Cod fishing off Scotland’s East Coast can be a real test of wits and endurance, but get the balance right and your onto a winner.
As far as the bulk of charter and small boat anglers are concerned, cod are by far the most abundant species off Scotland’s rugged East Coast. Unlike other UK cod-holding areas, these northern fish can be caught with a fair degree of certainty all year round. However, it’s a brave angler who would bet on good returns during March, but April-May heralds a new beginning.
Boat angling is generally confined to inshore activity basically because a large part of the Scottish charter fleet is antiquated with neither the speed, nor the appropriate paperwork to undertake extended offshore wreck and reef sorties like those synonymous with certain Yorkshire ports. Custom charter craft are a rare sight indeed and ex-working boats, ageing potters and even net-strewn prawners are sadly more in keeping with angling north of the border. There are a few more modern exceptions, particularly at Arbroath, which is currently without doubt Scotland’s best equipped charter port.
Predominantly rough ground venues like Berwick Upon Tweed on the English side of the border, then Eyemouth, Burnmouth, Dunbar, Anstruther, Pittenweem, Arbroath, Gourdon, Stonehaven and Peterhead have much in common and form the backbone of east coast cod fishing. Each of these ports has plenty to offer aside from cod, but dedicated drift fishing and an extremely rocky/kelpy bottom equate to numbers of modest cod as a matter of routine. That is not to say that double figure cod are not caught, it’s just that they are not an everyday occurrence. Two reasons for this are simply that big fish don’t abound on the inner reef marks, and any better ones that are present must beat the glut of eager 2lb – 5lb cod which are par for the course.
Lure embellishment of one kind or another is an integral part of rough ground cod fishing in Scotland. Alien as it may seem to anglers who are accustomed to fishing for cod in other parts of the UK, attractors and to a lesser extent, pirks, are part and parcel of Scottish rough ground codding – its very much a case of when in Rome. The intricacies of pirk fishing deserve a bigger shout than can be given in this piece and is examined in detail in a separate feature. The same holds true for Irish codding but that too is for another time.
Successful drift fishing hinges on a good degree of water clarity and enough tidal movement or wind assistance to cover the grounds effectively. When onshore easterly winds have died down, boat fishing normally doesn’t pick up again until the churned sea clears of suspended sediment. Strangely, very few boats switch to anchoring in ‘thick’ water conditions, which is odd considering the best winter shore catches from nearby rock marks occur when the water is thick. Small boat anglers prepared to anchor on the edge or in the heart of the rough can really cash in when the water is filthy.
The combination of visual attraction and natural pungency leaking from good quality baits is the key to unlocking better catches of Scottish cod. Used sensibly, and in conjunction with the correct baits, attractors in the shape of spoons, muppets, twisters, beads and certain feathers can and do work in the angler’s favour. Many anglers make the mistake of using muppets for example, as a substitute for natural baits in the same way as you might for wrecking situations. For inshore purposes muppets should be employed as an addition to good baits. Make no mistake, razzle in moderation does not deter cod and may even help pull a few other customers besides.
One huge difference in Scotland is serious anglers tend to gather their own bait as opposed to relying on tackle shops for supply. With massive digging pressure from anglers and interloping commercial men based not far south of Berwick, specific bait locations can’t be trumpeted out. Suffice to say that accumulating enough bait for a day’s fishing isn’t normally a problem.
There are few baits which won’t catch cod when these venues are in full swing, but cocktails or multiple mixed baits are most consistent over the piece. Three or four fat lugworms tipped off with a couple of fleshy mussels, or lugworm finished with a generous section of razorfish make excellent baits. Combinations of lugworm, wriggly red ragworm, peeler crab and shellfish garnishing spoons and plastic lures take some beating. Cockles are another very good bait but unfortunately many prolific Scottish beds are no more, or fall within the boundaries of nature reserves where the removal of shellfish or the digging of worms is prohibited.
Fly fishermen will tell you that there is no such thing as the ultimate killing pattern for trout. In other words, a lure that is seen to be phenomenally successful one minute can be next to useless thereafter. To a certain extent, the same used to apply to boat fishing for cod… that was until the advent of the great leveller – Hokkais. At times their effectiveness over rough ground can be both wonderful and frustrating. Too often, I have witnessed years of meticulous rig refinement go straight out the window as the simplicity of a string of mock fish fry baited with lug, rag or mussel runs amok.
I do not pretend to like them but there are times when these ‘wonder lures’ wipe the floor with everything else, and neglecting them can mean you are not at the races. There are no hard and fast rules governing hokkais, but they have a habit of catching well on neap tides and during slack water periods, when casting across the tide and drawing them back slowly often results in codling. Don’t forget to bury a few packets somewhere in your tackle box!
Many anglers have a preference for a longer rod, and although standard short 20 lb and even 30 lb class rods are perfectly adequate, uptiders are widely used for everyday downtide fishing. The Conoflex Vampire Uptide is a suitably pokey uptider used by many and the Team Daiwa TDXU410 is the standard tool for many.
These longer rod examples handle long flowing traces better than standard short boat rods, and are also pleasant to use provided they are not overloaded with lead. Most uptiders rated for casting up to 10oz will comfortably support heavier leads in the downtide sense. Rods may be called upon to cope up to 1lb of lead, but any heavier and its time to put the uptiders away. The shorter Team Daiwa TDXB1230 is the cream of the standard downtide boat rods for this kind of fishing.
When fishing with heavier leads and multiple hook rigs casting is not completely out of the question, but most anglers either drop straight down at more or less right angles to the rod tip, or are content with a stunted underarm flick just to straighten out longer trailing hooklengths.
Because the inshore grounds tend to be fairly shallow there is no need for huge reels… but do pick a tough one. Regular heavy ground fishing is not kind to reel innards, with chewed gears and displaced anti-reverse teeth not exactly unusual. Something like the Abu 7000i HSN or Daiwa Saltist 30TH are good choices.
Leads in the 4oz to 1lb spectrum cover most eventualities, but occasionally heavier leads and a stiffer rod are required. This can be the case on big spring tides when allied wind and tide directions conspire to carry the boat along very quickly indeed.
Lost tackle goes with the territory, so to speak. To keep loses to a minimum, leads should be attached with a length of light line (rotten bottom) which can be broken out should the weight become fastened to the bottom. Some days will inflict heavy casualties on your weights bucket, while loses can be surprisingly light on the same ground at other times. I am afraid that carrying enough leads to cover the worst scenario is your only insurance.
Braided line is the only choice for proper rough ground ‘bottom’ fishing afloat. There is absolutely no doubt that braid’s sensitivity/amplification and instant pick-up over snaggy ground helps reduce snags. With mono it is often the case that by the time a snag is realised it is too late and the tackle or fish is then inevitably lost. With braid you get early warning of an imminent snag and as a rule can quickly lift clear. There are so many good braids available now but excellent choices would be Snowbee Power Pro or Daiwa Tournament in 30lb.