Whelks and winkles are two very common species of shellfish found all around the coastline of Britain and Ireland. They do not make the most effective baits as they are small and lack a strong scent trail. Mussels are better shellfish baits, while lugworm, ragworm, peeler crab and so on certainly make better all-round baits. However, in the right conditions (i.e. after a storm when these shellfish have been dislodged from their homes) they will certainly catch fish, and they can also be used to bulk up a limited supply of other bait, or tip-off soft baits such as mussel or crab.
There are two main species of whelk in British waters: the larger common whelk (Buccinum undatum) and the smaller dog whelk (Nucella lapillus). The common whelk, although widespread, is fairly difficult to find as they spend their entire lives underwater and are only occasionally found in the inter-tidal zone. Common whelks can be very large, with the shell being 9 – 10 cm in length at the largest. Dog whelks are much smaller and at around 2 – 3cm in length and live between the low and high tide points. They are abundant throughout rocky coastlines across the British Isles. The larger common whelk is commercially valuable and is targeted by fishing vessels around which drop baited traps to the seabed to catch this species. Due to their size and deeper water location common whelks are not used as bait very often and the rest of this page concentrates on the dog whelk.
Collecting dog whelks could not be easier: simply go to a rocky beach at low tide and take them from rocks by hand. Unlike common limpets which can clamp themselves down with incredible power, whelks can be easily removed from rocks. They can be stored in a tray of seawater in the fridge for a day or two, or can be removed from their shell and wrapped in cling film and frozen for future use. As with cockles, salting dog whelks will toughen them up and make them firmer to use as a bait. Since dog whelks are small it is best to simply pierce the hook through them once and then thread them onto the hook. They are not a highly regarded sea fishing bait and are really only worth trying after a storm when they have been dislodged and fish will be freely feeding on them. However, they do make a good tipping bait all year round with ragworm and lugworm making excellent cocktail baits when a whelk is added to the hook. If good quality bait is in short supply other baits such as mackerel and peeler crab can be bulked up by adding whelks to the bait.
Winkles (Littorina littorea) – also known as periwinkles – are similar to whelks. They are found in the inter-tidal zone of many parts of Britain and Ireland, as well as elsewhere in Europe. In terms of gathering, storage and bait presentation they can be treated in the same way as whelks. Like whelks, they are probably only worth trying as a bottom fished bait after a storm or blow, but can be used as a tipping, cocktail or bulk-up bait at other times.