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by: George Van Zant
The next time you pull up to the live bait barge pull a big clump of mussels off the side of the barge and throw it into your bait tank. You never know when your quarry decides to get live bait lockjaw and sometimes fishing with these clams can make the difference. The toughest part of fishing with mussels is adeptly removing the meat from the clam and placing it on the hook. The meat has the consistency of a raw egg with two hard spots available to place your hook. But if you can get the bait to the fish it's a sure fire pick-up. Fresh mussel meat cut from the shell and placed immediately in the water has a milking action that bass, sheephead and rock dwellers can't resist.
Colonies of mussels can be found on any floating object especially boat docks whose water lines never change. They are also found on rock jetties at the mid tidal range. They¹re fairly easy to get but wear gloves as the shells are razor sharp. If you're not into collecting them, buy them from the local bait store but don't purchase shucked mussels. If they have been stored for any length of time they lose the milking action that's paramount to attracting the fish.
It's very important to grab large clumps because the byssal threads that hold the clumps together is important to the placement of the meat onto the hook. Each individual mussel has these byssal threads originating inside the shell from the toughest part of the meat and this is where you place the hook.
When you pull an individual shell from the clump, grab its byssal threads where they are attached on another shell and try to keep the threads intact as you pull the mussels apart. To separate the meat from the shell pull the threads to the horn part of the mussel. This will uncover a cavity where you can insert your knife. Run the knife about half way into the mussel keeping contact with the inner part of the shell and cut toward the rounded end of the mussel. As the knife passes through the round end, you will feel it sever the adducter muscle. This muscle holds the two halves of the shell together and when the knife cuts it the mussel will pop open. The object of the meat removal is to remove the contents without tearing or mutilating the meat. It will take a few practice runs to achieve this objective.
Securely attaching the bait is very difficult. Don't insert the hook more than twice and don't hook through the soft spots. At the base of the byssal hair is a tendonous membrane. Push the hook through the membrane and bring it back through the tough heart shaped organ (foot) in the center of the meat. Finally wrap the hair around the hook to end the operation. This method will hold the meat on the hook better than any other method except for tying the meat to the shaft with thread or stretchy rubber strands like those wrapped around a golf ball. Sometimes the fish will shy away from baits that are tied on but the really big ones can't resist blobs of bait gently wavering in the current.
Mussels will quickly fall apart if you don't keep them cool or in a bait tank. If you have to keep them out of the water put the clumps into a gunny sack and submerge them every half hour. If they get warm you cannot put them on a hook. If you do lose them they make great chum by crushing them in a bucket and then throwing handfuls periodically over into the fishing zone.
If you are fishing in water as shallow as 20 feet or less try floating the mussel down into the habitat with only a split shot attached. This allows the fish to inhale the bait without feeling resistance. It also lets the multitude of small fishes grab and swim around with the mussel without pulling it off the hook. This is one way the large bass are attracted to your bait. They love to break up a frenzy of small fish and take the bait away from them. If a larger sinker is used, like more than 1 to 2 ounces the small ones tear the mussel off the hook as they pull against the resistance of the larger sinker. So use the smallest sinker possible for the conditions.
Fishing hard bottom spots deeper than 60 feet or more calls for a different presentation. These areas contain thousands of small fishes and they hover over the spots up to 10 feet under the surface.
Larger sinkers to 3 ounces are needed to plummet the mussel through the hoards of small ones so fast they can't catch the bait. The little fish don't like being near the bottom where the big ones live so a mussel has a chance to be spotted if it gets by the little ones. Use 20 lb line or more and drop a 2 foot leader and hook off about 3 feet above the sinker. Hammer your drag and set the hook at the first indication of a bite and wind quickly. Not only will you find quality calicos and sand bass you will also be greeted by massive 20 lb sheephead, sometimes more. They like mussel as much as they like live squid.
Don't ignore mussels for bait they always attract some action when all else is failing. Be patient when you cut them open and you'll soon become adept at it. Above all do not allow the mussel clumps to warm up. Keep them in water or dunk them periodically.

Added: Tue Apr 29 2008
Last Modified: Fri Oct 10 2008

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