Cockles are a range of shellfish species which are found all around the coastline of the British Isles. While they are not the most commonly used shellfish bait (mussels are much more popular to use), they are effective in the right conditions and can be excellent as part of a cocktail bait.

Cockles are an important source of food for marine creatures and are commercially important.

Life Cycle

Cockles are a widespread species of marine clam. There are over two hundred different species of cockle throughout the world, but in the UK the most widespread by far is the common cockle (Cerastoderma edule). As all of the different species of cockles are so similar this article considers them all as a single species.

Cockles bury themselves in sand and soft sediment and feed by filtering water through their shells and removing plaktonic matter and minute creatures. Since they live in the top few inches of sand they can become easily dislodged by high winds, and heavy storms can see whole cockle beds tore up and scattered along a beach. Cockles are relatively mobile and can push their foot out to their shell to dig and propel themselves away from predators as this video shows. Cockles are an important part of the marine food chain as they provide a source of food for a large number of fish species, as well as marine birds.

Commercial Importance

Comercially Gathered Cockles
Commercially gathered cockles, ready to be sent to market.

Cockles are commercially important. They are sold in the UK from seafood stalls on popular beaches where they are cooked in boiling water and then served with salt, pepper and vinegar. Cockles are also sold in supermarkets where they are pickled and sold in jars, or sometimes fresh from fish counters. Vast commercial operations take place where workers walk out onto the vast expanses of inter-tidal sand and use rakes to gather cockles on a commercial scale. This can be a dangerous business – in 2004 a group of Chinese immigrants were cut off by the incoming tide while cockle picking in Morecambe Bay. Twenty-three of the group lost their lives. In some areas cockle beds are under immense pressure due to illegal cockle picking, over collection by commercial cockle pickers and environmental factors (or a combination of all three). In certain parts of the UK cockle picking is banned completely in order to let stocks rebuild and ensure the future sustainability of the cockle beds.

Cockle Pickers Saundersfoot Beach
Main picture: Cockle pickers on Saundersfoot Beach, Pembrokeshire, Wales. Inset picture: ‘The Bay of Words’, a commemorative plaque in Morecambe dedicated to the Chinese workers who lost their lives picking cockles there in February 2004.

Collection and Storage

Collecting cockles is straightforward. They leave an impression in the sand which they filter feed through, and in many cases the cockle shells themselves will be visible. If a small number is needed they can be taken by simply digging the cockles out with a small trowel, or even by hand. Larger number of cockles can be gathered by dragging a garden rake through the sand and puling cockles out in this way. As ever, anglers should take only what is needed for bait or food. Cockles can be stored for a few days in seawater kept in the fridge, but they tend to die off after the third or fourth day. Changing the water regularly may see them last longer but make sure and new seawater has also been refrigerated before immersing the cockles into it. To take cockles from the shell simply prize the shell apart and scoop the flesh out with a blunt, rounded knife (such as a mussel knife). Rolling the cockles in a little salt will see them become tougher and withstand casting better. They can also be frozen for future use once this has been done.

Bait Presentation of Cockles

In terms of bait presentation pass the point of the hook through the foot at as this is the strongest part of the cockle and will provide the firmest hook hold. Then pass the hookpoint through the cockle several more times and feed it up the hook. Several cockles may be needed to create a decent sized bait, and securing them to the hook with bait elastic is also a good idea. When presented in this way cockles can tempt many species of fish with cod, flounder, pouting and dab some of the most commonly caught on cockles, as species which commonly feed on shellfish such as wrasse. Cockles are best used as a bait after a storm or bad weather when they will litter the shore and provide an easy source of food for a range of different species which will be switched on to feeding on cockles. In periods of calm weather cockles on their own are a less effective bait so it can be best to use cockles as part of a cocktail bait. Cockles with ragworm, lugworm, mackerel or peeler crab are effective as an all round sea fishing bait.