- Scientific name: Pollachius virens
- Also know as: Saithe, Coley, Billet, Black, Black Pollock
- Size: up to 4ft and 50lb+, UK shore caught typically 2 – 10lb
- UK minimum size: 14ins/35cm
- UK shore caught record: 24lb 11oz
- IUCN Status: LC (Least Concern)
- Distribution: Widespread throughout all UK and Irish waters, but more common in North East England and Scotland.
- Feeds on: Mostly other fish such as herring, sandeel and small mackerel. Coalfish will also feed on the seabed for crustaceans and marine worms.
- Description: Streamlined body with three dorsal fins. Back is olive green or brown to black with straight, white lateral line. Flanks and belly are white to silver. Lower jaw only protrudes slightly. Very small barbule on chin, although this may be absent on some fish.
Coalfish are a relatively common species around much of the United Kingdom. They are an attractive looking fish with a streamlined body. They feed primarily by hunting other fish but will also scour the seabed for any food which can be found there. For this reason coalfish can be caught by both bait fishing and on lures.
Coalfish are a cold water species, meaning they are more common in the cooler water around the north of the British Isles, especially in the northern North Sea. They are also found throughout the Baltic Sea and in Scandinavian and Icelandic waters. They are absent from the Mediterranean Sea. A separate population exists in North American waters along the eastern coast of the USA and Canada.
Life Cycle and Feeding
Like the closely related pollock, the coalfish feeds primarily by hunting in mid-water smaller fish such as sprats, herring, sandeels and juvenile fish. However, they will also scavenge on the seabed for marine worms, crustaceans and dead or injured fish. Like the pollock the coalfish is a strong fighter that will dive when hooked, providing great sport for anglers, especially those using lighter tackle. Smaller coalfish form large, loose shoals and will come into relatively shallow water and be found over a variety of seabeds, although they do prefer some rocks or broken ground to be around and avoid open, sandy areas. The largest coalfish are solitary creatures which live out at sea in deep water often around wrecks or very rough ground, in waters all the way down to depths of several hundred metres. Coalfish head into deeper offshore water in the spring to spawn. The eggs drift inshore on tides where the fish hatch and spend the early years of their life in inshore waters. They are a fast growing species, reaching 20 – 25cm at the end of their first year. Coalfish are thought to live for around ten years.
Maximum Size of Coalfish and Rod and Line Caught Records
Coalfish can grow to longer than four feet in length and over 50lb in weight. However, the average size which UK anglers will encounter will be anywhere between 1 – 4lb, with any coalfish approaching double figures being an excellent catch from the shore. The rod and line all-tackle record for coalfish was a specimen of 50lbs (22.7kg) caught at Saltstraumen in Northern Norway. However, there is evidence that coalfish caught in commercial fishing nets may have been able to reach sizes of up to 70lbs. The British shore caught record is a coalfish of 24lb 11oz caught by M. Cammish at Filey Brigg in Yorkshire in 1995, while the boat caught record was set in 1986 when D. Brown caught a 37lb 5oz coalfish off the coast of Devon.
However, due to commercial fishing pressure coalfish of this size are rare and the majority caught by both commercial and recreational fishing in British waters are much smaller than this. Most coalfish caught by shore anglers are a few pounds in weight, while anything approaching double figures would be an excellent catch from the shore in the UK. The boat caught record stands at 37lb 5oz and was caught in 1986 off the coast of Devon, while the UK shore caught record is a coalfish of 24lb 11oz caught off Filey Brigg, North Yorkshire in 1995.
Confusion with Coalfish and Pollock
A lot is made in angling books and websites about pollock and coalfish being confused with each other as they are closely related. However, when these fish are examined together they are distinguishing them is fairly easy. Read a detailed guide about the difference between these two species here.
Coalfish are of commercial importance. They are sold in fishmongers and supermarkets, usually as coley, and sometimes used in cheaper frozen fish products such as fish fingers and fish cakes. Coalfish are often taken as bycatch by commercial trawlers, although some vessels seek out to catch this species. The coalfish is perfectly edible, but it does not have the same reputation as a table fish as premium whitefish such as cod or haddock, and does not fetch the same price at fish auctions as these species. Coalfish are found on the American side of the Atlantic, where they are confusingly known as pollock.
Methods and Techniques to Catch Coalfish
Coalfish inhabit heavy rough and rocky ground, although they will venture across mixed and cleaner ground when searching for food. They will take a wide range of baits with mackerel strip, herring and sandeel all catching coalfish, as will worm baits (particularly ragworm) and peeler crab. Shellfish baits such as mussel and squid and cuttlefish will also catch this species. From this it is clear that the coalfish is an unfussy feeder which will take pretty much any bait when it is feeding. Size 2/0 hooks in a strong pattern are the best choice to use as they will allow smaller 1 – 2lb coalfish to be caught, but provide the strength for a bigger specimen to be landed. When fishing for coalfish over rough ground it is best to use a rig incorporating a weak link to help minimise tackle losses.
As coalfish hunt smaller fish in mid-water they can also be caught on lures. Anglers summer spinning for bass sometimes catch coalfish from rocky marks, and they will also take spinners, plugs and float fished baits in the same way that the closely related pollock will. Jellyworm and redgill style lures are also popular lures to catch coalfish and can be more effective than spinners in some situations.
Occasionally coalfish will be taken on daylights which are meant for mackerel. In places where coalfish are abundant such as the North East and parts of Scotland it is sometimes possible to hook multiple small undersize coalfish on strings of daylights or feathers meant for mackerel.