Handling and Collecting Mussels
Try not to disturb living mussels. If you should happen to move one, replace it on the riverbed or lake bottom in the same place and the same position as you found it. That will give the animal a fighting chance for continued survival.
Usually, a live mussel closes its shells tightly when it is disturbed, so you may not be able to see either its siphons which are usually above ground or its foot which is extended below ground. Observe the animal closely and find the hinge. The hinge and the longest end from the hinge should stay above the soil. That is because the siphons which allow the animal to breathe are located in the long end. The shorter end should go into the soil an inch or two because it contains the foot which pulls the animal along the river bottom.
If you are interested in collecting shells, be aware that no state allows the collection of protected species without a permit. Each individual state has their own set of guidelines to classify the status of mussels. The Federal Government also has rules about the collection of threatened species. Identification of mussels can be very tricky. In some cases, the only way an animal can be identified is by examining the soft parts of a living mussel making it very difficult to know if you've found a very rare animal or a common one. So, though the shells may capture your imagination and your admiration, it is probably best to examine the shells where you find them and then leave them in their natural setting.
For Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota, the regulations for non-commercial collection of mussels vary significantly. North Dakota's laws are most stringent where no mussels may be taken.
The rules below are only for species that are not listed as protected within their respective locations. No protected species of any kind, anywhere, can be taken without a special permit. Rules change, so be sure to check with your local agencies before collecting mussels. What is presented here is just a small part of the rules for Minnesota, the four surrounding states and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. As of June, 2012:
In Minnesota, it is illegal to possess any live mussels. Licensed anglers and children under 16 may take or possess up to
In Wisconsin, it is no longer legal to harvest any live mussels from the waters of the state. Shells of dead mussels may be taken as long as they are not from a threatened or endangered mussel. (www.dnr.wi.gov)
In Iowa, a maximum of 24 whole shells or 48 half shells may be taken. Only dead shells may be harvested from water bodies other than the Mississippi River, as long as they are not from a threatened or endangered mussel. Live and dead shells may be harvested from the Mississippi River, as long as they are not from threatened or endangered mussels.
An individual who has a fishing license in South Dakota is allowed to have 12 dozen mussels (144) in their possession for personal use only. The mussels may not be sold or bartered.
North Dakota specifies that a person must be licensed to take mussels, but seasons for clamming have been closed indefinitely "because of continued concern over the impacts commercial harvesting may have on clam populations." (North Dakota Fishing Regulations, PDF, 2.19MB). The effect of closing the season is that no mussels may be collected.
Within the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway which includes the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers, rules made by the National Park Service govern collection of mussel shells. In this National Scenic Riverway, no live mussels or empty shells can be taken regardless of their home state protection status.
Did You Know?
At Lake Itasca, the elevation of the Mississippi River is 1,475 feet above sea level. It drops to sea level at the Gulf of Mexico. More than half of that drop occurs within the state of Minnesota.