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 twoshelled 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 which the fish feed on.
For beach fishing, a good method is to put three or four of the prepared mussels in a very finemesh hairnet, 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
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.
The limpet is another mollusc, coneshaped 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 discshaped 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.
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.
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.
The traditional method of gathering razorshells for bait is by the use of a tool about 3ft long with an arrowhead point. One must approach the area so as not to create the vibrations which will send the animal burrowing downwards. The ‘spear’ must be thrust down the hole into the shell’s two halves and twisted so that the point grips the sides of the shell to prevent further burrowing. The razorshell can then be withdrawn quickly.
To extract the animal from its two hinged shells, carefully cut through the hinge with a sharp knife. Do not prise open the two shells along the unhinged side as this will damage the creature. The attractiveness of the razorshell as a bait lies in its meaty foot, but the whole animal is hooked by the foot.