Common Limpets

There are two separate species of shellfish which are referred to as limpets in UK sea angling: the common limpet (Patella vulgata) and the slipper limpet (Crepidula fornicata). This causes much confusion amongst sea anglers. When the term ‘limpet’ is used anglers in the north of England and Scotland are likely to think of the common limpet, while anglers in the south are more than likely to believe the slipper limpet is being referred to. This page looks at using common limpets as bait, the page on slipper limpets can be viewed here.

Common and Slipper Limpets
Left, a cone-shaped common limpet attached to a rock face and right, an empty shell of a slipper limpet, which are often found stacked together.

The common limpet (Patella vulgata) – also known as the European limpet – is an edible (although not widely eaten) species of true limpet which is abundant across rocky coastlines throughout the whole of the British Isles and most of Europe. There are also two other much less common species of limpets found in the UK: the China limpet (Patella aspera) and the black-footed limpet (Patella depressa).

Description and Life Cycle

Common Limpet Underside
The underside of a limpet with the foot visible.

The common limpet is made up of an extremely strong cone-shaped shell with a soft fleshy body inside. The whole bottom section of the body consists of a large ‘foot’ which they use to secure themselves to rocks. The shell is usually a light grey to white in colour, and the flesh inside is a light orange or yellow colour. Limpets live by attaching themselves to rock surfaces with their powerful foot. Common limpets are found anywhere in the intertidal zone where there are rocks large enough for limpets to secure themselves to. When the tide is out and limpets are exposed they clamp down onto the rock in order to prevent drying out and to protect themselves from predators. When the tide is in then limpets feed by very slowly moving across rocks and eating the algae and microscopic marine lifeforms they come across.

Limpet Home Scar
A home scar left by a very large common limpet.

Common limpets make an indentation in the rock (called a home scar) on which they live and although they move around to feed they always return to the same indentation. When threatened limpets can clamp themselves to the rock surface with great force, making them practically invulnerable to predators. According to researchers at the University of Portsmouth, the tiny teeth than common limpets use to attach themselves to rocks may be the strongest natural material in the world. The common limpet breeds by the males releasing sperm into the sea where it is collected by the female and used to fertilise eggs. Immature limpets are free-swimming planktonic creatures for the first period of their life. Common limpets can be 5cm across at their very largest, but most are around half of this size. It is thought the common limpet can live for up to twenty years.

Gathering Common Limpets

Common Limpets at Low Tide
Common limpets are easy to find and most rocky areas will have a population of common limpets which can be accessed at low tide.

Common limpets are easy to find attached to large rocks and cliff faces which become exposed as the tide ebbs. To collect them put a blade between the shell and the rock and quickly ease them from the rock surface. Do not tap or nudge them first as this will see them clamp down and once they have done this they will prove near-impossible to remove and it will be better to move onto a new unclamped limpet, rather than persist on trying to remove a clamped one. The flesh of limpets can be scooped out of the shell as needed with a blunt mussel knife or spoon. As with all shellfish collecting be careful about how many are taken as whole areas can be depleted of limpets by over-enthusiastic bait collectors. Anglers should only take what is needed and ensure that all smaller limpets and a lot of larger breeding age ones are left after a collecting session. A better idea is to spread collecting over a number of areas and a long period of time so one place does not become completely de-populated of this species. Shelled limpets can be frozen for future use, and made tougher by salting them prior to freezing.

Common Limpets Use as Bait and Bait Presentation

Like cockles and winkles, limpets do not make the best bait used alone as they do not release a great deal of scent. In addition to this they are so well protected in their shells few fish will be used to feeding on them. Even a storm will not dislodge the common limpet from the sides of rocks, meaning that there are no conditions which will see this type of limpet being widely eaten by UK fish species. The only fish which eats the common limpet is the wrasse, as they have the powerful jaws needed to wrench limpets off rocks and consume the flesh inside. For this reason, common limpets can be an effective bait for wrasse, with the best method float fishing this bait alongside a pier or harbour wall or rock face.

However, anglers do still have a use for the common limpet. They can be used to bulk up other baits in a cocktail such as ragworm, lugworm, peeler crab or mackerel. Another use is as a tipping bait. Since the flesh of the common limpet is very tough a full small limpet, or half a bigger one can be pushed over the hookpoint of a bait such as peeler crab or razorfish to help prevent the soft bait coming off the hook during the cast or when hitting the water. As stated common limpets can be salted prior to going fishing in order to toughen them up further and make them even better at keeping other baits on the hook.