Cod Fishing Guide

Cod is the primary commercial species and stocks are under pressure. But codlings’ early life inshore, and new distribution patterns, mean that anglers can still strike lucky.

The North Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua, is widespread off the coasts of Britain, especially Scotland, where it comes in to feed from the deep water breeding grounds round Iceland. The cod, with herring and other ‘round’ fish, is the major part of the huge commercial fishing fleets and vast quantities are trawled each year, the cod catch itself often exceeding 250,000 tons.

As with many species, the cod shows considerable colour variation dependent upon area, but is usually a greengrey speckled with brown on the flanks and top, with a white belly. The lateral line is white and very distinct. There are three dorsal and two anal fins and these, coupled with the huge mouth of the cod, all contribute to making the angler work hard when he has to reel a big one up from perhaps 35 fathoms (210ft). The cod, like many members of its family, including hake, whiting, pouting, coalfish, haddock and ling, has one long barbule on the lower jaw.

During spawning a female cod can release up to 9,000,000 eggs in mid-water. This enormous number ensures that a sufficient percentage of tiny fish will evade the predations of other fish, birds, disease and natural disasters and ensure the continuity of the species—subject, of course, to the ravages of Man.

The eggs hatch into 4.75mm larvae, growing to about an inch after three months. Larvae feed on tiny marine organisms, and the codling graduate to fish, sandeels at first, then herring, haddock and even members of its own species.


It was commonplace ten years ago to take a boat not far out from Dover, Ramsgate, Deal, Hastings, and other places on the South East Coast, and bring in 50lb of prime cod and codling (all cod of up to 6lb are called codling). All this has changed. Nowadays, catches are smaller but cod can be caught throughout the year over a greater area, especially if one can fish deep—even off the West Coast, where, surprisingly, cod of 45lb and 46lb were taken a few years ago. Cod fishing seasons vary from one part of the British Isles to another. In the Clyde the big shoals arrive between February and March, when fish of 40lb have been caught in some numbers. Off the Isle of Mull in Scotland, June, July and August are the best fishing months. On the South and East Coasts, November, December and January are the traditional months to expect cod. Down in the West Country cod are caught throughout the year: not-many, but a steady trickle of big fish that have become permanent residents in the areas of wrecks and pinnacles. Most Scottish venues have a resident population of small and medium-sized cod which live permanently on the inshore marks, but the larger fish are seasonal visitors which appear to spawn or to take advantage of a natural glut of bait-fish, crustaceans or other food. All this points to the different type of cod fishing that exists today. The East Coast and eastern end of the English Channel were once the big cod areas, with a long-beaten record cod of 32lb coming from Lowestoft. Now the angler seeking record fish goes to the South West or North East.


It is not necessary to go boat-fishing in order to catch a sizeable cod. There are many beaches round the coasts, such as Dungenness, in Kent, where cod can be caught on beachcasting tackle. Piers, groynes and moles, too, offer close-in deep-water fishing for the species. Notable among these is the detached mole at Dover, where numbers of double-figure cod are taken every year when there is a run of the fish. Fishing stations such as these can be found in many areas. Yorkshire offers some wonderful cod fishing at places such as Filey Brigg and up to Flamborough Head.

The current record caught from a boat weighed 53lb and fell to G Martin, fishing at Start Point, Devon, in 1972. There are now both boat and shore records, the latter of which is a 44lb 8oz cod caught in 1966 by B Jones, from Toms Point, Barry, Glamorgan. These sizes will be ad-mired by anglers whose usual cod (when he can catch one) is around 10lb.

Cod are not fastidious feeders. The gape of its mouth enables this fish to swallow vast amounts of edi-ble—and inedible—matter, including white objects, which seem to be a particular attraction. This habit has led to the development white attrac-tor spoons on cod tackle.

Many anglers overestimate the strength of cod when choosing tackle. This is particularly true of the average boat angler who tends to choose a really strong rod. This is not necessary: after an initial strong plunge or two the fish will come up if a steady line-retrieve is made; the large open mouth will provide most of the resistance. Despite their general greediness and large average size, cod can often be shy biters. Many an angler has struck at a tiny, twitchy bite only to find that he has connected solidly with a really big fish. On the South Coast when fierce Channel tides can make fishing difficult, many anglers use a wire line rather than a nylon monofilament line to get the bait down to where the fish are feeding.

Wire line fishing

The wire has its own built-in weight and being far finer than nylon it creates less drag in the tide so that comparatively light leads can be used even in strong tidal runs. Wire line fishing for cod has become something of a science and various kinds of line have been marketed in attempts to cut down the weight, size, and thus the diameter even further. Many anglers believe wire lines are dangerous, but they become dangerous only when they snag the sea bed and some fool tries to free his line by heaving on it with his bare hands—when the wire can cut like a razor. If stout gloves are used the danger is eliminated entirely. Wire is almost essential in very deep water, where its weight takes the bait down without the necessity of using 2lb leads.


The techniques for catching cod include all the standard methods; ledgering with fish strips, lugworm, squid; paternostering with soft crab, whole small pouting, and so on; pirks and lures, and feathering. Cod can be taken from deep water, close off-shore marks, piers, rocks and beaches, and from the tops of 100ft high cliffs! Here safety is a vital factor.