The massive cod catches from Dungeness beach in Kent back in the 1960's were the catalyst that spawned the dramatic development in surf fishing tackle and casting techniques that we witnessed through the 70's and 80's. Modified tackle and the pendulum cast gave us the ability to put big baits out well over 100-metres into territory previously only reached by boats.
Some big catches were recorded, 100lb plus bags of cod to a single rod during a night session. Then came the over-fishing by commercial vessels. Cod catches slumped in many areas. Was it all over?
Anglers feared the worse, but mother nature fought back, and now cod stocks, though nothing like previous levels have enjoyed some good winters over the past few years. Certainly, you've a good chance of taking cod from the surf in this fast approaching millennium year winter, it's just a case of prioritising to minimise chance.
LOCATION Your choice of fishing location is critical. No point fishing hard in an area where few cod are caught. You need to identify areas that give consistent fishing throughout the autumn and winter period.
The best surf cod prospects are found along the Holderness Coast of Yorkshire between Withernsea and Spurn Point. Here you get both an autumn and winter flush of fish, then a secondary spring run through April and May. Look to Withernsea itself, Holmpton, Easington and Kilnsea as safe bets.
The beaches of East Anglia maybe can't produce the numbers of cod they once did, but there are still good catches taken and big fish caught. The fish move south to north and show from October on with the best of the fishing before Christmas. The first fish traditionally show from the Lowestoft marks, but Southwold and Aldbrough are also good. Yarmouth North Beach is an ebb tide mark, Caister produces fish on both flood and ebb tides, but any beach will give cod in the right conditions. If you crave a 20lb plus fish, then North Beach at Yarmouth and Corton's Tramps Alley have the reputation.
In Suffolk, Orfordness and Felixstowe are noted areas. At Felixstowe, Landguard Point has deeper water and tends to produce both numbers and better-sized fish, especially in the post Christmas period.
Kent's Reculver Beach has a cod season from October to February, as do the beaches from the North Foreland past Dover and Dungeness to Dengemarsh. The Sussex beaches produce, especially Langney Point.
Cod are then more of a rarity for shore anglers between Sussex and North Devon, but Chesil Beach gives a few fish, as will some of the Cornish beaches between Lizard Point and Bude.
Though Dungeness was once king, the crown has now been claimed by the Bristol Channel marks. The fast tides and coloured waters of the Severn Estuary pull cod in like bargain hunters to the sales. Both the English and Welsh sides fish well, but the land of the dragon has the edge. On the Bristol side, Blue Anchor Bay, Ladye Bay and Sand Point are good. In Wales, Redwick fishing the seawall and the mud banks, Cardiff Foreshore, Lavernock, Cold Knap Beach and Stout Point are excellent. Cod show in October and stay until March with the big fish in occurring in January in February.
The mid Wales beaches hold cod, but not many. North Wales is slightly better with the beaches around Llandudno and Colwyn Bay giving true surf casting opportunities.
The next areas to consider are the Lancashire and Cumbria beaches. Blackpool, Rossall and Cleveleys being the most consistent from October to March. In Cumbria, Barrow and Silecroft produce, as do Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport.
Most Scottish beaches produce cod and are less dependent on winter conditions to hold the fish, but they seem to lack the bigger fish over 5lbs in numbers, or maybe it's just the fewer number of anglers here than in the south.
WEATHER This is the make or break of your fishing. Be prepared to fish in hostile conditions of rain, sleet and snow with a chill wind biting your flesh, and with weed clogging your line.
You must watch the weather forecasts on the TV religiously. Note the big low-pressure systems sweeping across the Atlantic from the States. As these gale force winds pound our shore, so the cod move in to feed on the torn out food.
Along the south and West Coast of the UK, you want south-west to westerly winds, sometimes north-westerly above Lancashire, to produce the big seas. Along the Northeast coast beaches, watch for Northeast to east winds to produce surf, or east to south-east winds along the East Anglian beaches. Individual beaches will produce well on specific wind directions, but the above pattern is general and a useful guide.
Concentrate only on night fishing. Cod are reluctant to move in close to shore by daylight.
TIDES & GROUND FEATURE Cod love fast moving water as it stirs up food for them, which they can grub up off the bottom. I wouldn't suggest that smaller neap tides aren't worth fishing at all, but I'd strongly recommend that you put most of your fishing effort in to the bigger spring tide periods when there's a massive amount of water transferred. In a surf beach situation, 85% of cod will be taken on the three days before and after the highest spring tide of the cycle.
It's a misconception that cod prefer deep water. On surf beaches, the fish will work in water depths of just three or four feet. Many surf beaches will be shallowest over the low water period, even at long range, but don't let this put you off. If there is good surf running, the water well coloured and food is available, cod will be inshore and feeding.
They are likely to feed right throughout the flood tide and probably for an hour on the ebb, then disappear. This applies mainly to clean sand beaches.
If the ground you are casting onto has areas of broken rocky ground or shallow reef, then fish will feed through the ebb tide as well. If this ground is only reachable to you during the hours either side of low water, then I'd expect the cod fishing to be poor over high water, but come on strong down the ebb tide as the reef comes within range of your casting ability.
On clean surf beaches, also look for deeper gullies that tend to run parallel with the shore. The cod run through these as water-borne food gets washed in and held here. These will fish on the flood tide as they fill with water, but produce nothing on the ebb as little, if any, food will be resident towards the high water line to get displaced by heavy surf.
If the gullies are beyond the low water line, then you can locate them by looking for white water surf then calmer water in-between the surf and the shore. These low water gullies can be classic fish-holding areas. This type of ground is especially typical of the Holderness Coast, Lancashire and some of the East Anglian beaches.
Much deeper steep-to beaches with 20-feet plus depths at high water tend to have one single big surf line. Watch where this starts to build first. This indicates roughly where the incline of the beach is and this area also collects water-borne food. Cast here and you'll hit cod.
TACKLE What makes a good cod rod? A standard 12-foot beachcaster capable of casting 6ozs, that's 5ozs of lead and a big bait, is fine. That said, there is some merit in choosing a rod with a fishing length of 13-feet. The extra length helps keep you out of the worst of the inshore weed when fishing to a wired grip lead, but also helps you "punch" a lead into the wind a little easier, due to a faster tip speed being generated.
Tackle choice, like so much fishing, is down to a compromise. If the sea is not too rough and carrying no weed, plus is made up basically of clean sand, then long range casts will tend to take the most fish. You can fish either an ABU 6500 series or a Daiwa 7HT type multiplier or a fixed spool reel loaded with 15lb line and 60lb shock leader. The 15lb line is strong enough to handle good fish at long range but its thin diameter maximises your casting range due to less friction and a higher spool profile.
For very rough seas full of weed, plus ground that has areas of rocky ground and reef, go for a tougher reel like the ABU 7000C and load it with either 20lb or 25lb line and a shock leader. This protects you from the weed and snags, but the line and reel will still cast to more than adequate distance.
Rigs need to be tough, but streamlined and functional without any unnecessary trappings. Take a 30-inch (75cms) of 60lb mono, something like Maxima Chameleon is good as it knots well but is reasonably supple and abrasion resistant. To the base tie in a 3/0 Mustad oval split ring. Now slide on a bait clip, the Paul Kerry type or the Breakaway Impact Shield are excellent, then add a bead and crimp to stop the clip sliding backwards up the rig body.
Next, add another trace crimp, small 2mm bead, a size 8 rolling swivel, another bead and another crimp. Finish by tying in a size 4 rolling swivel at the top. Measure up from the bait clip about 18-inches (37cms) and crimp both crimps either side of the swivel into place leaving just enough room between the swivel and beads for the swivel to freely revolve on the line.
The hook trace is made about 18-inches (37cms) long and from 30lb line.
The best hook by far is the new Mustad Cod hook in size 4/0 to 6/0 for single hook and Pennel rig (two hooks in tandem) fishing. Also rated are the Mustad Viking 79515 and Varivas Big Mouth hooks. For long range work and codling to 4lbs, then a single hook is perfectly good enough. Bigger fish to double figures and beyond that require huge baits - then, the Pennel system is better. The secondary top hook can be held in place by sliding the line through plastic sleeving, the sleeving itself slid over the shank of the hook.
Alternatively, tie a 6-inch (15cm) loop in to 30lb mono using two overhand knots. Now add the second hook passing the loop through the eye only followed by a 5mm bead. Tie in another overhand knot about 2 -inches (5cms) down from the first. Now simply attach the lower hook by passing the loop through the eye and bring back underneath the hook and tighten. This type of double line Pennel gives extra strength to combat abrasion from the fish and seabed, but also allows the upper hook to swivel to one side so that a large amount of bait can be pushed up, tight to the bead, and the top hook brought down into the bait to give perfect tandem hook presentation.
COD BITES They don't mess about! One double thump at the rod tip and then the whole rod pulls over as the cod powers away. Always fish tight to a grip lead in surf conditions and all your cod will pretty much hook themselves.
Lift the rod from the rod rest, retrieve some line until it comes tight, then hit the fish hard once to drive the hook fully home.
Cod fight by head thumping at first, they might then be easily led, but will take short runs parallel with the surf as they realise they are losing depth and feel trouble brewing. Use an incoming wave to "surf" them on to dry sand. Bury your fingers in the gills and lift them to safety.
BAITS In the October to Christmas period, lugworm will out-fish any other bait, though fresh peeler crab is nearly as good when fishing into rough ground and snags. Fresh un-gutted black or sewie lug is excellent, but if you have to use gutted black lug, then tip the black lug off with several fresh blow lug. The blow lug are full of fresh juice to pull the fish in, but the black lug adds the much needed bulk to the bait. A whole bunch of fresh blow lug without the black is also a killer.
After bad storms that have gouged out the seabed, numerous shellfish will have been broken up and washed ashore. These are usually razorfish, mussels and queen cockles. By tipping the worm bait off with a couple of shellfish, you can often double the effectiveness of your bait and increase your catch. It's simply a case of giving the fish exactly what they expect to find. Also tipping off with a squid strip is good.
Large mussel baits without any worm are excellent, especially around snags of rock and reef, but ignore this bait for clean sand surf fishing when worm baits are difficult to get.
After Christmas, the cod make a slow dietary change to crab. The spring run of cod will take worm, but having fresh crab, frozen at a pinch, will put far more fish on the shingle for you.