There is something about this plump sea-bed feeder that sets a fire burning in many an anglerís heart and the thought of that typical thump, thump, slack line bite quickens many a pulse. Indeed, I hear many stories of anglers who "retire" their fishing tackle to the shed when the cod move offshore!
There are still fish to be caught
I was not around during the good old days when swarms of cod made every attempt to attach themselves to a baited hook, but even in my angling lifetime there has been a noticeable decline in the amount of cod around to catch. It does not all have to be doom and gloom though, for there are still plenty of fish to be caught within casting range of our shores; perhaps the best thing about cod is the fact that they can be caught in so many different places, on so many different baits and with many different tactics.
Some anglers catch all the cod they want up big estuaries on a settled winterís day, some wait for those raging gales and venture out under cover of darkness, some wait for the gales to subside so they can hit the beach, and many anglers fish tackle graveyards for hard fighting rock dwelling cod. A cod is a real fish that is a pleasure to catch; they will not rip yards of line off a reel and will not attain the subtlety of a wily mullet, but there are few things in life more satisfying than that typical nodding fight of a well conditioned 10lb plus cod. Whatever anybody tries to tell you, a double figure cod is a cracking specimen that any angler can be extremely proud of.
I can only really speak for my neck of the woods, but then take my "advice" and adapt it to suit your own needs and fishing areas. Firstly, you are going to need a relatively powerful beachcaster that is capable of casting a big lead (often 6oz plus) and a lot of bait; some of you want fine tipped match type rods and others want stiff rock type rods. I would advise against matching the rod to only your casting ability, for the rod serves as a winching aid in rough ground and deep water areas; do not be scared of using one of these new generation stiff, powerful rods just because you can not wrap it around your neck.
Too much emphasis is put on extreme range fishing with tiny baits and little reels, but in reality there are few anglers who can really compress a rod totally; there is no shame on being unable to cast to the horizon. It is far easier to fish marks that suit your abilities and you will always need to get a good codís head off the bottom and away from any potential snags. For that reason I like powerful rods that do not fold up; for some years now I have used a pair of Nemesis Plus and Scorpion Sports from the Conoflex stable and they have never let me down. A raging gale, strong tides, big baits and potentially decent fish are not the place for those soft and flimsy beanpole rods.
As for reels, I accept that some areas need baits fished at serious range, but this is not for me down here in the South West. I do not use fixed spools for heavy fishing and would advise against it. I have also trashed a few smaller multipliers in my time. You will not go far wrong with Daiwa SLOSH 20s and 30s or Penn 525s/535s; just make sure they are running safely. The tournament field is the place for finely tuned little baitcasting type multipliers and not a windswept beach or headland; there is nothing worse than crack-offs and birdsnests when fishing, so dampen your reels down a little with thicker oil in the bearings and bigger brakeblocks. My reels run quite fast enough in both a gale and flat calm day; you want to spend time fishing, not sorting out a dodgy reel.
I put a lot of hours in to my cod fishing and the only way to really maximise that time and fish effectively is to stay warm, dry and comfortable. That time you are too cold and tired to change your bait is usually the time when the cod come through, for you are often fishing a certain amount of time to try and be there for the "hot" time; this could be right at the end of a session, so try to fish effectively at all times.
Floatation suits are about the biggest single advantage I think we have over years gone by; I can categorically say that I never suffer from the cold anymore and I positively look forward to those evil nights when the cod are around. If its any help, I will describe what I would wear for a typical nightís codding on Devonís North coast and then adapt it for yourself. I wear a pair of thermal tights with jeans over the top; one thin and one thick pair of socks are ample together with a pair of hiking boots. On the top go a t-shirt, thermal long-sleeved vest, sweatshirt and heavy cotton smock; finally, its on with the floatation suit. I personally prefer one piece suits and I just fold the top half down if it gets too hot, but by all means wear a two piece suit. I have found no better than the Sundridge range of suits and if you shop around you can pick one up very cheaply. £100-120 is nothing to pay for a warm and dry suit that may potentially save your life. A thermal hat and possibly neck warmer rounds it all off; remember the gloves if you suffer from cold hands. I could not contemplate a winter session without a flask of piping hot coffee!!
Other bits and bobs
I can not advise on rigs, for there are so many, but do not be afraid to use big hooks (4/0-6/0, Mustad Vikings are perfect); just find the most effective way of nailing your bait to the bottom in your area and relative conditions. I get on well with the pulley rig, but a standard ledger rig like a fixed or running paternoster all work well; I would never consider not using a pennel rig (2 hooks on the trace in tandem) to aid in presenting big baits and to hook cod more effectively. Grip leads in the 5 to 7oz range are essential over the cleaner ground, for you want that bait fixed in place where a scent trail can start working down the tide.
A headlamp is essential for night sessions, for I do not like tilley lamps one bit on rocks. You will not go far wrong with the Anglers Headlamp from Speleo Technics. I like mainlines lines from Ultima, especially their Tournament, Distance and Red Ice in 18-25lb breaking strains; long shockleaders in the 60-80lb range are ideal. I tend to favour relatively heavy traces of between 60-90lb, for cod do have lots of small sharp teeth and are adept at roughing up a trace. Hook one in deep water and it may be on for a while, so it makes sense to use heavy traces; cod are not spooky feeders!
Bait Ė the most important bit
Cod are voracious feeders sometimes and will pick up a multitude of offerings in certain places and at various times of the season, so whatever you use, do make sure it is in the best possible condition.
Peeler crab, lug, rag, squid, mussel, mackerel and sandeels all work; bait is the only way you are going to catch that cod, so give yourself every possible chance by using only quality bait. I am sure we all know stories of anglers who have caught good fish on manky bait, but it is the exception; big juicy baits that ooze scent and look good enough to eat are what is required for cod.
Try to use the biggest baits you feel comfortable with and never be scared of heaving a monstrosity of a bait out there; next time you catch a cod, look right inside its mouth and see how easily it chomps a pair of 6/0s and a huge peeler crab bait. One lugworm and a thin strip of squid will not get very far in a seething maelstrom of a sea where the tide is screaming through and you have other anglers all around you.
Above all, get out there and enjoy winter fishing, for it is the time of year I most look forward to; catching a cod when everything is against you is some reward and makes the odd bad sessions become but a distant memory!