They feed by filtering water through two tubes or syphons and retaining floating particles of fine weed and minute animals. Often the angler is not aware of their presence because their shells are dark green and yellow, two-thirds buried in the bottom and the top third covered with moss. They are, however, excellent bait for tench and carp, and although time and trouble must be spent in finding and preparing them, the reward in terms of fish caught is well worth the effort.
Searching for musselbeds is a waste of time. It is far better to look along the banks for broken shells.
Although there are some 26 different types of freshwater cockles and mussels in the British Isles, only one specimen is of value to the coarse fisherman—the swan mussel. This big mussel, frequently six or more inches in length, is found in numerous lakes, reservoirs, ponds, canals and slow-flowing rivers, where it lies in the muddy shallows, especially near reed and rush-fringed banks or where overhanging trees give it cover of darkness.
Mussels congregate together, and move slowly by means of a foot that protrudes from the thick end of the two shells when they are held open.
That diving birds have captured and opened—something they are unable to do on the water. Once the shells are discovered it is necessary to wade and feel for the upright head of the shells that protrude above the bottom. Despite the disguise provided by weed growth, the smooth oval shapes are unmistakable as the hands rub against them.
For a serious day’s fishing, some 30 to 40 shells should be collected from a site well away from the swim you intend to fish. It is a good idea to store them in a sack, and later sort them into big specimens that can be kept in a box of damp weed for use as hook bait, and smaller ones for groundbait.
Opening a mussel
Opening mussels can break fingers unless a little care is taken. The halves of the shell are held together by a series of extra tough sinews situated on the lower part of the back where the thick edges join. These sinews must be severed first, and any attempt to prise open the shells at the back or through the thin front edges will probably cause the knife to slip. You should hold the mussel firmly in one hand with the hinges upward, slide the knife along the join, and gently sever the hinge; both halves of the shell will then fall easily apart.
The knife can now be slid around the inside of the shell to release the ‘body’, most of which consists of a thick, yellow piece of flesh at the foot. Do not throw the shells away—pound them into small pieces and add them to the groundbait bucket. Naturally the shelled mussels and broken pieces will need some stiffening before they can be thrown into the swim. Damp sausage rusk or soaked new bread are two of the best mediums to use. As an appetizer, especially when tench fishing, fresh blood from an abattoir or a copious helping of pilchard oil can be added.
Mussels as hookbait
Some authorities say that the groundbait should be prepared at least 48 hours or more in advance of the day it is intended to fish, so that the bait will be ‘high’. Mussels used as hookbait, it is sometimes suggested, should be opened and left in the sun to dry and turn rancid. Ex-perience has shown, however, that little is to be gained from this practice, except an increase in the numbers of eels that will be hooked. The smell of fresh blood in the groundbait coupled with the bright pieces of broken shell lying on the bottom are all that are needed.
Larger mussels used for hookbait should be opened as required, and The yellow fleshy foot removed and mounted on a big (size 2 or 4) hook. Turn the hook once through the body and push it well past the barb.
Although ledgering is the accepted way to fish the bait, laying on, especially during the midday period when fish are inclined to mouth continuously rather than pick up the whole offering, has a lot to commend itself. Where casting over long distances is an absolute necessity, a little yellow cotton or fine clear nylon tied around both bait and hook will help to stop the bait flying off.
Do not forget that mussels are a bait that will attract fish, especially when the groundbait has been treated with blood or oil, and every effort should be made to keep the groundbaited area as close to the bank as possible. Although mussels are found in shallow water, deep swims, up to and over 12ft, are ideal. An even better chance of success can be expected if the swim has been raked and cleared of weeds so that the groundbait is clearly displayed on the river or lake bed.
On those waters that have been constantly overbaited and drastically overfished by all the conventional means, this natural, free, bait will be the one most likely to turn the tables in your favour.