch the fishes eye, the small ones will only catch tiddlers.
Keeping them alive – the courge
To keep the prawns alive a bucket of water will work for a few, but if once the numbers build you need a good aerator to keep them alive. By far the best way of keeping prawns alive is to use a courge. In my formative years I used to use a wooden courge that we kept afloat on the mooring, it was about 3 feet long, 18-inches deep and shaped like a double ended landing craft. It had two compartments, one end for sandeels, the other for prawns with a lid each to access one compartment at a time. The ‘box’ was lined with hessian sacking to help filter the water coming through the percolation holes and reduce the turbulence within the courge through wave action, it helped to reduce mortality greatly over when it was unlined. Making one out of plywood is not difficult but there are also injection moulded ones on the market, such as the Flambeau that I use with a spring loaded lid to make it easy, both when putting your captives away, or when getting one out to use. There are quite a few options on the market now, when it comes to livebait buckets, I like this floating version as it is easy to tether to me and the prawns are in constantly recycling water.
Start at low tide
When hunting your prawns, start at low tide in water about a foot deep. Work the area as the tide comes in, keeping an eye on your escape route so you don’t get cut off! I look for stands of weed and rocks with weed around them, this gives natural cover for the prawns, which will cling to the underside of overhangs, or in crevices. They naturally want to swim down and away, so start hard on the bottom and bring the net upwards, keeping it tight to the face of the rock or wall. With overhangs, stick the net in as far as you can, with the handle slightly downward and the tip of the net slightly higher, then drag the net gently outwards, any prawns hanging underneath the ledge will be dislodged and will dive into the net. For bladderwrack stands, start the net at the bottom of the stand of weed and sweep upwards, fairly swiftly, any prawns hanging in the weed will swim into the net.
I always sort the prawns in the net, it is much easier to sort out any small fish and crabs that get caught at the same time. I quite frequently catch corkwing wrasse, butterfish and gobies when prawning, it is up to you if you want to keep these as well as the prawns, certainly bass will devour them, especially corkwings.
To keep the prawns alive for the longest, I float the courge overboard on a lanyard, that way the prawns are always in fresh water and remain in perfect condition. There is no finer bait than a lively prawn on a hook, takes are normally very rapid and it isn’t often a prawn will stay out without getting taken for more than a minute. Our harbours and estuaries are good hunting grounds for prawns, so give them a try.