Winter Cod Fishing

Last month, I took a quick look at Pollack. This month’s species is another member of the Gadiformes (cods) order of fishes and is quite apt for this time of year. Yes, it’s the nation's favourite ‘Friday’ fish, the Cod.

The Cod
A cod might not be the prettiest of fish, but a good-sized cod does certainly make a nice photograph and it goes without saying… that they’re not bad table fare either! There are two main migrations of cod in England and Wales – one is in the summer, these fish like to frequent offshore wrecks and reefs, and one in the winter  – these fish choose to take up residency along our beaches and in our rivers and estuaries over the colder months, because of ample food supply.

Cod BaitNot surprisingly, the Cod is the main member of the ‘cods ‘ order. Its brothers being the Pollack, Coalfish and Ling and its sisters the Haddock and Whiting. All cod-like fishes differ from other sea fish because they have three dorsal fins, which run the length of the fish’s back, and two anal fins. With almost two thirds of this fish’s body covered in fins, Cod were clearly designed for stamina and long distance migration. When compared to other members of the Cod family which are always active hunters, the Cod which is still an A-list predatory species that all baitfish should be wary of, but at times can become an opportunistic, seabed scrounger and this is never more prevalent than over the winter. With large eyes developed to see at depth, and excellent sense of smell, the Cod has no problems adapting to our murky inshore waters to seek food over rock, mud and shingle. This includes common shore crabs, prawn, marine worms and any shellfish that should get in its way. The winter Cod is also quite partial to eating a few of its relatives, in particular the Whiting, who has also chosen the same waters to shoal in and share over the winter months. Coincidence? The Cod certainly didn’t get its nickname “Bucket Mouth” from eating Nouvelle Cuisine. Big, juicy smelly baits are the way to attract and catch a ‘lunker’ winter Cod. The most common of these are peeler crab, squid, cuttlefish, mackerel, lugworm and rag worm. Live-baiting whiting has proven a successful tactic, too!

Winter Cod average 1-5lb (codling), Cod ranging from 5lbs into double figures are fairly common from some locations, and each year a quite a few anglers catch specimen winter Cod upwards of 20lb. The Holy Grail of winter cod fishing is a Cod over 30lbs.
Shore fishing for winter Cod
From the far North East, clockwise around the England to south Wales, the winter Cod seems to frequent every estuary and river mouth, almost every pier and breakwater, and many beaches from late autumn through until early spring. Places to look are too numerous to mention although Lyme Bay’s Chesil Beach, Dungeness in Kent and both the English and Welsh coastlines of the Bristol Channel are famed for their winter shore Cod fishing.

Simple bottom fishing tactics with big baits is the best way to target winter cod from the shore and many thoroughbred anglers opt to use a rough ground rod – a beach casting rod beefed up to withstand casting big baits, fishing a non forgiving seabed and catching big fish. This is usually matched with a medium sized multiplier reel, which has plenty of cranking power. The most widely used of shore fishing rigs for catching winter Cod is the Pulley Pennel, which is often used in conjunction with a gripper lead to hold the bait stationary in strong tides, which seem to go hand in hand with locating this species.


Boat Fishing for winter Cod
Again, from the far North East, clockwise around England to South Wales, the winter Cod can be caught fishing from many ports and harbours. Ports to try are too numerous to mention but some of the most famous areas include the Thames Estuary, the Isle of Wight’s “Needles’ area, and again both the English and Welsh coastlines of the Bristol Channel.

24lb codLike shore fishing, simple bottom fishing tactics with big baits is the best way to target winter Cod from a boat, and this can be done in two ways. Downtiding – which is to use a standard ‘downtide’ boat rod to lower baits over the side to the seabed – and Uptiding, which is to employ a longer ‘uptide’ rod to cast baits, away from the boat, up tide. Both types of rod are usually matched with a medium sized multiplier reel, which has plenty of cranking power although some uptide rods come in fixed spool versions too. The most common rig for winter Cod fishing from a boat, is the simple running ledger with two hooks rigged Pennel rigged, to cope with the large baits that are commonly used. Gripper leads are a necessity for uptide fishing but large plain leads are used to fish baits, downtide.

A quick tip… when bait fishing for Cod in strong tides, the juices and scents get washed out of baits quite quickly. For the best chances of success, time the length your baits have been on the seabed and if you don’t get a bite, change them at regular intervals.

Jim O’Donnell
Angling guide, fishing journo & photographer
Website (currently under reconstruction)

Jim also runs a successful holiday operation organizing package fishing holidays to the sport fishing capital of the world, the Florida Keys. If the prospect of catching huge Tarpon, Bonefish and Permit excites you, why not join Jim in the Florida Keys? Check out his Florida Holiday website at