Shrimps or prawns? In the world of marine biology the bigger ones are generally referred to as prawns and the smaller ones as shrimps. The actual differences in characteristics are based on length of antennae and the arrangement of the mouth parts and are difficult to recognise. The main focus of this feature is the smaller of the two. There are numerous different species of shrimps throughout UK waters and most are difficult to identify individually. Those of most interest to anglers are generally referred to as the common shrimp, brown shrimp, or sand shrimp. They are usually translucent with little colour to them other than a few faint coloured stripes, and bigger ones can grow to around 90mm in length.
Shrimps are crustaceans just like crabs, requiring to shed their shell to grow bigger. In some areas live shrimps can be collected easily in a small net in rock pools, or by pushing a dedicated shrimp push-net along a sandy beach. Shrimping is quite interesting in itself as all sorts of different things turn up in the net, including weever fish, small flatfish, sandeels and swimming crabs, some of which will be peelers.
There are few sea fish that will refuse a soft juicy shrimp. You just have to investigate the stomach contents of cod, bass, whiting, pouting and flatfish to see shrimps are on the everyday menu. Most other species of fish, at least in juvenile form, eat shrimps at some time in their lives. And in some parts of the country shrimps are a prime bait for thornback rays and cod.
A traditional shrimp net is typically of Y-shape construction, based on a triangular timber frame with a few struts for strength. A very small mesh net with a good deep pocket attaches to the frame and is most effective. Alternatively a triangular-shaped carp landing net can also be used but this will require a length of timber or metal pipe to be fitted to the bottom end. The bottom portion makes contact with the bottom, disturbing the shrimps and small flatfish etc which are then caught in the net. Such improvised shrimp nets are not as effective as custom traditional versions but they work well enough.
The summer months are the best time to collect shrimps. A calm sea with just a little stirring surf makes the best conditions for success. Wade out to around waist depth and push the net along the bottom in front of you parallel with the shoreline, making sure contact with the bottom is maintained. Trial and error will tell you when to lift the net for inspection... usually a good 50 metre push will suffice before emptying the contents ideally onto a plastic sheet and sorting out what you want to keep.
Once collected, shrimps won't keep alive for very long, even in oxygenated water, so be prepared to either use them soon after capture, cook them to use later, or freeze. Smaller cooked shrimps can be fiddly to peel, so if you have a good supply, select the bigger ones. Simply snap the tail section off and break the shell open along its length. Done correctly, the pink/brown coloured meat should pop out whole and ready to use.
Shrimps are very underrated and not widely used as a bait beyond certain areas of the country. In the West Country, for example, they are regularly used as an estuary flounder bait. Elsewhere they are used as a cod bait when uptide fishing, with twenty or more whole specimens threaded up the hook length, usually in cocktail conjunction with lugworm to make a really big bait. Availability of freshly caught specimens seems to be the main reason why cooked shrimps are not more widely used.
Cooked and peeled shrimps or prawns, available in supermarkets, are also effective for the likes of flatfish and whiting. Larger imported prawns are quite expensive, but the smaller cooked prawns are not, costing around £1.30 for 100 grammes, or 40 to 50 prawns from your local wet fish shop. I think that most anglers will be very surprised by just how effective live shrimps and even cooked prawns can be, but it is important to cut them a fair trial as they won't produce the goods every time.
Live or dead shrimps/prawns are easy to present on a fine wire Aberdeen hook. Hook a few whole specimens through the length of the body and push them up the hook snood, add a few worms or a strip of mackerel etc and then compress the bait back down onto the hook. Use a bait stop such as a piece of telephone wire to keep the whole thing in place. One or two whole shrimps on a small Aberdeen hook makes an ideal scratching bait for flatties and pouting etc, and tipping off with a thin strip of mackerel, squid, or ragworm will often make the bait even more attractive.
Similarly, use cooked peeled prawns, but be sure to tie them on with a few turns of fine elastic thread. They are quite tough but can be of a crumbly texture, so bait up carefully and make sure not to bind them on too tightly, as this will just cut through into the bait causing it to fall off the hook. Short casting for estuary flounder with a simple flapping rig is fine, but more forceful casting requires a clipped rig.
Shrimp is also a good bait for floatfishing for bass, small coalfish, pouting and pollack etc. When used live the bigger specimens can be hooked singularly, or in groups of two or three, nipped lightly through the tail so that they can move naturally. I collect old angling books and many tell that shrimps or prawns of whatever size were a favourite bass bait of the past. The cooked versions can also be mixed with groundbait and I have had some big Scottish mullet taken on a small piece of shrimp flesh, although keeping smaller coalfish and pollack away from the bait can be a big problem.
Video of how to present a live shrimp: http://www.planetseafishing.com/video/watch-hooking-a-shrimp-for-live-bait-fishing/