Mussels used to be a common bait for the anglers of generations past. Yet, the time-consuming nature of harvesting and preparing mussels for the hook fell to the wayside as cheaper and more readily available alternatives like squid, mackerel, and many others could simply be purchased. Mussels are being rediscovered as a viable and reliable bait for a new generation of anglers.
Mussels make excellent bait for various coastal and freshwater fish. They are easy to collect and are best when used straight from the rocks. Mussels also store well in the freezer, and there are a few ways to prepare them that can prove just as fruitful as using fresh ones.
If harvesting mussels is impractical, buying fresh mussels from the local fishmonger is a good choice as these mussels will still be alive when you purchase them. Most bait shops will stock frozen mussels, which also work well as they are much easier to hook when frozen. However, some anglers even swear by pickled mussels – results may vary with this one.
Things To Consider When Collecting Mussels As Bait
Mussels make for good bait as they are relatively easy to collect because they remain attached to the rocks for their entire adult lifespan. The trick is finding a mussel bed that can sustain selective bait harvesting, as the over-harvesting of mussels has caused ecological problems in some regions. Always ensure you have the proper permits and permissions to collect mussels.
Get A Permit To Collect Mussels
Permits for collecting mussels vary widely depending on the state, county, or municipality, and some areas may have additional specifications that must be adhered to. Many permits allow for collecting roughly 30 mussels (over one inch long) per day but can be as great as several pounds of mussels, so ensure all laws and permits are strictly followed to avoid fines.
Once the relevant paperwork is in order, you can venture out to harvest mussels. If multiple mussel beds are available for harvesting, choose the bed less frequented by other mussel harvesters as this helps populations recover over time. Mussels take up to two years to reach breeding age, so selective harvesting is essential to keep numbers stable.
How To Harvest Mussels From The Rocks
All it takes is some essential equipment and a little knowledge of the tides to collect mussels effectively. Consult a tide chart for the area you want to harvest and time your outing with the lowest tide possible. Spring tides are usually optimal as the extreme low tide exposes mussel beds that won’t have been over-picked.
The tools you will need are a sturdy screwdriver, a collecting bag or basket for placing the mussels in, a large bucket, slip-resistant shoes or water boots, and a sturdy knife for cleaning the mussels after collection. Mussel shells can be sharp, and cuts are common, so wear thick cotton or leather gloves if possible.
Always pick mussels over the size limit specified on your permit, as these mature mussels have had plenty of chances to breed. Selectively choosing large mussels also allows room for the surrounding mussels to grow and fill the vacant space. When prying a mussel from the rocks, try to keep the damage done to the surrounding mussels to a minimum.
The easiest way to free a mussel from its iron grip on the rocks is to sever the byssus or ‘beard’ with your screwdriver. Once the collection limit has been reached, the mussels can be stored in a collecting bag or a large bucket. Covering them with fresh seawater will keep them alive and force the mussels to pump out any sand.
How To Prepare Mussels For Bait
Every angler has their own way of baiting their hooks, and in the same way, there are myriad different ways to prepare mussels to use as bait. Each old sea dog will tell of different ways to prepare mussels that catch every time, so here are a few methods that seem to have most fishers in agreement.
Fresh Mussels Have The Best Results
Take your freshly collected mussel and, using your knife, pry open the two halves of the shell. The most accessible spot to do this is near where the beard protrudes from the shell, as this natural fulcrum allows for good leverage. Be mindful when doing this; like shucking oysters, slips of the knife can happen very quickly.
Once opened, the flesh inside the shell will look like a blob of goo. This texture can make it hard to put onto a hook and will take some trial and error. Feel around for a firmer part of the mussel to grip onto and thread that part over the hook. Wrap the flesh around the hook and follow up with bait cotton or elastic to secure it properly.
Steamed Mussels Work Well As Bait
The semi-liquid nature of fresh mussels can be a pain to work with, so many anglers will take their mussels home and lightly steam them before using them as bait. Some believe this removes the ‘fishy’ smell from the mussels, reducing their success rate. Others will say that steaming them makes no difference in attracting fish and is easier to apply to the hook.
How to steam mussels for bait:
- Bring one cup of water to a simmering boil in a large pot.
- Add your muscles and cover the pot with a lid.
- Allow the mussels to steam for roughly 10 minutes or until the shells open.
- Any unopened mussels were dead when added to the pot and must be discarded.
- Remove the mussels from the heat and allow them to cool in the pot.
- Once cool, remove the flesh from the shells.
The main benefit of steaming mussels is that the flesh will firm up and stay on the hook for longer. The distinct fish-like smell of the fresh muscles will go away once they have been cooked, so some anglers dip the mussels in fish oil before applying them to the hook.
Frozen Mussels Make For Easy Bait
Mussels are a great bait source as they can be collected quickly and stored in the freezer for later fishing trips. Many anglers opt to shuck their fresh, live mussels and place them all together in a freezer-safe container. The fresh mussels are then frozen into a solid block. Baiting the hook is as simple as cutting a chunk of frozen mussel from the block and threading that over the hook.
The same can be done with steamed mussels, making them even easier to hook. Steamed mussels also keep their shape when frozen, making breaking off a single mussel at a time more manageable. Another benefit to using frozen mussels – fresh or steamed – is that when they start to thaw out in the water, the scents and flavors of the mussel will permeate the water and attract more fish.
The use of mussels as bait went out of fashion a generation ago, but a new generation of anglers is rediscovering them. Modern sensibilities towards ecological protection will help us use this once over-exploited bait sustainably and responsibly.