Mussel is a generic term for a type of bivalve mollusc. The most commonly found species in the UK is the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis), also known as the common mussel. They are very common and can be easily collected from shorelines around the UK, as well as bought from supermarket fish counters, fishmongers and fishing tackle shops. Mussels can be used to catch a range of species such as whiting, wrasse and flatfish species, and are seen as being a particularly effective bait for winter cod. They are also often used in cocktail baits.

Description and Habitat

Mussel Shell
Mussels have a black/grey shell with orange flesh inside.

Mussels are made up of soft orange flesh inside a hard, but somewhat brittle, oval-shaped shell. The shell is made up of two equal halves and can open down the middle to reveal the fleshy body inside. The shells are usually grey to black in colour but can sometimes have a bluish or even purple tint. Typically mussels are a maximum of 4 to 5cm in length, but they can grow up to 10cm in length. Mussels live in the intertidal zone and use their byssal threads (often referred to as their ‘beard’) to attach themselves to rocks or man-made structures between the high and low water marks. Mussels usually group together in large groups which can consist of hundreds or even thousands of individual mussels. They are filter feeders which consume tiny planktonic sea creatures which are found in seawater.

Gathering and Buying Mussels

Mussels are one of the easiest baits to collect. They are found across almost all of the British and Irish coastline where there are rocks or man-made structures such as harbour or pier walls which they can attach themselves to. They can be removed by twisting them and pulling them away from the surface they are attached to.

Mussel Beds
A very low spring tide at Eastern Craigs, Scotland reveals mussel beds which are usually submerged.

Anglers should try to vary the places mussels are collected from so that one area is not totally de-populated, and leave the smaller mussels and only take the larger ones for bait. Some tackle shops also sell mussels in fresh or refrigerated form, while they can also be bought fresh from some supermarkets and fishmongers. Anglers should ensure that shop-bought mussels are fresh and have not been previously cooked as these will not be useful as bait.

Storing Mussels

Fresh mussels can be kept in the fridge for several days. It is best to keep them semi-submerged in seawater with a damp towel over the top of them. The seawater should be replaced with fresh, refrigerated seawater after a few days to keep them in good condition. Alternatively, mussels can be removed from their shell (see below) and wrapped in cling film and frozen for future use. Most anglers wrap mussels in batches of ten or twenty and find that adding salt to the mussels before freezing results in a tougher, more durable bait.

Preparing Mussels for Bait

Mussel Knife
A blunt, round-bladed knife is ideal for preparing mussels.

Mussels can be used fresh and removed from their shell just before use. A blunt, round-bladed knife is needed to do this. Specialist mussel knives are available, but a short-bladed butter knife can also be used – it is dangerous to use a sharp, narrow-bladed filleting knife to prepare mussels due to the risk of slipping causing serious injury. The two halves of the shell can be prised apart with the blade of the knife (if a butter knife is being used it is helpful to sharpen it to make this process easier). Once this is done it is easy to use the blunt, rounded end of the knife to scoop the orange flesh out of each half of the shell. Some angling books recommend plunging the mussels into hot or boiling water to get them out of their shells. While this is certainly effective it also robs the mussels of their scent and juices and results in an inferior bait.

Bait Presentation

Mussel Bait Presentation
Two mussels secured to a size 1/0 Aberdeen hook with bait elastic.

As mussels are soft and slippery they can be difficult to secure to the hook. It is best to push the hook through the foot of the mussel first, as this provides the firmest flesh and then push the hook through the mussel several more times to create the firmest possible attachment to the hook. Many anglers find using a baiting needle helpful when hooking mussel, while, as stated, adding salt to mussels can toughen them up and make them easier to hook. Today, almost all anglers using mussels as bait will use a bait cotton or elastic such as Koike Bait Elastic to firmly bind the bait to the hook and prevent it flying off the hook mid cast.

Two or three average-sized mussels can be used on the hook when fishing for smaller species such as flatfish, or four or five mussels per hook when targeting bigger species such as cod. Mussels are extremely popular to use in cocktails with lugworm/mussel and squid/mussel being classic winter cod baits. Ragworm or peeler crab combined with mussel are also combinations that can be very effective for a range of species. When fishing with a two hook rig mussel can be used on one hook and another bait such as ragworm, lugworm or mackerel on another to allow anglers to see which bait proves most effective. Finally, mussel can also be used as a float fishing bait, with a mussel bait fished along a harbour or pier wall, or along a rock face proving an effective way of catching wrasse.