Shellfish as bait

Mussels have been a popular bait with sea anglers for many years and rank as one of the best baits for flatfish. But cockles, limpets and even whelks have their attractions too be sprinkled on the bait to toughen the flesh and so make it stay on the hook. For beach fishing, a good method is to put three or four of the prepared mussels in a very fine-mesh hair-net, which is attached to the hook and enables the bait to be cast a greater distance without flying off. Used this way, the mussel can be a deadly bait for cod.

Cockles as bait

Two beachworn shells of Buccinum undatum from ...
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Cockles are another variety of bivalve which will take many different species of sea fish. They are used extensively in Scotland, particularly on the Clyde. Cockles may take longer to gather as they have to be raked out of the sand in their preferred habitat of sheltered bays without strong tides or heavy surf. This bait requires no preparation other than the opening of the shell and the removal of its contents. Rather than cracking them open with a heavy blunt instrument, which will damage the animal inside,

In the sea, molluscs are a very important link in the food chain. Most important to the angler for bait are mussels, cockles, limpets, winkles and whelks. Many fish – the plaice is a typical example – will feed almost exclusively on baby molluscs, preferring ‘seed’ cockles and mussels. It is not surprising, then, that many species of shellfish have been used as a bait by the sea angler for many years.

Mussels as bait

The mussel, which is a bivalve, or two-shelled creature, has been a very popular bait for years, particularly on the East Coast. It is very easy to gather but it does require some preparation as it is virtually impossible to bait with the seed mussel upon which the fish are feeding.

There are about eight species of saltwater mussels found round the British coasts, but the horse mussel and the common edible mussel are the ones generally used as bait by anglers. The young mussel begins life as part of the plankton before settling on the seabed and securing itself to rocks, stones, pier piles and similar spots with a series of very strong threads named the byssus. These threads, often called the ‘beard’, hold the mussel firmly to its rocky anchoring point even in the strongest gales. Mussels are sometimes found in great clusters and it is possible to gather a bucketful in minutes. It pays to be a little selective, picking out those with clean shells and leaving the barnacle-encrusted specimens, which are not usually as plump and juicy as the younger ones. The easiest way to remove the animal from the shell is to immerse in boiling water, which forces open the shell. The flesh is then removed by scooping out with a knife. Salt may it is better to take a cockle in each hand, and where the shells are hinged, lock one into the other and give a sharp twist. This breaks the hinge on the weaker of the two and allows the creature inside to be hooked out with the thumbnail. It is not a very large bait singly, but half a dozen or so on one hook make a very respectable offering.

From the Belgian continental shelf.
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The limpet is another mollusc, cone-shaped and dark brown in colour, which the angler can gather himself. They can be detached by prising them off with a knife or similar implement. The animal is then exposed and removed from the shell with the thumbnail, to reveal orange disc-shaped flesh and a blackish patch. Used singly on a small hook it is a good bait for flatfish, particularly dabs, while several on a large hook will attract most other species. Unfortunately, its soft texture means that it cannot withstand forceful casting and is likely to be mutilated very rapidly by any crabs in the vicinity.

The winkle, a member of the snail family, is among the smallest of the univalve molluscs. It can be found on most coastlines below the high-water mark and prefers a rocky bottom with good weed covering. The shell is smooth and ranges in colour from brown to black. The winkle is not widely used as a bait but fish have been known to be caught on it.

The main problem is that of removing the fish from the shell. If boiled first, this is done with a pin, but with a live winkle it is necessary to crack the shell with a hammer or any other blunt tool. As they are small, several winkles are needed to make an adequate bait, but their toughness means that they remain on the hook for a long time and are not thrown off on the first cast.

The common whelk is much larger than the winkle and its flesh is greyish green. Large specimens can reach over 3in in length. They are to be found on seabeds of mainly stone 363 and gravel and near the low-water mark at spring tide, but in considerably fewer numbers than the winkle. Professional fishermen take large quantities in baited pots from the deeper water and will usually sell a few to the angler. Again, the only successful method of removing the flesh while alive is to crack the shell, but one whelk makes a large bait, thus saving work and time in bait collecting.

Whelks are not really sought after as a bait by anglers, although commercial fishermen often bait their longlines with them very effectively. Their success, however, can probably be attributed to the fact that a longline is left for several hours undisturbed and that the whelk is so tough that it will remain on the hook until eaten by a fish. For the rod and line angler it is best as a bait for cod and pouting as these two species are not particularly fussy.

Another very important mollusc which is used for bait is the slipper limpet (Crepidula fornicata). First introduced into Britain accidentally over 100 years ago with imported 364 oysters from North America, the limpet is now so well established that it has become a pest. Not only does it compete with the oyster for food, it also tends to smother these highly esteemed bivalves.

Slipper limpets grow in colonies and attach themselves to each others’ backs in a chain consisting of as many as a dozen together. The bottom limpet, which is usually attached to a stone, is the oldest of the group and female, while the topmost member is usually the youngest and male, the sex changing with age.

Common slipper limpet (Crepidula fornicata)
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Gathering limpets for bait presents few problems for the angler. They are common on the East Coast, the South East and the Channel coasts. Beds are usually found near the low water mark on average spring tides, with the most likely areas being sheltered, sandy bays and estuaries. After an onshore gale many colonies are thrown up on to beaches where they soon die from the heat of the sun.

As their name implies, slipper limpets must be extracted by slipping each specimen off the back of the one underneath, using a blunt blad-ed knife. This exposes part of the flesh, which is usually bright orange. Remove the flesh, together with the black tongue, from the shell, again using a blunt bladed knife. As large specimens are only 1 inch long, three or four should be used on a hook. A single limpet, however, may be used when fishing for smaller species of sea fish, such as dabs.