Bait — Mussels

Ken Jones

Staff member
Mussels. If there is a holy trinity for inshore bait, and I don’t mean to sound blasphemous, mussels are one of the three, the others being sea worms (a variety) and ghost shrimp. Of the three, mussels may be the best for rock-frequenting species. Most pilings on oceanfront piers are covered with mussels that attract fish while piers located next to a rocky shoreline will often see the same fish attracting mussels on and around those rocks.


Live Mussels. By far, the best mussels for bait are fresh, live mussels! If you can find a bait shop that carries live mussels, you will generally encounter one of two species. The first is the California sea mussel, Mytilus californianus, sometimes called the big mussel or rock mussel. It is the mussel found on the open coast, often in great masses, on rocks and jetties extending into the ocean. It prefers high salinity water and low sediment and is common throughout California. These mussels reach a large size (up to eight-ten inches in length) and have a ribbed looking, heavy black or dark brown coating or skin. The skin can be worn off in older specimens resulting in a bluish-colored shell. The inner shell is bluish-black with iridescent colors while the flesh is bright reddish-orange. I’ve always felt the sea mussel is the best mussel bait when fishing in the ocean.

The second main mussel found in bait shops is the bay mussel, Mytilus trossulus, sometimes called the Pacific blue mussel, pile mussel, Northern bay mussel or foolish mussel. It is found in bays, often in dense beds, attached to rocks, wharves, docks and even the underside of boats. It is sometimes found in quiet waters along the coast but rarely in the turbulent rocky areas preferred by the sea mussels. It is also common throughout California. This mussel is wedge-shaped and reaches a length of about four inches. The shell has a smooth, heavy, satiny black exterior while the interior of the shell is blue or bluish-black with iridescent colors. The flesh is dull brownish-orange. I’ve always felt the bay mussel is the best mussel bait when fishing in bays. Of the two species, bay mussels are considered by many seafood enthusiasts to be the better eating mussels for humans.

Although live mussels are a favorite bait of anglers, and once considered a staple item at virtually every bait shop along the coast, today they are sometimes hard to find. A second option for live mussels is grocery stores, especially seafood markets and Asian markets. Many of them carry live mussels—although they will rarely be as fresh as ones in the bait shop. Typically they carry bay mussels although it depends on the location of the store.

The third option, one that depends to a degree on the area in which you live and the amount of time you have, is to gather the live mussels yourself. Mussels are one of the most common species along the shoreline (a “foundational species”) and generally easy to find. Sea mussels will be found on mussel-infested rocks and jetties in oceanfront areas (use your hands and a glove, not hammers or crow bars). Bay mussels can be found on rocks along the shorelines of bays or in clumps under docks.

(California limit on mussels: The recreational season for California sea mussel (Mytilus californianus) and bay mussel (Mytilus trossulus) remains open year-round. The daily bag and possession limit is 10 pounds (in the shell) of California sea mussels and bay mussels in combination.)

At one time anglers could also pry mussels off of pier pilings with a large treble-hook gaff and a strong rope. Most piers prohibit such collection today and it’s just as well in my opinion. Pilings act as artificial reefs at piers with the diverse creatures on them, everything from mussels to worms to small crabs, attracting fish. Unfortunately, I have seen too many pilings stripped virtually clean of mussels by these treble hooks and a piling that is missing its mussels is far less of a fish attractant.

Storing live mussels. It’s important that you properly store live mussels to keep them alive. They can be kept in a refrigerator for several days if you follow a few simple rules: (1) Store them in a bowl or tray, not in a closed container since they need to be able to breathe. An option is to use a colander that is placed on top of a dish; this will allow liquid produced by the mussels to drain off. (2) Loosely cover the container with a wet paper towel or a clean damp cloth. This will allow the mussels to retain moisture even though the refrigerator itself tends to dry out items. (3) Keep the mussels on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. The bottom part of the refrigerator, especially toward the back, is the coldest part of the refrigerator so the mussels will be kept well chilled. But, make sure the mussels do not get too cold or frosty. The ideal temperature is between 39 degrees F and 46 degrees F. (4) Check the mussels daily and pour off any liquid to keep them fresh and healthy. (5) Four days is about the maximum time in a refrigerator. After that time freeze any remaining mussels.

Frozen mussels. Frozen mussels are not, in my opinion, as good as fresh mussels but they are usually still good bait. Most bait shops carry frozen mussels, usually in an eight-ounce container. Unfortunately quality seems to vary depending upon the bait shop’s freezer and the length of time they are stored. It is what it is.

A second option, again, is to buy frozen mussels at a grocery store. Typically the frozen mussels in stores are eastern blue mussels (which are fine). Many grocery stores today also carry the New Zealand green-lipped mussel, Perna canaliculus, also called the New Zealand mussel or greenshell mussel. It has distinctive, darkish-brown, green shells with green lips around it edges. It’s an important export for New Zealand, is good eating, and can also be used for bait. Unfortunately its price tends to move it out of the bait category. But if you’ve got the money and are desperate for some mussels, go for it.

As for freezing leftover mussels: (1) You can freeze them in their shell (preferred) or, if freezer space is limited, just freeze the meat. (2) Use freezer safe bags such as Ziplock bags and place enough mussels for one day’s fishing in each bag. (3) Mark the date on the bag with a Sharpie and use within three months. (4) Generally, once thawed it’s best not to refreeze them since they become very soft. You can however take them out of their shells, salt down the flesh, and refreeze.

Opening mussels. When using fresh mussels you will need to open them yourself. Use a strong bait knife (not a long fillet knife) to open the mussel from the blunt end. Cut down through the beard (the tough fiber that holds the shell together), cut the tendon, and divide the mussel into two half-shell sections. Using one half shell, cut a piece of the tough lip section loose leaving some of the soft and smelly orange meat attached. Attach this rubbery lip piece (that looks somewhat like a worm) onto your hook much as you would a worm; I usually pierce the mussel 2-3 times making sure a piece of mussel extends from the end of the hook but also making sure the tip is exposed. If done properly, the tough piece of the mussel should stay on your hook, even if the softer section tears away on the cast. Save the second half of the mussel for your next cast.

If concerned about loosing the bait on your cast, you can toughen it with a little salt before fishing or use thread to tie down the bait (but it shouldn’t be necessary).

Songslinger, one of the true experts on the Pier Fishing in California web site suggests cutting the mussels on a thin piece of cloth before fishing. The cloth will absorb the juices of the freshly cut mussels and can then be used to tie the meat onto the hook, thus working as an additional attractant. Author Bill Varney, Jr., who specializes in surf fishing, suggests storing small strips of squid in a Ziploc bag with frozen mussels. When thawed, the squid will smell like mussels and be orange like mussels but will not be soft like mussels.

Some anglers even attach a whole half-shell section of a mussel onto their line by using a paper clip. They then insert a couple of dropper leaders with size 10-12 hooks into the meat and wait for perch to suck up the meat. I saw a similar approach used years ago by anglers at Newport trying to hook the hard-to-catch pileperch. They would attach a small mass of mussels to their line and run several dropper leaders around and into the mussels. Sometimes it was the only thing that worked. However, you don't need to be so exotic in your approach; just learn to attach the mussels properly to your hook.

On piers, fish down around the pilings with mussel. The result will often be a variety of seaperch: pileperch, black seaperch, rubberlip seaperch, striped seaperch, or their near cousins, opaleye and halfmoon. Fishing in the depressions between the pilings will often yield the larger surfperch. In southern California, fishing the inshore area, just past the breakers, with mussel, will often yield barred surfperch, yellowfin croaker and an occasional spotfin croaker or California corbina. In central California the yield is usually barred surfperch, calico surfperch, or any one of several other perch species—black seaperch, pileperch, rubberlip seaperch, rainbow seaperch or striped seaperch. In northern California you will often catch redtail surfperch, striped seaperch, sea trout (kelp greenling) or cabezon when using mussels.

A note one day on the Pier Fishing in California Message Board reported a second name for mussels—Halloween clams, due to the orange color of their flesh. Isn't that interesting!

Do be careful though during those months when there are warnings posted for mussels (when they are not safe to eat). I’ve been told (see below) that the juice can also affect a person if allowed to get into a cut on the hand.

The “R” Rule for shellfish.

Common lore states you should only eat shellfish in months that contain the letter “R” in their name. Eat all the clams, mussels, and oysters you want from September through April, but avoid them May-August.​

Mussels and Toxicity

Autumn comes to the sea with a fresh blaze of phosphorescence, when every wave crest is aflame. Here and there the whole surface may glow with sheets of cold fire, while below schools of fish pour through the water like molten metal. Often the autumnal phosphorescence is caused by a fall flowering of the dinoflagellates, multiplying furiously in a short-lived repetition of their vernal blooming.

Sometimes the meaning of the glowing water is ominous. Off the Pacific coast of North America, it may mean that the sea is filled with the dinoflagellate Gonyaulax, a minute plant that contains a poison of strange and terrible virulence. About four days after Gonyaulax comes to dominate the coastal plankton, some of the fishes and shellfish in the vicinity become toxic. This is because, in the normal feeding, they have strained the poisonous plankton out of the water. Mussels accumulate the Gonyaulax toxins in their livers, and the toxins react on the human nervous system with an effect similar to that of strychnine. Because of these facts, it is generally understood along the Pacific coast that it is unwise to eat shellfish taken from coasts exposed to the open sea where Gonyaulax may be abundant, in summer or early fall. For generations before the white men came, the Indians knew this. As soon as the red streaks appeared in the sea and the waves began to flicker at night with the mysterious blue-green fires, the tribal leaders forbade the taking of mussels until those warning signals should have passed. They even set guards at intervals along the beaches to warn inlanders who might come down for shellfish and be unable to read the language of the sea. —The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson, 1963

Mussels: Suggestions and a warning —PFIC 2nd Ed.

Although this was a short discussion, it contains some very useful information. And by the way, I've had some of the symptoms that Snookie talks about in her warning at the bottom of these posts: numbness; loss of motor coordination; feeling of lightness; incoherent speech—but I think it was from watching too many of the bikini-clad goddesses on the beach on one of my visits to the southland. I don't generally get distracted from my fishing but...

Date: May 16, 2000
To: Pier Fishing in California Message Board
From: Mark Taylor
Subject: Mussels; any tips? Stay on hook better, etc.

I like to use mussels for bait; they’`re almost always available, and they catch me fish. But they’re a real pain in the neck to shuck and put on the hook, they fall apart easily, and they're a bait-stealing fish's best friend, etc., etc. Anyone got any tips? Thanks, tight lines

Posted by Songslinger

Elastic thread, available at most fabric stores for about a buck. Also, try covering them in non-iodized salt and drain off the excess liquid. They toughen up nicely that way.

Posted by Snookie

Dear Mark, You can keep mussels on your hook by using a fine netting (Bridal net) and tying it around the hook and mussel. It is fine enough that the fish can bite right through the net, and if the fish isn't hooked yet, there will still be some mussel left in the net on the hook. Go to your local fabric store for pieces of the bridal net. It works! Snookie

Posted by Mola Joe

Try leaving the mussel in the shell. I learned this trick watching the big piling perch and rubberlips that would cruise from piling to piling on Hermosa Pier. When the water was clear you could see these big guys near the bottom going back and forth in between the pilings, and if you would put a bait in front of them they would go around it. If you would chum a few open mussels, you could watch the perch come over and slurp the mussel out of the shell, but mussel on a hook they wouldn't touch. I worked in the bait store on the end of the pier and one day the owner showed me a trick he had seen years earlier that I still have never seen anyone use. The rig is like a high low rig with 2 hooks, but they are tied very close to a one ounce flat weight on leaders hanging of your main line, about 3 inches long, with about 4 inches from the weight to the first hook. You open a mussel all the way, one about 3 or 4 inches long, but leave the two sections together. Take the line between the weight and the first hook and wrap it around middle of the mussel where the two sections join, go around 4 or 5 times until your sinker sits right under the bottom of the shell. Then take your hooks and put one in each side of the mussel, right in the middle of the meat. When the mussel hits the bottom, it sits open with the sinker on the bottom of the shells, and the meat exposed turned upward. All you need to do is drop it by the pilings, do not try to cast it. We caught big perch with this rig when nothing else worked.

Posted by Fish Fool

Mark: Magic thread works great for soft baits like shrimp. I am sure it would work well on mussels. All you need to do is put the mussel of the hook, wrap the thread around the bait a few times and you are good to go. The thread is available at just about any store that has fishing supplies. Try you local tackle shop and ask about it. Good Luck and Tight Lines. Fish Fool

Posted by blackbirdpie

Magic thread or the elastic thread Songslinger mentioned, they are the same except the yardage store thread is much stronger and much cheaper. Bridal net, also, a way to skirt the high priced “fish only” stuff they try to foist off on you at the bait store. I have even used regular thread when I had nothing else and it worked fairly well... but elasticity is preferred.

Posted by Bob

I have used the same rig that Mola Joe mentioned. The only variation it we drill a hole through a 2-ounce flat weight and use a nut and bolt to attach a small clamp to the middle of the weight. The kind you use to hold a stack of paper together. We use the clamp to hold the mussel shell. We attach leaders to the hole in the clamp (the two things you squeeze together to open the clamp. I have caught 20-30 perch in two hours off the pier in Morro Bay with this rig. Also caught small whitefish, macs, and an octopus! Good luck

Posted by Mark Taylor

That's just the kind of information I was looking for... and no WD40 involved!

Mussel Quarantine
Posted by Snookie on May 1, 2001

It is that time of the year again. The mussel quarantine will last until October 31st. The quarantine includes mussels, clams, oysters and scallops, sand crabs, periwinkles, limpets, and barnacles plus a few others that usually aren't used by most of us, and includes all bays and inlets along the California coastline.

Since a lot of us use mussels for fishing, it is important to remember to wash well before picking up food to put in your mouth. If you have any open sores on your hands be careful not to get the mussels on the sores. Gloves may be an option if you have to use mussels, etc.

The symptoms of paralytic shellfish poisoning start 30 minutes later with tingling or burning sensation of lips, gums, tongue, face, perhaps spreading to neck, arms, hands, and legs. There is numbness; loss of motor coordination, with feeling of “lightness,” incoherent speech; that one's teeth are loose; temporary blindness; respiratory paralysis and death, a 10 to 35 percent mortality rate within 12 hours.

This is an intoxication that acts upon the nervous system. The nature of the poison still remains a mystery. By the way this toxin has been known since the days of Moses. Snookie

Posted by mobilesuit

Whoa, I was never aware of this... Sometimes when I try to open up a mussel, the broken shell slices my finger. I don't know if I've ever done that during the “quarantine” time, but if I did, would that be really dangerous? Maybe I've been lucky all these times huh...

Posted by Snookie

Yes, you have been lucky. Of course that doesn't mean that all will be carrying the toxin. Snookie

Posted by dennis giasi

No cure. If you cut yourself, you will grow mussels.

Posted by Snookie

There is not an antidote for this toxin as yet.