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Written by Mike Thrussell
Fresh bait is a big advantage and is essential for achieving the very best catches. Nobody doubts that, but it's wrong to assume that all areas have adequate bait supplies and that there are good tackle shops within sensible travelling range that stock quality bait.
Many areas have limited natural bait beds and a lack of good tackle shops, often these shops stock only a few sets of mackerel feathers, the odd float and spinner, and maybe a few packets of salted lug for the tourist trade only. Serious anglers are left out on a limb.
This in mind then, what's the quality of frozen bait available, does it catch fish in it's own right, and just how much of a disadvantage is it if you need to rely on frozen bait?
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING FROZEN BAITS
Another little known factor that effects the quality of frozen mackerel is the depth at which it was caught. If mackerel are deep and in colder water when caught they freeze better than when working shallow in the height of the summer. Logical when you think about it!
When buying frozen mackerel or herring, first check that the eyes are clear and are not badly stained with blood around the eye sockets. Another bad sign is a quantity of blood in the gill area. The flesh should retain some of the mackerel's natural colouring, though inevitably, this is bound to fade somewhat after death. The belly should be stark white and not be carrying a yellow tinge to it.
Packets of sandeel are the same. Left too long before freezing sees blood weeping from the eyes and gills and this collects in the packet at the head end. Freshly frozen sandeels have no blood evident.
Check that squid is white fleshed and not pink. Also, any sign of a dark liquid present suggests that the time lapse between catch and freezer was too long and that the bait is past it's best.
Fresh mussel, when frozen, should be a dull orange to yellow colour. If the flesh has started to grey, then it's a sign that the mussel was in a poor state when finally frozen.
Black lug frozen directly in newspaper proves a poor system. The best frozen lug is blast frozen worm that is then hermetically sealed in a polythene bag, or to a lesser degree separately wrapped and frozen in cling film.
The difficulty comes with crabs which are commercially frozen in their shells and shellfish like razorfish. Generally, these are alive when frozen, so should be good bait if frozen by a proper company and carrying a branded name. But some unscrupulous individuals may try to freeze down already dead crabs and suspect shellfish of dubious vintage. This is more likely to happen in a tackle shop where an amount of bait may go off at times of slow demand and the owner cuts his losses by freezing the residue.
Some tackle shops are stocking sandeel and mackerel netted for them and brought directly to their premises for freezing in a domestic type chest freezer. This is okay and will catch you fish providing the time between sea and freezing point was not too long. But however hard you try, the time it takes for a chest freezer to freeze a bulk of mackerel fully can take well over 12 hours and some breakdown of flesh composition is inevitable. A blast frozen system sees the fish rock hard within 1 hour for smaller Joey mackerel, but can take up to 4 hours for a 2lb plus jumbo mackerel to be fully frozen through to the inner body cavity.
Also remember that a whole dollop of mackerel dumped in a freezer at once, as is the case with most tackle shops, sees those on the outside insulating the ones in the middle, further enhancing breakdown time. This also applies to anglers trying to freeze their own bait.
CARRYING AND STORING FROZEN BAIT
When you buy frozen bait it should be taken straight out of the tackle shop freezer and put into a cool box carried into the shop with you. Put the bait at the bottom of the box and pack at least three frozen ice packs on top. Too many anglers put the packs in the bottom, but remember that cold air falls so the best place for the packs is on the top. Try to fill the box to the top, either with bait, or with packs. Empty areas will increase the thawing effect. Also use the cool box in this way to transport bought frozen bait for long term home storage in the freezer.
This applies to the domestic freezer too, with empty room in the freezer allowing in too much warm air which makes the freezer work extra hard to cool things down again and increasing overall freezing time.
Mackerel packed singly are a better choice than those packed in two's and threes. This means less wastage for short sessions.
HOW DOES FROZEN BAIT COMPARE TO FRESH AND WHAT WILL IT CATCH?
It catches all the species fresh mackerel will, but dogfish and huss show a definite liking for the blast frozen stuff and big shark and common skate have ignored fresh baits to hit a frozen bait. It's to do with the way the flesh breaks down and the corresponding change in the way the bait smells. Conger also take the frozen quite happily.
The acid test with frozen sandeel is to bend them round into a U shape after thawing. Poor examples will burst at the sides and bellies. Best of the lot is the Predator product which are the firmest by far.
It's the answer to going fishing at a moments notice and confidence soon comes in it's effectiveness. It's other use is that it will catch the smaller species that are the quick route to specimen predatory fish like conger, tope and bass. Not an end in itself, but a means to an end!