Curing and Dying Prawns
Every spring we get hundreds of calls to PRO-CURE with frustrated anglers asking us "how do you cure prawns? What's the secret? The guides with great prawns are just hammering the springers." If you haven't fished for spring Chinook in the Portland, Oregon area this prawn thing may not make a whole lot of sense to you, because fishing with whole prawns for salmon is really unique to this area.
Every January through May many thousands of spring Chinook enter the Columbia River and migrate up this mighty river. Many continue upstream into Washington and Idaho, but a huge shot of these fish enter the Willamette river in downtown Portland, with thousands of anglers trying their best to catch these prized fish. These springers are some of the best eating salmon in the world, and cherished for their delicate flavor. It seems every stretch of the river has fish that show a marked preference for certain types of baits. In some areas it seems only rigged whole or cut plug herring will work. Other stretches it's all wobblers or Quikfish, and in other areas only cured salmon eggs and sand shrimp combinations seem to get bit. And in some stretches when the water conditions get 'just right' it seems all these finicky springers will eat is a cured arctic prawn. So the knowledgeable anglers will always have a supply of top quality 'cured" artic prawns with them. If you don't have prawns with you and the fish go onto a prawn bite you'll do a whole lot of watching as boat after boat go about netting these chrome beauties. But it's not just having prawns with you. You have to have the colors they want, and the prawns have to be fished whole, as it seems prawn tails only just won't work for most of these salmon (although steelhead go nuts on the prawn tails only.) In fact many top guides are so picky they look for prawns with both eyes and feelers as well as hard heads and hard bodies.
Since these prawns need to be fished whole the quality of the prawn you buy is critical to the success of the bait. Most of the artic prawns that are harvested and marketed as bait come out of Nova Scotia, Canada. In recent years more prawns have been coming down from British Columbia. The B.C. prawns are mostly Coons and Spots, and if you can find a reliable source they make an excellent bait. But most of the prawns available come from Nova Scotia. If you decide to purchase "cured and dyed" prawns it's pretty easy to pick out good bait from bad. They are usually trayed with a clear plastic shrink film over them. GENTLY pressing on the heads will quickly tell you if these prawns are going to make the grade or not. If the heads are hollow or soft they probably will fall apart as soon as you fish them. These inferior prawns usually do not produce fish. There are 5 or 6 bait companies in the Portland, Oregon area that sell trayed cured prawns. Some take great care in putting out a top quality product, and some don't. Also a lot of how the final product comes out depends on the quality of the prawns purchased. These prawns are harvested for the food industry, and quite frankly this is a multi million dollar industry, and none of these shrimp harvesting operations could give a hoot about how hard the shells and heads are for a few small companies in Oregon that are using these prawns for bait.
Most of the Nova Scotia prawns are sold in 5 kilo or 11 pound boxes. All boxes have harvest dates, so one would think it would be possible to zero in on the best dates to assure you are buying the best quality prawns. There are 2 major problems with this theory. Firstly there are hundreds of boats harvesting, cooking, freezing and boxing these prawns on board while they are at sea. These processing boats might be processing prawns on the same dates, but hundreds of miles from each other. The quality of these prawns can be light years apart. Some can be rock hard, and others soft as soft can be. Secondly prawns go through periods of spawning, where the eggs travel from inside their heads through their body to finally appear on their legs. They also go through molting periods, where their skin or shell gets very soft. Also right after spawning their heads are very hollow. Much of their spawning cycle is dependent on water temperatures, which varies with ocean currents every year. So just like our salmon and steelhead runs can be late or don't come at all every year the prawns are molting and egg laying at different times due to ocean conditions. So the companies that buy these prawns for bait often don't have great control of the quality of bait that they can buy. One of the major prawn suppliers in the Portland is Bill Williamson of B.C. Angling Post in Oregon City. Bill has really dedicated himself to buying good prawns, and has traveled back to Nova Scotia to make sure they understand what he is looking for. This is not to say that other companies don't offer top quality prawns. It's just that I have seen consistently better quality coming from B.C. Angling Post. They sell both cured / dyed tray bait and also sell bulk frozen prawns by the box.
I mention this because we are going to be talking about curing and dying prawns, but no bait cure is magic. If you buy soft, hollow headed prawns don't expect a miracle brine to make these bad baits better. It won't. So buying top quality prawns is a must. Also remember you are buying these prawns frozen solid, so all the heads and bodies look great frozen. You may be very disappointed once they defrost. So try your hardest to get good bait. If your supplier doesn't understand the difference between food grade and bait grade I suggest you look for another supplier. If you want to see what B.C. Angling Post has to offer in uncured prawns give Bill a call at 503-655-4161. He's a serious angler and knows what you are looking for.
Once you have purchased your prawns it is critical you keep them frozen until you are ready to brine them. Since the needs of each angler differ I have given the basic cure formula to do either one pound of prawns or a full 11 pound box. I will also discuss dying prawns. At one time I had considered putting out a commercially made prawn cure but felt guilty about doing it as the main ingredient is salt. Lots of salt. And a few other goodies. Some are necessary, and some are optional. I recommend using a good quality sea salt as your curing salt. Sea salt adds a little more flavor appeal over regular salt. It's a little more expensive, but well worth the price. Always use a non iodized salt. Pickling salt will work fine too. The other thing is the water quality. Never use city supplied chlorinated water. For a few bucks you can get all the purified or distilled water you'll need at your local super market. You should allow 2 to 3 days for your prawns to brine properly. Always immerse your prawns completely frozen, but once in the brine the solution can be kept at room temperature without harming your baits. I like using clean plastic containers but stainless steel containers or glass containers can also be used. Stay away from aluminum and enameled metal ware. These can have really weird reactions to the dyes.
BASIC CURING FORMULA FOR 1 POUND OF PRAWNS
2 quarts Purified Water
CURING FORMULA FOR 1 BOX (11 pounds) OF PRAWNS in a 5 gal. plastic pail
2 1/2 Gallons Purified Water
Always make sure your salt and chemicals are totally mixed in. You can use a slotted spoon or stir stick for the smaller batches, but if you are mixing the larger batch I strongly recommend you get an electric drill and a paint mixing cage or paddle to make your life easy. Putting in the right quantities and not getting them completely stirred into solution is as bad as not putting them in at all. Salinity is critical. If you are not sure of your brines salinity a good test is to drop in a medium sized potato. If it floats on top you are close to a 100% salt solution, which is exactly what you want.
Each day your prawns should be gently agitated. If the prawns are floating loosely in the solution you can gently stir them with a slotted spoon, etc. However I recommend cutting about a 2 to 3 foot piece of PVC (or CVPC) pipe and using it to BLOW into the brine solution. Place the tube at the bottom of the container and blow hard. This will remix any of the chemicals and salt that have fallen out of solution without damaging your prawns. If you aggressively use a stir stick or paddle you will knock many head right off of your prawns and ruin most of them. So stir gently or use the air method when agitating your baits and re mixing chemicals.
The PRO-CURE Bad Azz Bait Dyes are perfect for dying prawns. With the six colors available you can dye prawns just about any color under the sun. You can easily do deep magenta, pink, fire engine red, chartreuse, chartreuse lime, Kelly green, blue, orange, purple, and all shades in between. Since the prawns are going to soak in brine for 2 to 3 days it is imperative that you don't use too much dye at first. You can always add more dye but if your colors are too dark to start with you can't make your baits any lighter. So add small amounts of dye to your brine solution to begin with. After the first full day of brining your baits before you remix the chemicals take a look at how your baits are taking the dyes and if the color you are getting is what you want. Remember you can always add more dye if you are not getting the intensity of color that you desire. Additional dye can be added right up to a few hours before you remove your prawns from their brine solution. CRITICAL - when adding dye to your brine solution always mix the dye in a small amount of fresh UNSALTED water first. Once the dye is totally liquefied add it to your brine solution and gently stir in (or use air to mix it as described above.) If you add dyes to salted water they will lump and clump up and not mix in. But don't use so much water that you change the salinity of your brine solution.
When dying lots of colors from one box of prawns (11 pounds) I recommend you make the larger amount of brine with no dyes added. Then measure out the mixed brine into smaller containers based on how many prawns you want to do of a certain color. When it comes to colors and dying prawns it's no secret that the deep magenta / deep dark pink color is probably the most consistent color /producer. But on different days and different water conditions many colors will have their moments. Natural colored prawns ( no dye added to brines), chartreuse, green, orange, reds and purples can all be hot. Each dye color has it's own strength and properties. To give you some kind of a guideline in you were doing one pound of prawns in 2 quarts of water for the chartreuse yellow add two to three level 1/8 teaspoons of dye. If you add too much of the Chartreuse dye you will get a ugly mustard yellow color instead of the brilliant chartreuse color you want. If you want a lime chartreuse or a stronger green prawn blue dye must be added to your chartreuse brine solution. The blue dye is so powerful you cannot add it as a powder. It cannot be controlled. So mix the tip of an 1/8 teaspoon into the blue powder and the dissolve this in a cup of clean unsalted water. Add the blue water by the teaspoon to you chartreuse dye and you will instantly see the yellow turn green. Remember your prawns are going to soak a few days so don't add too much blue at the beginning. More dye can always be added later on.
If you want a great fire engine red prawn first soak them in the Chartreuse dye for a day and then soak these same prawns in a red dye / brine solution. Instead of coming out the regular deep magenta color you'll get a brilliant fire engine red. The most intense dyes are the Metallic Blue and the Deep Purple. The Brilliant Red and Fire Orange are medium intensity, and the Chartreuse Lime and the Brite Pink are the weakest.
If you were doing a 2 1/2 gallon brine solution of a single color I would suggest you start by adding 1 teaspoon of the Metallic Blue for blue prawns. The same amount of the Deep Purple dye should be added for purple prawns. For the deep magenta prawns add 1 tablespoon of the Brilliant Red Bad Azz dye, and the same amount of the Fire Orange dye for orange prawns. For light pink prawns add 2 tablespoons of the Brite Pink dye. For chartreuse yellow prawns add 2 to 4 tablespoons of the Chartreuse Lime dye. Again remember to never add the powdered dyes directly to your salted brine water. Always mix the dyes into a little unsalted water, stir until completely dissolved, and then add this dye liquid to you brine solution. Remember to always go light on your dyes as you can always add more to get the colors you water after day one. A really hot tip on getting brilliant chartreuse colors is to add 1/4 to 1 teaspoon of baking soda to your dye solution to bring up the alkalinity of your Chartreuse dye solution. Use the baking soda only for the chartreuse color. To get a glow fluorescent green prawn take your chartreuse dye solution and add a few teaspoons of made blue dye solution to your chartreuse dye bath. It will instantly turn bright green, and so will your prawns.
After removing your prawns from your brine solution give them an hour or two to drain in a plastic strainer. Remember these brines will permanently stain so always cure bait and mix dyes in an area that won't be ruined by dyes stains, etc. The dyes will permanently stain rugs, tile floors, kitchen sinks and counter tops so be careful and be smart when dying bait.
ou'll notice that when you remove your prawns from the brine solution they will appear quite soft. That is because they are still wet from soaking in liquid for two or three days. If after draining you want an even tougher prawn first sprinkle both sides of your prawns with Regular Slam-ola Powder. Then in a plastic container put down a good layer of rock salt, then a layer of prawns, then a layer of rock salt, another layer of prawns, and repeat until you salt all of your prawns. Put on a tight lid and refrigerate for several days. You'll be amazed how much tougher your prawns will turn out.
Time and space don't allow for going into rigging and fishing prawns, but hopefully this will give all of you a solid starting point for curing great prawns. With the six colors of Bad Azz Bait Dyes all sorts of colors and shades are possible. Once you get the hang of using the Bad Azz dyes it's like Easter eggs for big kids. Go get 'em