The winter of 2012/13, on paper, looks like it could be one of the best for sheer numbers of cod for some time. There should be fair numbers of fish around 1½lb to 2lb, but also fish between 3lb and 4lb left over from last winter. In among these will be some double-figure cod, plus the chance of 20lb-plus fish, if the weather patterns fall right to keep the cod close to shore.
Cod can only really be confused with the whiting. The cod has a blunter, bigger head, but the whiting’s head is more pointed towards the jaws. The cod’s lateral line is more pronounced and features an upwards curve above the pectoral fin. Also look for a definite black or dark spot positioned at the root of the pectoral fin on the whiting, which is missing on the cod. When living over sand, cod take on a mottled fawn or light brown colouring on the back with a white underside But when feeding mostly over mixed rougher ground and broken shell they become slightly greener on the back for better camouflage.
They achieve sexual maturity at the age of four years, and female cod can produce up to 10 million eggs. The fry are rarely evident, but by the end of their second spring can be found close inshore and will range from four to seven inches long. Overall growth is rapid and, by their third year, they should weigh in the region of 4lb, although they are still not fully mature.
Cod are designed with a large mouth in comparison to the body for hoovering up food items off the sea bed, and sucking in the bait fish that they prey on. A typical cod diet includes crabs, worms, shellfish, shrimps and squat lobsters – but as they grow bigger they start taking live fish such as poor cod, pouting, whiting, flatfish, sandeel, herring, and mackerel and are also cannibalistic by eating their own kind!
Cod are found northward as far as the Barents Sea off northern Russia, westward taking in Iceland and the southern tip of Greenland, also off the Newfoundland coast and the eastern coast of North America. They are common off Western Europe from Norway south to the Bay of Biscay taking in the whole of the UK and Ireland. In Scotland and northeast England, cod can be caught pretty much throughout the whole year – although from September onwards, numbers increase as more fish move in from deeper water. In the south of the UK, the traditional start to the cod season is again September, with the first fish generally showing from the shore marks in the upper Bristol Channel, from Dungeness Beach in Kent, Chesil Beach in Dorset, The Tamar Estuary, and also from East Anglian, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire beaches.
Numbers increase throughout October, with the peak period for shore cod November through to Christmas. Come the New Year, cod numbers rapidly thin out as the fish move offshore prior to spawning. Cod like big seas with a good swell and a surf running. This displaces food from the sand and the cod move in to feed. Big Atlantic weather systems that bring gale-force winds in from the southwest and west are the ones to watch for. As these produce surf and swell as they approach it can fish well – but the best fishing is after the gale blows through and the wind drops, but the sea remains rough. Big catches can be made at these times.
Cod can be caught by day if the water is very coloured and ideally over 15 feet in depth, to minimise light passing through the water column. But experienced cod anglers will always fish at night, as this is when the bulk of the fish move inshore to feed. Tides rising from middle sized through to the biggest spring tides prove by far the best. Once the tides peak and start to fall back in size, so to do catches of cod.
On shallow surf beaches, low water and right through the flood tide to high water can be a good time – but once the ebb starts, typically the fish move further out and often beyond fishing range. On deeper beaches, often the cod come in with the mid-flood when the tide picks up speed, staying until high water – but it can vary from beach to beach.
When fishing on shallow beaches, look for features. Deeper sand gullies running parallel with the shore catch food pushed in by the tide and will hold cod too. Note any areas where patches of shingle, broken boulders or mussel beds lay, as these will hold food and the cod will visit. Junctions of boulders and sand are good, also channels between sandbanks where the fish will pass through as the tide floods in. All these are cod hotspots. Look at the surf pattern on deeper beaches. Any areas where the surf breaks closer in indicates deeper water and are worth fishing. Also look for areas where flotsam and jetsam washes up as these identify a tide current that washes ashore there, and will bring food with it too. Also any out-jutting rock or shingle banks that deflect the tide will again draw cod in to feed among broken ground.
Surf cod fishing, due to the nature of the sea state being typically rough, requires powerful fast taper, 5oz to 6oz beachcasters between 12 and 14 feet. Most anglers opt for a rod between 12 feet six inches and 13 feet six inches. Over clean sand popular reels for maximum distance, which can be an advantage on many cod beaches, are the ABU 6500i TSR loaded with 15lb line and a 60lb to 80lb shockleader. For very rough seas and when fishing in among broken ground, most anglers prefer the increased winching power of the Penn 525 Mag 2, loaded with 20lb line and an 80lb shockleader.
The top beach bait for winter cod is blow or black lugworm. Make the baits at least five inches long and bulk them out to increase scent and give the cod something to home in on in the dirty water. Other good baits are ragworm, which often fishes well as a cocktail with lugworm, whole squid, or squid strips added to worm baits, mussel, razorfish, and bluey as strips and as half-body baits. Peeler crab, especially near rougher ground, will also be deadly.