Prime winter cod conditions act like a magnet, drawing crowds of beach and rock anglers to a great many popular marks. At such times Steve Walker prefers to turn away from the crush and fish the lower reaches of the River Tees, in industry’s shadow, and in hope of a clonking cod.
Despite better flurries over the last two winters, long gone are the days when one could just go out cod fishing and be reasonably confident of copping a few fish regardless of conditions. The depressing truth is that anglers must now accept that cod are just not present in their previous numbers, and it is highly unlikely that they ever will be again. Heartbreaking as this may be, there might just be a positive upside to the state of our shore codding which I’ll do my best to explain.
20 years ago the average size of cod in the Teesbay area would be around 2lb. There would always be a proportion of bigger fish of course, but these smaller codling ran in such pressing numbers that any bigger fish struggled to reach baits ahead of the crush. I fished for a local angling club from the mid 70s to the late 90s, and the heaviest cod annually was rarely over the 5lbs. Today, although smaller fish are nowhere near as abundant, it is fair to suggest that the chances of bigger fish are better. It is a simple matter of quality over quantity if you like: with the volume of smaller fish gone, bigger cod are more likely to stumble upon anglers’ baits. Many good and dedicated cod anglers buy into this fresh train of thought.
There will always be local exceptions where small fish continue to dominate however. And the local rivers are the glaring exception. The river Tyne in particular is a noted cod venue, and although bigger winter specimens always get reported, 1 – 2lb codling are the main fare. Bigger fish nearly always come from the piers, rock edges and beaches.
River success is all about marrying up the correct set of variables: being on the best marks at the best times with the right baits on your hooks. Generally, a heavy northerly sea will prompt anglers to fish the more sheltered piers and beaches. But as the sea drops away, they will move to more exposed marks, which will be settling and now safe enough to fish. Promising marks can be quite crowded, particularly on a weekend. Even if a session is not particularly successful it is always the anticipation of something bigger that makes anglers turn out repeatedly… especially when there are tales of bloated 20 pounders being hooked and lost.
Conditions were perfect over a February weekend last year. A deep low pressure system tracking north of the British Isles brought eagerly awaited northerly swells to the North East coast. A fine heavy sea swept down the East coast and web forums were buzzing in cod-fest anticipation. Likely venues, best tides, times, baits and tactics were being debated with vigour and spirit.
The chances of hooking one of the big spawning cod that push into the Teesbay area at this time were better than good. The only issue was that almost everyone and their bloody dogs had the same idea, and all obvious venues were jam packed with anglers. There might be a few bigger fish present along these crowded marks but there were an awful lot of bodies competing for a slice of the cod pie, and somewhere a little less claustrophobic was preferable. Fishing shoulder-to-shoulder with 30 other anglers on the end of Middleton Pier in a heavy swell doesn’t make best use of my fishing time, nor is it my idea of bliss.
The river Tees is not a noted cod venue. For example, it does not produce as many fish as the Tyne, for reasons mainly of limited access. When the rarely fished lower Tees estuary does give up cod however, they are usually a good class of fish. I made for the lower estuary, which is flanked by the South Gare and North Gare piers, opens out into a wide bay. The area is sheltered, and there are several places to fish in comfort and without being crowded out.
The northerly swells had veered round to a more North Easterly direction and were pushing right into the mouth of the Tees and upriver onto the north side… conditions that would surely herd a few cod into casting range. I parked the car behind the sand dunes and I could hear the booming sea crashing out of sight on the other side.
From the top of the dunes the sea looked very heavy at the mouth of the North Gare and along the Ring of Stones – a bank of rocks that running alongside the North Gare into the bay. However, it was comfortably fishable further upriver on the river beach. Judging it fishable, I went to the Ring of Stones anyway. There’s a favourite spot there where the tide swirls along the rock edges, hits the main body of rocks and spirals out into the river. This vortex effect scours out a pronounced hole that can fish well over low water.
The word from a commercial fisherman friend of mine was that he had taken several boxes of quality cod between 10lb and 20lb from the North Bank in recent days. This was interesting information and bigger fish had to be a fair possibility on the day. The tide was about an hour up and there was plenty of time for a few fish to show. A 6oz fixed grip-lead towed a big clam and worm cocktail bait out 80 yards into the swirling black water. The lead trundled then bit and held firm.
In my experience lug/clam is the only bait to use here in these conditions. Gaper clams and razors are naturally abundant out in the channel, and get dislodged by heavy seas, offering easy pickings for foraging cod. It pays to remember that some of these river cod will have been around for several weeks and become accustomed to the hoovering up churned shellfish.
I had no bites after half an hour. Another couple of bite-less casts then prompted me to move. A 20-minute walk along the sand bars put me at the river beach, which faces into the near Tees channel. By contrast, there wasn’t much movement here, but the deep water was thickly coloured and inviting. I’ve caught some big cod here over the years, nearly always during big high spring tides, and I was confident of bagging something.
The tide pull was strong, so I stuck to the fixed uptide lead and large single bait. To ensure the rig held firm, I walked 30 metres up the beach and cast well uptide, letting out 30 – 40 yards of line, before walking back and setting the rod in the rest. Tide pressure, and sometimes wind serves to pull the extra slack into a taught bow; thus ensuring the sinker locks into the soft riverbed. A big fish grabbing the bait will usually tear the grip-lead free, invoking the classic slack line bite. Often the beginnings of the take are seen on the bent rod tip before it suddenly flicks straight and the line drops slack… this is a sequence that I never tire of reacting to.
Casting short onto the channel slope regularly produces flounders, eels, and whiting, while longer casting into the main channel is the norm for cod. My first cast returned a good 1lb whiting. The lead snagged the edge of the channel on the retrieve, which is always a danger, but steady pressure drew it free. On small tides and during slack water a plain bomb or lightly sprung grip-lead can be used to make the retrieve easier. In this instance though, fixed wires were essential.
Life’s a Dredge
I decided to work along the beach and to try to find a spot where the channel slope had collapsed and the drop had become less steep. This particular stretch of the river gets dredged 24 hours a day, with the disadvantage that the channel side is often painfully steep. The upside to the dredging activity is that food items are constantly drawn up, which, in turn, tumble down-river for fish to follow upstream.
A couple of casts in a new spot were wound back without sticking, and I was soon rewarded with a plump winter dab. A few minutes after slinging out another lug/claim bait the rod tip gave a single hard lunge. The grip-lead wasn’t budged. Picking the rod up, I felt for repeat bite, which came almost instantly. I wound down hard and swept the rod skywards to sink the hook home. There was weight there as I wound in, but it didn’t feel like a big fish. I took only a few turns on the reel before the lead trapped in the bottom. I managed to free it with some frantic rod work and moved down tide to catch up to the moving fish, which was quickly controlled. A fat 4lb cod just clipped the channel edge on the way to my clutches.
I pounced on the attentions of several more whiting, and missed one clonking bite that had cod written all over it. My lift for the short session at this point was the cod, five good whiting, a dab and a flounder. I returned all fish except for the cod, which would certainly be eaten. I slung out what I decided would be my final cast and set about cleaning my cod. A bonus was a juicy big roe, which I popped into a separate bag so as not to damage it – I like cod roe more than the fish.
Jabba The Cod
All done, I dried my hands on a rag, and looked up. Loads of slack line streamed from the rod tip. My attention had been elsewhere and I hadn’t noticed the bite, if indeed it had been a bite at all and not just the lead pulling free of its own volition. I reeled in uncertainly trying to feel for the lead.
I had just fumbled a degree of tension on the line when I felt the solid nod, nodding of a hooked fish. Perhaps sensing ethereal hands around its throat, it immediately powered down tide forcing me to reel fast and scramble backwards at the same time. Establishing a tight line to what had to be a good cod, I struck and my Conoflex Nemesis bent right over.
The fish thumped back, forcing me to drop the rod and go with it… this wasn’t a one-sided tussle. Gradually working the rod tip high again, I stole back little grabs of lines, all the time moving down-river, gradually shifting my position more parallel to the fish. Instinct determined that applying more pressure would fatally wrench the hook out. “Slow and steady, slow and steady”, I muttered to myself. But another panicky inner voice wondered how the hell was I going to get this thing over the channel bank? I resolved to worry over one thing at a time.
I was now almost back at my first, snaggy mark. But as fate and luck would have it, the tide was much higher than earlier. With steady pressure a proper cod aquaplaned right over the top of the channel edge. Stooping to grab it, I almost fell to my knees. It turned out to be squarely with both hooks of the pennel rig lodged in the mouth. My decision to decline the crowds and explore the river had reaped a handsome reward. I couldn’t resist fishing on a bit longer but caught only a few more whiting before calling it a day.
The cod population consists of a number of distinct stocks in differing environments over the species range. These include the Arctic-Norwegian, North Sea, Faroe, Iceland, East Greenland, West Greenland, Newfoundland, and Labrador stocks. There does not seem to be much interchange between different stocks, though some fish migrate up to 200 miles to their individual breeding grounds.
Spawning occurs between January and April, with March to April being the peak time, at a depth of 200 metres in certain locations when the sea temperature is between 4 and 6 degrees. Therefore if global warming is also affecting sea temperatures it will also affect the spawning season of marine species that react to changes in sea temperatures.
Around the U.K. the main spawning grounds are the middle to Southern North Sea, the start of the Bristol Channel North of Newquay, the Irish Channel East and West of the Isle of Man, around Stornoway, and East of Helmsdale off the Moray Firth. The U.K. population generally move inshore into shallow waters to spawn, they do not, as many anglers believe, move inshore to congregate before then moving offshore to spawn. Although those stocks that spawn in deeper water do shoal during spawning.
Cod are batch spawners, meaning they do not release all of their eggs at one time. Mature females produce 15 to 20 batches of eggs every 60 to 75 hours; each batch consists of at least several hundred thousand eggs, with each batch based on the body weight of the fish. A cod of 8lb can easily produce a million eggs per batch. They generally spawn over clean ground and in areas where there may be a strong tidal movement; this in order to disperse the eggs and which will also be high in oxygen. Hence on particularly big tides, cod will move into shallow sandy sheltered bays such as the Tees estuary.
It is no coincidence that the Scottish record of 40lb 11oz, (Irish Channel East stock), taken from Balcary Point in the Solway Firth, and the British record of 44lb 8oz, (Bristol Channel stock), taken at Toms Point, Barry, in South Wales were both caught over relatively shallow sandy bottoms, and that both fish were probably the bigger spawning females well within their stock breeding range. Male and female fish pair off, and, after spawning, the eggs drift around in the surface layers for between 8 to 23 days before hatching into planktonic larva around 4mm long. This stage lasts ten weeks during which the larva increases its body weight by 40 times to become around 2cm in length.
The young cod now move down to the seabed where they start to feed on small crustaceans etc. In six months they are 8cm long; 14cm to 18cm by the end of their first year; and 25cm to 35cm by the end of their second year. Cod reach maturity at around 50cm long after 3 to 4 years depending on location. The more northerly cod tend to grow at a slower rate, sea temperatures being a decisive factor in their development. Away from the main fishing areas a cod will live in excess of 30 years and could reach a weight of around 125lb or more.