The deep-living haddock is an elusive fish with a distinctive bite: It sucks delicately at the bait, and you need great self-discipline to steel yourself against striking too early.
The haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus), a member of the cod family, is a shoaling fish of the cold, northerly waters of the Atlantic Ocean. There are two distinct groups of the species living and migrating within clearly defined areas each side of the Atlantic. American fishermen as far south as New Jersey enjoy superb catches of haddock that have travelled down from the feeding grounds off Greenland and in the Denmark Strait. British haddock migrate from Scandinavian waters and the seas around Iceland, preferring to settle in the northern part of the North Sea and off Ireland.
Identification of the species is easy, even in immature specimens. Like most of the cod group of fishes, the haddock has three dorsal fins and two anal fins. The first dorsal is finely pointed with its base the same length as the pectoral fin, which is placed directly below it. Between these fins is a distinctive black mark, like a thumbprint, the upper part of which cuts through the black lateral line. The lateral line has a gentle curve which straightens below the third dorsal fin. A well-formed barbule sprouts from the underside of the lower jaw, below a mouth which is low set and small compared with that of the cod and other fish of that family.
The species is rather more selective in the type of habitat it chooses than the other cod species. This is probably because it has a liking for saline water and is never found in areas that have an influx of fresh water. The haddock likes to feed over a soft seabed composed of shells, sand and small stones where there are likely to be beds of live shellfish. The scallops, both Pecten maximus and the smaller ‘Queenies’, are one of the haddock’s favourite foods but they will also feed over mussel beds and in places where cockles burrow beneath the sand.
Haddock will feed on most shellfish, worms and crustaceans but it appears not to be a confirmed fish eater. It will eat young sandeels and capelin when available, but is not very attracted by fish baits. One thing is certain: the species are finicky feeders. Perhaps this has something to do with their habitual feeding on shellfish, where they have first to force open the shells before extracting the juicy flesh from within. The bite of a haddock can be described as a sucking, drawing action that can last for over a minute. It takes a lot of self-discipline to let a bite develop so that the likelihood of hooking is increased. The first lesson to learn is patience, and next, to understand what a haddock bite feels like. Keep your head, and relax the grip that one has on the rod.
When taken fresh from the sea, the haddock has a silvery gleam, with a purple-grey iridescent back and a creamy-white belly. Occasionally it has a pink reflective quality to the sides and belly.
A smallish fish, the haddock does not reach the average size of our winter cod. A fish of nearly 40lb has been taken off Nova Scotia but the British fish usually weighs 2-6 lb, with an eight-pounder making the pages of the angling press.
When we look at the British record haddock an odd fact emerges. One would expect the fish to come from the more northerly areas of the British Isles, because the species prefers coldish water. Instead the record fish came from water off Falmouth on the Cornish coast. A splendid specimen of 13lb lloz, was taken by G Bones in 1978. The previous record of 12 lb 10 oz was also caught here.
Another huge haddock, of 10lb 13l 2oz, was caught off Kinsale, in the south of Ireland, some years ago, which leads one to think that the warm waters of the South West are best when seeking record-breaking specimens.
There has been massive overfishing of this table species in the North Sea and in our more distant fishing grounds. Some traditional sea angling grounds have survived, providing good catches each year, but even they are under attack from the trawl. Luckily for the species, it has several breeding grounds on our side of the Atlantic. There are seasonal spawning migrations to the deep water off the Norwegian coast, the west of Iceland and an important breeding ground between Shetland and the Faroes.
Haddock are prolific spawners, mature females expelling between 100,000 and a million transparent eggs of up to lV&mm in diameter. These are released in the spring (mainly in March or April) in water of around 50 fathoms. The eggs rise in the water to float in the upper currents, where they hatch in a fortnight given sufficiently high surface temperatures. Within a few weeks the larvae sink through the depths to take up a demersal, bottom-living, existence.
With good feeding the species can grow to over 6in within the first year of life. It would appear that these immature fish do not make the migratory passage to British waters. Those small haddock that reach the Scottish inshore waters and the prolific grounds of the Causeway Bank, Northern Ireland, are fish of at least two seasons’ growth. These small fish are often responsible for the ‘twitch’ bites ex-perienced by the angler fishing for cod and haddock. The simple truth is that the immature haddock cannot get the bait into its mouth.
Fishing for haddock
There is an important difference in behaviour between the cod and haddock. As fry, haddock seek deep water, whereas cod generally move into the shallow areas, where they may take up residence. However, no inshore haddock remain with us throughout the angling year. The haddock visits in summer and autumn, retreating to deep water as the winter approaches.
Fishing specifically for the haddock has its problems. Most of a sea angler’s tackle and baiting methods are not intended to sort one species from another. Haddock fishing, though, demands that we adopt selective tactics. As to bait, shellfish are best, with worms a close second. There is good reason to use the North East Coast anglers’ style, in which a ‘cocktail’ bait that incor-porates both lugworm and mussel is fished. The hooks must be smallish, size 20 and smaller, and should be honed really sharp.
A crafty species
The haddock will pull a few times on the rod tip. This should be ignored. The positive reaction, calling for a purposeful lift of the rod, should come when the tip is pulled down in an arc. Only at that stage can this crafty species be successfully hooked. These suggestions on striking assume fairly slack water conditions, which, generally, would call for a simple paternostering method and a single hookbait. When there is a strong run of tide, tactics change. Few anglers will feel the build-up to the fish taking the bait. In these conditions, we change to a fixed ledgerpaternoster rig that has proved very successful in the search for big haddock. This technique relies on the voracious habits of the species rather than on the abiity of the angler to detect the fish’s presence in a stiff run of tide. Haddock are bottom-feeders, but that does not mean that they are not prepared to rise in the water a couple of feet. A rig should be used that incorporates a stiff boom, with a lead weight immediately below the boom, which is attached to a long, flowing trace. The length of the trace is ad-justed to the strength of the prevailing current—long for a stiff tidal stream, shorter for a gentle flow. The trace length allows the fish to pick up the bait naturally without feeling resistance.
What seems to happen is that the haddock mouths the bait, gets a good hold, then pulls against the static lead. In short, it hooks itself! From a boat, which might be drif-ting across the area fished, there are few anglers who can detect a haddock bite with any certainty. The idea that the traditional ledger rig, with running boom, gives the fish the chance to run away without feeling the lead weight, is nonsense. After all, most anglers keep a tight line to the lead anyway. Add to this the speed of the boat and the claim that a fish takes a bait without resistance cannot be upheld. Perhaps the haddock, like most other species found on the sea bottom, sees a possible meal disappearing, and then goes after it.
The rig described above, developed as a result of many years of haddock fishing off the Isle of Arran in an attempt to beat the record book, has one other useful feature. Because of the offset boom, the terminal tackle can be lowered to the seabed much faster. The hook trace will not wrap around the reel line, as a typical ledger rig is bound to do. The small baits used for haddock are prone to tangling as they have little water resistance, whereas the strong tidal stream would straighten out a strip of mackerel.
Haddock fishing does not end with hooking the fish, for they fight all the way to the surface. This again separates them from the rest of the cod family. Because they are gentle biters, they are often only lightly hooked, and many specimen fish have managed to pull free. Any slack line given on the way to the surface will result in the loss of the fish, especially during the critical last few feet to the net or gaff. To allow slack line will ruin the angler’s chances of boating the fish.