Cockles are one of our most underrated baits like mussel, and are good used individually, in bunches, or as a tippet with lug, mackerel and white rag. They're easy to collect without specialised tools and keep for long periods with a minimum of effort.

The shell is roughly globular in shape curving outwards with raised edges close to the hinge of the two shells and ribs running along the outer shell. Outer colour is a creamy white or fawn, sometimes yellowing. Cockles resident in estuaries occasionally have a dark blue hue or stain to parts of the shell. It grows upto 2" in length and the foot (which the cockle uses to bury in the sand) is pale white to grey.


Much larger than the common cockle with a more robust shell. Has 18 to 20 raised ribs running around it's length and these carry backwards facing thorns or prickles. It attains a length between 3" and rarely 4". The foot is coloured bright red or orange and some people refer to this cockle as the "red nose" as a consequence.

Found extensively inside estuaries throughout the UK along the sandy/muddy banks of creeks and drainage channels. Also common on sheltered flash beaches along the middle and lower shore. Lays buried under a couple of inches of sand, but can often be seen poking through the surface as the tide recedes.

Common cockles form large beds on some estuary flats, but prove more widespread along true beaches.

Lives out beyond the low water line in deeper water. Again conceals itself in the sand, but storms wash it free and it gets carried shorewards and is often seen after prolonged periods of bad weather. Queen cockles are usually a light greyish brown with the Prickly cockle tending towards a paler coloured shell.

Common cockles can be collected throughout the year and are not affected by any seasonal changes regards numbers etc. The same applies to the deep water varieties, though these are most common during the autumn and winter months when prolonged storms are more prolific.

Low water periods are obviously the most efficient times to pick cockles when the sand has drained and you can see the tiny depressions left by the feeding siphons, or the slight depressed scoops in the surface sand created by the cockle as it burrows deeper after feeding.

Inside estuaries, you'll find that collection is often possible as early as three hours after high water, over low tide, and then for another three hours on the flood before the tide washes back over the cockle beds.

The deep water queen cockles are left along the low water wash line either during or just after a major blow.

Weather is not a major factor in collecting common cockles. You will find that during very heavy rain that falls when the tide has receded and left the sand exposed that the cockles are deeper down in the surface than during dry conditions.

The same applies to very cold, frosty weather. If the frost gets a chance to settle on exposed sand, then the cockles burrow deeper for better insulation.

Estuary living cockles remain closer to the surface and are therefore easier to collect in numbers during neap tides when the sand dries less than occurs during the spring tide cycles that drain water off to a greater degree. Hot weather during spring tides also makes the cockles bury deeper to find cooler conditions.

The simplest and best way to collect cockles is inside the estuaries by locating a true bed where resident numbers are high.

You can't miss these. A quick walk over the sands picking out the areas where the water takes longer to drain off is a good indication. Scan the surface sand and you'll see open cockle shells on the surface where birds have left them, plus living cockles half buried and numerous depressions identifying where live cockles lay fully buried.

You can get enough for a single session quite quickly by just picking up the odd live cockle exposed on the surface as you go. But for mass collection, you'll need a standard garden rake.

Pick a slightly damper part of the area and just work backwards pulling the rake through the surface sand. This builds up a pile of cockles after just a few strokes, but you'll need to sort out the live cockles from the numerous broken shells that are a normal feature on cockle beds.

Raking also works on flash beaches facing away from the prevailing winds.

Because queen cockles are only available when washed ashore by storms, walking the beach picking up individuals as you go is the only means of collection. But it's worth scanning the beach from the high tide line first and make a mental note where the heaviest accumulations of weed and flotsam have collected.

These are natural wash ups where a specific tidal current deposits the debris including waterborne food items. In other words, the queen cockles get caught up in this current and you'll find clusters of them inside this small area.

With queen cockles, you'll need to be on the beach with a couple of hours of the ebb tide still to run, for the local seabird population also like queen cockles and they'll be feeding just as soon as the first shellfish are exposed along the wash up line.

Cockles collected for immediate use, or being carried on a fishing trip need only be kept cool in a cool box with a couple of ice packs on top, but these need to be insulated from direct contact with the shells. This can be done by placing a layer of paper between the shells and the ice packs.

Longer storage is easy and only needs the cockles to be put in a bucket of fresh sea water. A normal builders bucket can be used to store upto 50 cockles. Better still are flat trays with sides 3-4" deep in which the cockles can be laid out individually. But take the following precautions.

After collection, rinse the cockles in sea water to cleanse them of any clinging mud and sand which quickly contaminates the water if left on. If you store the cockles in brackish estuary water, you'll find that they don't live as long as if you take the trouble to secure water directly off an open beach which is purer.

You need to change this water at least every two days. Make sure that the fresh water has been allowed to stand in the same air temperature as that in which the cockles are stored. This prevents the occasional casualty which can occur when cockles are instantly immersed in water with a wide temperature difference from that which they are used to.

Suitable places to house the bucket or trays are in a cool shadowy shed or garage in the cooler months, and in a fridge during the heat of summer.

The shells are easy to prise open by inserting a blunt bladed butter knife into the gap between the edges on the more sharp side of the shell and levering the two apart. Remove the flesh by simply pushing upwards underneath the cockle which breaks free from it's light anchorage.

Notice the foot at the base of the flesh. This is where the hook needs to be for it's the strongest part. Push the hook point down vertically through the body, then twist the shellfish so that the hook point travels through the length of the foot until the foot sits neatly inside the round gape of the hook with the hook point and barb exposed.

Used individually common cockles will take flounders, dabs, dogfish, whiting, rockling, school bass, pollack and coalfish. Try several cockles fed up the hook shank and held in place with shearing elastic for codling, bigger bass, plaice etc.

Cockles are excellent as a tippet bait. With lug it targets dabs, codling, pout, plaice, coalies and dogfish.

Boat anglers rarely mention cockles, but though they may seem out of character offshore, they are excellent for most bottom species, but especially for reef pollack, coalies and bream.

The larger queen cockle is a top haddock bait as well as taking most other boat species. Off the shore, it's superb during gales as expected for winter cod and summer bass, plus plaice, and even thornback rays. Conger will take queen cockles when they are fished over reefs.

If you trust your fellow anglers, you can collect cockle and leave them suspended in cages or open weave sacks in sea water off jetties, breakwaters etc. where they will live happily for ages without any need for further attention.

To toughen cockles, shell them, then lay them on paper until the moisture has been soaked up, then sprinkle them lightly with salt and store them like this for a few hours before use. This does not effect their effectiveness and actually improves their appeal to dabs and pout.