Cod (Gadus morhua) are one of the most widely spread species around the UK coast. Although they can be targeted almost all year round, it’s the winter months when most anglers’ minds turn to cod, with shoals of this cold-water species coming within reach of shore anglers.
Rough winter weather stirs up food for shore-bound cod, and whiting too, with the bigger cod also feeding on this obliging winter species.
The timing of the winter cod run is rarely precise. This is due to a lot of factors, including availability of feed items, water temperatures, weather and, it must be said, the fish being present in sufficient numbers.
Although cod are a ridiculously fertile species, they have a long history of being overfished commercially, and this has a definite effect on the catch potential for recreational anglers. It’s not just a pure numbers game either. The bigger the cod, the more eggs it produces, with the real outsize specimens being hugely missed if they are removed from the gene pool, not simply for the number of eggs that are produced but also for having the genetic plan to grow big. If at all possible the biggest cod should be returned to breed again.
Cod are also known to have a shoal consciousness, returning to the same spawning and feeding grounds year after year, as the different year classes shoal together and a shoal ‘memory’ is built up. This makes localised shoals of cod very vulnerable to being fished out, with the species unlikely to repopulate the area.
Cod are omnivorous, and they will happily take worms, crustaceans, squid, cuttlefish, shellfish and small fish. While they are more than happy to scavenge and bottom feed, cod are also active hunters, pursuing sandeels, sprats, pout, whiting, and even their own species.
In spite of appearing to be perpetually on the lookout for an easy meal, cod can become pre-occupied in their feeding and this can make them more difficult to tempt. An example of this is when they begin to target shoals of sprats.
Cod have huge mouths, so it’s difficult to offer them a bait that is too big.
For shore anglers, bait size tends to be governed by the ability to cast it to the required distance – which can be considerable. Even so, bunches of lug or ragworms, mussels, peeler crab, whole squid and combinations of these used as cocktail baits will all catch cod.
There can be a real advantage in using a bait to match the food items that have drawn cod into the area, as this is what the fish will be feeding on in the main.
Boat anglers, even those using uptide tactics, don’t have the same casting constraints as shore anglers, and they are able to really bulk up their baits.
Multiple squid or cuttlefish are popular cod baits with winter boat anglers, and depending on the size of the squid available, or the angler’s willingness to sit it out on the chance of a huge fish over numbers, it has been known to present as many as 10 squid as a bait. This is done to deter smaller fish, and also to put a bigger scent trail into the water. Huge, high number multiple baits can require a double Pennel rig (four hooks in line) to present them.
Cuttlefish is very highly rated as a bait for big cod.
Livebaits will also pick up cod, with the larger fish showing a definite preference for these. Shore anglers will sometimes use a modified Pennel rig, with the lower hook baited with worm. The intention here is for a whiting to self hook, then being allowed to remain out as a livebait.
It’s not all about monster cod, though, and smaller fish will take proportionately smaller baits, although any cod of takeable size (35 centimetres) will easily manage a whole squid.
Artificial lures such as shads and eels will also take cod, although these are generally used by boat anglers during the warmer months.
Cocktail baits work well.
For shore anglers fishing for cod, distance is key. Suitable tackle and the ability to use it is a must.
Powerful long-casting beachcasters and reels to match are required. Fixed-spool reels can make distance casting a lot easier, although a good technique is also needed.
Main lines in the 15 to 20lb range are required, with hooklengths in the 30 to 50lb range a good choice. It goes without saying that shockleaders should always be used. Hooks need to be big, strong and sharp to match the size of the bait being used.
Cod have teeth, as do whiting, and they can cause abrasion on hooklengths, so it pays to check them and change them regularly.
For boat anglers, rods in the 20 to 30lb class are needed to cope with the size of leads that will be required, and the size of fish that may be encountered. Braid reel lines in the 30lb class will allow smaller leads to be used, though for big fish many anglers will use 40 or 50lb braid, especially if there is a chance of a conger.
Hooklengths in the 80lb range will be needed where big fish are expected, going up to 100lb or more if congers are likely to be a nuisance.
For uptiding the rods need to be capable of lobbing out 10oz leads. Hooks need to be the same as for shore fishing, but usually in larger sizes as bigger baits will be used. The hooks need to be big enough to leave the points exposed, and most anglers start at 6/0 going as high as 10/0 for really big baits.
Make sure your gear is up to the task when targeting fish like this.
From the shore it’s feeding opportunities that draw and hold cod in certain areas. Look for patches of dense worm or mussel beds. These will draw cod in, especially after a good blow.
For winter boat anglers, reefs, wrecks and even mudbanks will hold cod so long as the food holds out. Most skippers have their favourite marks and will target these throughout the cod season.
Featureswise it’s also worth considering the size of fish that you would reasonably expect. Any marks that have cod are capable of producing an outsize specimen on occasion, but to set off gunned up for a 20 to 30lb fish in an area where the average size is maybe 4 to 6lb could result in a disappointing day. Gear your tactics around the size of fish that you expect to encounter, but make sure that your tackle is capable of landing a specimen should one show up.
On boat trips the skipper will usually let you know what sort of trip you are booked on for. If you join a boat specifically targeting specimen cod it will be unrealistic to expect fast and furious action. There simply aren’t that many of them around these days.
Smaller fish in the 4 to 6lb class are usually more numerous, with bites for all anglers a genuine prospect. These smaller fish tend to make for better eating too.
Legering big baits at range is a top tactic for shore anglers. When whiting are numerous the previously mentioned reverse Pennel rig, with a smaller worm-baited hook at the bottom, is a popular tactic with anglers that use two rods. Usually one rod is fished in this way as a ‘sleeper’, with a self-hooked whiting becoming a livebait for larger cod.
Boat tactics in the winter months usually revolve around big baits presented up or downtide. These are usually fished static, although downtide tactics can also include bouncing the bait slowly downtide to take the bait to the fish.
Simple sliding leger rigs are best, with a hooklength of around three to five feet. The stronger the tide, the shorter the hooklength, as this enables the bait to stay on the bottom rather than flapping about.
What can’t be overstated for both shore and boat anglers is the need for fresh bait on the hook. To maximise the scent trail baits need to be renewed very frequently. This can make winter cod fishing a costly exercise – especially if half a dozen squid are being replaced at a time!
Obviously livebaits don’t need to be replaced with this frequency.
Lure tactics can still work during the winter, although these are usually examined from January onwards as the fish begin to move offshore again. Tactics and lures are similar to those used for pollack, but the lures are usually presented much closer to the bottom, either wound up to 10 turns before dropping back down, or taken up just one turn and then ‘hopped’ up and down with a rhythmic movement of the rod. Takes on the hopping method can be very positive, while fish taking lures on the ‘wind up’ will sometimes play with the lure before deciding to take it. Shorter hooklengths of around five to 10 feet are favoured for cod, rather than the 15ft-plus snoods that are used for pollack.
Lures will also pick up specimen cod.
Eastbourne skipper Steve Bradshaw has a great record with big cod, so we asked him to tell us some of the things that make the top big cod anglers successful.
The anglers that go after big cod, or big anything, make sure they have got tackle that’s up to the job.
Personally I look for hook quality first, because that’s what you are connected to the fish with. For big cod it’s a big baits job, and I rate Sakuma Manta Extras in size 8/0 and Catfish hooks in 10/0 as having the capability of holding big baits and landing big fish.
Obviously line and other gear have to be up to the job. You also need the best quality bait you can put your hands on, not old frost burned crap from the bottom of some shop’s freezer.
Success is down to patience. Things like baiting hooks properly so that hook points aren’t hidden, taking huge time in setting clutches properly, the list goes on, but these are the things I’m watching my boys doing daily.
When it’s a big-fish trip I look for maybe three fish per day, and that will most likely produce one PB for an angler. It’s about quality not quantity, but to be honest most of the time you will still hook up and land 5 to 10lb fish on big 10/0 hooks. They have big mouths and they’re greedy fish.
Shore Star’s Tackle Guide
Cod fanatic Alan Brown always has big fish on his mind – here’s what he uses to catch them:
The tackle that I use is intended to put a bait where I want it and land any fish that I’m likely to hook. I keep things as simple as possible and value reliability above all else. Cod fishing is a tough game and you need the tackle to match.
Rod: Century TT Sports
Reel: Penn Fathom 15 multiplier
Main line: Rovex 10x in 19lb
Leaders: Asso Ultra Flex in 70 lb and 60lb for hook links
Rig: I use a 3ft pulley Pennel with 3/0 or 6/0 Sakuma Manta Extras, depending on bait size
Bait: Squid and lug cocktails are very good, and I’ve had a lot of big fish on them, including my biggest at 24lb from Chesil Beach
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