Angling: Worm turns germs green

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The Independent Online
MY FRIEND Dr David Solomon, one of Europe's foremost fish scientists, has an even more impressive claim to fame. He once dug up a 36in ragworm. It was of the variety called, not surprisingly, a king ragworm, and it lived in the mud by Southend Pier in Essex. We were shovelling away at the Southend treacle when David's fork uncovered a large worm burrow. He followed it and found part of the worm. As he dug, more and more of it was revealed, like a magician pulling hankies from his mouth.

When the monster was fully exposed, it took two hands to load it into the bait tray. Later we measured and photographed it next to a ruler, like some prize fish. Angling Times duly printed the photograph, and nobody came back to dispute our claim (notice how I have cunningly claimed joint ownership) to having dug up the biggest ragworm in the world.

The word ragworm does not do justice to this marine monster. If it grew to 20 feet, it would be the stuff of nightmares. Frank Herbert's Dune may well have been inspired by a ragworm. Imagine a garden worm. Colour it bright red, green and yellow. Add a streak here and there... and lots of legs. Ragworm have so many, they make a millipede look like a monopede.

Now squash the legs flat so they look like gills and colour them yellow. For the final flourish (a nice touch this), add a set of retractable pincers. At the head end, stupid. Voila! You have a ragworm, the seagoing equivalent of Mr Potatohead.

They would probably live happily ever after in the marine mud and sand, were it not for fish and fishermen. In their various guises (sand, harbour, white, king), ragworm are eaten by almost all fish. I thought it was probably because they tasted good (though I've never chewed on a ragworm). But there may be more to it than that, if we are to believe research being undertaken by a Sheffield student.

Did you ever see a glum cod? My information on this is somewhat sketchy because it came from the tail-end of a television news item. But from what I can gather ragworm could hold the key to cheering up sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the affliction that besets light lovers and those depressed by dank winter days. Sadly, I missed the vital part, telling me how this was supposed to happen. All I caught was a shot of a bemused-looking student talking about ragworm. He had that slightly shifty look of someone who has devised a good jape and suddenly discovers people are taking him very seriously.

Perhaps I missed the vital bit of the jigsaw, but it seems to go something like this. Ragworm live in the dark and are never miserable, therefore they can give us vital clues to help those who take to their beds when the sun stops shining. Finding a yummy ragworm certainly makes fish happy. Discovering a 3ft one made Dave and myself ecstatic. But how can you communicate this to those SAD souls?

Certainly not by keeping ragworm around your home. As pets they leave something to be desired because they spend most of their time buried in the mud. That's not going to cheer anybody up. Certainly not by popping a pint of ragworm into a liquidiser and letting them ferment. Dead ragworm has the worst smell in the world. I speak from bitter experience here, having left a packet of ragworm in my car and forgotten about it. Months later the smell still lingered, like a child's nightmare.

SAD is all about levels of the neuro-transmitter seratonin and the hormone melatonin. Light increases seratonin but decreases melatonin. Lower amounts of light hitting the eyes mean lower levels of seratonin and higher levels of melatonin in your brain. Lower seratonin levels result in depression, and higher levels of melatonin result in fatigue and a desire to sleep.

I'm not sure how this relates to ragworm. I can only suggest that a sturdy fork and a few hours toiling in Southend's mud will soon stop you worrying about long winter nights. Your back will be aching too much. But you might just find a 37in king ragworm.