Mussel power

Compared with such baits as peeler crabs, lugworms and ragworms, mussels are extremely easy to find and cheap to buy. Most visitors to the seashore have seen clumps of bluish brown common mussels often forming a dark line along the low water mark. This bivalve mollusc is widespread around the British Isles and large numbers can usually be collected without too much trouble at low tide. If you can’t find any along the seashore then try a fishmonger — mussels can usually be bought pretty cheaply.

Pick your own

If you want to collect your own, look for them on the coast wherever there is something for them to cling to. Likely places include rocks, harbour walls, outfall pipes, breakwaters and pier stanchions. Sometimes they form large colonies on estuary mudflats. Hair-like threads grip rocks, stones and weed and intertwine to form a tenacious mat which resists the powerful ripping action of the tide. Big ones are best – the meat is soft, succulent and more plentiful than in the smaller ones. The biggest are usually found well down the low tide line. Pulling them off can be quite hard on the hands so it is a good idea to wear gloves.

Keeping them alive

Mussels can be kept alive for up to a week if stored at the bottom of the fridge wrapped in a towel dampened with sea water. If you haven’t any sea water handy, dampen the towel with fresh water rather than putting them straight into the fridge.

For longer periods it is necessary to immerse them in sea water. Keep a close watch on them, removing dead ones immediately so they don’t contaminate and kill the rest. You can tell when a mussel is dead because the normally closed shell opens wide and doesn’t shut when the mussel is handled. Change the water once a day or at least top it up from a bottle of clean sea water. Agitating it occasionally helps to keep oxygen levels up but ideally you should use an aerator.

Removing them

Extracting mussels from their shells is not easy. When disturbed, these bivalves use strong muscles to clamp the two halves of their shell firmly together.

Don’t smash the mollusc with a hammer or rock – this merely fragments the shell and spoils the bait and you may end up with an eyeful of gunge. Boiling and even blanching them causes the shells to open but unfortunately destroys the bait’s appeal.

The trick is to prise them apart with a knife that has been specially ground down for the job. Once you have acquired the knack it is possible to shell three or four in a minute.

Storing mussel meat

You can avoid the messy business of having to shell mussels while fishing by preparing them a day before your trip. Keep them in the fridge in a screw-top jar.

Mussels are a bait that freeze well. Thirty or forty in a freezer bag should be enough — even if sport is more hectic than usual. Finally, a word of warning – don’t be tempted to eat mussels you have collected yourself: they are probably not fit for human consumption.