It is a chilly, overcast mid-November morning – far from ideal but Ron Cowling, skipper of the charter boat Our Mary, is willing to give it a go. A mountain of rods and tackle boxes is transferred from car to boat. The crew – consisting of Ted, Ron, Peter Peck and myself- climb aboard, the mooring ropes are untied and we move out slowly into the river.
At the mouth of the Keyhaven the river channel twists its way through the Solent marshes. Ahead lies Hurst Castle and the open waters of the Solent. Already Ted is assembling rods, screwing reels firmly into place and running line through carefully aligned rings. This way, Ted is ready to fish as soon as we reach the mark.
Ted has captained, represented and helped to select England International boat teams since 1974. In 1985 he won the Television South competition and has twice won the Bass Plymouth International Boat Championships. He has taken cod to 36lb 1oz (16.36kg). Inside the cabin of Ron Cowling’s ‘Our Mary’, black and white and colour echo sounders provide precise profiles of the sea bed and even show individual fish. How to get there
By car For Keyhaven (off the M3) join the A33 at junction 10. Continue southbound and join the M27 (westbound) at junction 4. Leave the M27 at junction 1 and follow the A337 for Lymington and Milford-on-Sea.
For Gosport and Langstone follow the M27 eastbound. Leave at junction 11 for Gosport. Continue on the M27 and join the A27 for Langstone. Be prepared to book boats up to a year in advance.
Calamari squid are imported for use in restaurants but make an excellent cod bait. Big cod can swallow two in one gulp – which gives you some idea of the size of their mouths! Braided wire is more supple and less likely to kink than nicro wire, and is of a lower diameter for the same breaking strain – all points in its favour. For wire, Ted recommends a reel with a metal spool (but not aluminium). It should also be fairly light so that the weight of the wire doesn’t make it unwieldy.
When pout like this are about the cod are often not far behind.
Ron nets the first of the cod while Ted looks on (gaffing is strictly out). With that massive head and powerful body it is easy to see why cod are such dogged fighters. A fine 18lb (8.16kg) Needles cod. Ted stresses the importance of patience – some people (skippers included) are not prepared to wait for the cod. Avoid using alloy spools in conjunction with wire. A small scratch on the spool is enough to set up an electrolytic action between wire, spool and sea water. This causes the spool to corrode. You can prevent this to some extent by loading the spool with nylon before putting the wire on.
Ron boats a thomback for Peter Peck. In spring – late March through April, May and into June – there are plenty of small-eyed ray to be had. Not to be sniffed at – a brace of 18lb (8.16kg) cod. Other species taken in this area include dab, bass, turbot, brill and pollack.
Beyond the mouth of the river, Ron opens up the throttles and Our Maty howls out towards the Hurst narrows. A watery sun breaks through heavy cloud and a steady wind picks up. Mid-November may be a good time for cod but it also brings strong winds and heavy seas.
Rounding The Needles lighthouse we look down the length of the Isle of Wight. The sea looks fishable. Ron decides on a mark two and a half miles off Scratchell’s Bay.
Unlike a wreck – where fish pack tightly into one small area – the cod are to be found in and around depressions in the flat, shingle sea bed. These are spread over a wide area. Ron uses the echo sounder to locate these one metre (3ft) deep, 2m (7ft) wide gulleys. He then manoeuvres the boat so the bait can drop into one of them and downs anchor. Meanwhile Ted takes a few calamari squid from the box so that they thaw completely, ready for the hook. Uptiding While waiting for the tide to slacken and the cod to move in, Ted is going to uptide for other species. Uptiding doesn’t work for Needles cod but there’s a good chance of a big whiting picking up Ted’s squid and mackerel strip cocktail. Cod rods Ted sets up two rods for the cod and plans to fish wire on both. He wants to compare the different properties of single strand (nicro) wire and multi-strand (braided) wire. He baits up with two squid -one hooked through the head and tip of the body, the other hooked once through the centre of the body. One trace has a large attractor spoon tied into it in the hope that the flash and vibration of the revolving spoon might interest the cod.
A good bite on the uptide tackle produces a lesser spotted dogfish. This is quickly unhooked and returned unharmed. There is no point in killing fish that are not needed. Dogfish are obviously on the move -the baits on the cod rods have been ripped and torn to shreds. This isn’t a problem – a cod bait is as good as the scent trail it releases and a torn bait still smells attractive. But once this smell ‘lane’ is washed away the bait needs changing. Ted reckons it takes about 20 minutes for a bait to get washed out.
Cutting edge The Isle of Wight cod grounds are washed by heavy tides — tides that make for difficult fishing with conventional nylon lines. Wire, with its lack of stretch and natural in-built weight, cuts easily through the hard run of the tide. This means you can use smaller, more manageable lead weights – making fishing less of a strain. Ted prefers the braided wire to the nicro wire because it is more supple and of a lower diameter. However, he stresses that light wire has a tendency to fray. His preference is for braided wire of no less than 50lb (22.7kg) b.s. This may sound heavy but a big cod hooked in a hard tide takes a lot of pulling up. (The water here is about 30m/100ft deep and typical of the depths found off this part of the Isle of Wight.)
There’s still no sign of any whiting or cod but the uptide rods have picked up a few more dogfish. Peter Peck also had a small thornback ray which he returned to the water immediately.
The tide is losing its pace. If Ted is going to catch a cod it ought to be about now.
There comes a good hard knock on the rod loaded with nicro wire. Only a decent sized, hungry cod could give a bite like this. Ted gives the taking fish a metre (3ft) of line to encourage it to pouch the double squid bait. Seconds later the rod top pulls hard down and the first cod is soon on its way to the surface.
Cod are not spectacular fighters but what they lack in speed they make up for in sheer doggedness. This fish slogs it out right to the surface. Once on top, skipper Cowling soon has the net under it and with a quick heave brings it into the boat. It weighs in at exactly 18lb (8.2kg). Isle of Wight cod can reach weights in excess of 40lb (18.2kg), so this one isn’t a monster but it’s a good fish nevertheless and certainly pleases Ted. Perhaps a bigger one will follow?
Hope is fading and the wind rising. The bright weather of the morning has turned overcast with a chill north-west wind whipping up a lively sea. To make matters worse the dogfish and pout are back on the uptide baits. Several have been caught and returned and there’s still no sign of a second cod bite. But Ted is confident. ‘Where you find small pouting and poor cod, you find big cod too,’ he says.
Cod are both scavengers and active predators, their diet consisting of crabs, shellfish, brittlestars and a regular intake of small fish. Species is not important as long as the fish are plentiful. Pouting are small and shoal by the thousand and cod graze on them ‘like a cow grazing on cabbages,’ says Ted. Find the shoals of pout and sooner or later you’ll find a cod pack.
Pouting, dogfish and the odd poor cod are still hammering the squid baits. Ted is on his third box of imported squid – it looks as though he spends more on bait than he does on tackle. Both his wire line rods are built on hollow glass blanks. His favourite, a ‘Sandetti’ built by the long defunct Modern Arms Company, is equippped with a full set of roller rings. Wire line demands the use of a tip roller ring and, if possible, a full set of roller guides. (Use a wire line on a rod without at least a tip roller and you’ll ruin the wire on the first day out.)
The stern rod registers a hefty pull. Ted replies by giving the fish a little line. Cod are quick to reject a suspect bait. Any resistance to their movement and they drop the bait and vanish. Feeding them a little line encourages them to take the bait properly. This fish is hungry. It tugs twice more at the squid and Ted gives line.
Striking at cod can lead to lost fish, so instead of striking Ted simply starts to wind in slowly. Cod angling experts call this ‘feeling’ the fish on to the hook. The rod begins to pull down – a sure sign that the cod has the bait in its mouth. A straight lift of the rod sets the two 8/0 hooks and the fish is on. Like the earlier fish this one fights a stolid, kicking battle to the surface but soon it is in the skipper’s big net, having completed the first leg of its journey to Ted’s freezer. Weighing is unnecessary as it is almost identical to the first fish – making for a fine brace of eighteen pounders (8.2kg).
With a new bait on the hook and hopes running high, this time the rod kicks over in seconds. Moments later a third and slightly smaller cod is on its way to the frying pan. This one weighs in at 16 1/2 lb (7.5kg). With weather conditions turning nasty, Ron decides to up-anchor and head for home. Considering that the trip was nearly cancelled, it has been a worthwhile day’s fishing. Ted has demonstrated how wire can score over other methods when the conditions demand it.