- Scientific name: Gadus morhua
- Also know as: Codling, Atlantic Cod
- Size: Up to 6ft and around 200lb. UK shore caught typically 2-10lb
- UK minimum size: 14ins/35cm (but regional differences may apply)
- UK shore caught record: 44lb 8oz
- IGFA world record: 103lb 10oz
- IUCN Status: VU (Vulnerable)
- Distribution: Commonly found throughout the waters of the British Isles. Cod are semi-migratory, with some moving to colder Scandinavian waters in the summer, while other (usually smaller) specimens stay around the UK all year round. Their range extends throughout much of Europe and they are also found in American and Canadian waters.
- Feeds on: Cod have an insatiable appetite and will feed on anything they can find. Worms, prawns, shellfish, crabs, lobsters, octopus and any other form of marine life will all be devoured. Cod will also actively hunt other smaller fish.
- Description: Upper jaw protrudes with prominent barbule on the chin. Head is large and can make up a quarter of the overall length, the mouth is also large. White underbelly with a lateral line that curves upwards and three dorsal fins. Colour is usually greenish/grey/tan speckled flanks and back but cod which have lived their whole life in weedy areas may take on a different colour and can be brownish, or even red.
Cod are found all around the UK, although being a cold-water species they are more common around in autumn and winter, although some remain around the UK all year round, especially the smaller specimens. Like many species cod form into large, loose shoals when small but become solitary once they reach larger sizes. It is thought that once cod reach around 20 – 30lb they move away from shallow inshore waters and live in the open sea, feeding exclusively by hunting other fish. There is much confusion over the terms cod and codling. Although things vary from place to place a cod is generally classed as being 6lb or over, while a specimen smaller than this is a codling. Cod found around the UK are actually a specific species called Atlantic cod (Gadus Morhua), even if they are found in the North Sea, English Channel or any other area. This is because there are two other species of true cod: Pacific cod (Gadus Macrocephalus) and Greenland cod (Gadus Ogac). Both of these species are smaller than the Atlantic cod and are not found in British waters. It is a mistake to think that red cod which are sometimes caught by UK anglers are a different species – they are simply cod which have lived their whole lives in heavy weed and kelp, and have therefore taken on a different colour to adapt to these surroundings.
Cod are found throughout Europe, although as explained below they do migrate within European waters. Being a colder water species cod are more common around northern European waters of the UK, Scandinavia and Nordic regions, and are absent from the warmer waters of the Mediterranean. The range of Atlantic cod extends across the Atlantic to Greenland and they are also common in North American waters with Canadian and American waters also holding significant numbers of cod.
Cod will eat almost anything. They will scour the seabed scooping up anything vaguely edible into their mouth. Prawns, shellfish, crabs, squid, octopus, starfish, small lobsters, marine worms and dead fish will all be consumed. Cod will also actively hunt smaller fish such as sandeels, pouting, dab and even other small codling all being taken. Sometimes when big cod are gutted on charter boats beer cans and other rubbish that has been thrown into the sea is found in their stomachs, showing what indiscriminate eaters cod are. In 2014 a cod was caught in Norwegian waters with a very strange item in its stomach, showing the extent to which cod will consume pretty much anything which they come across.
Cod are a semi-migratory species, meaning that some (but not all cod) make an annual migration away from UK waters. Generally, cod are found in their highest numbers around the British Isles in the colder months as they arrive in the autumn and stay until early spring. As the seas around the UK begin to warm up the vast majority of larger mature cod will begin to make the migration to the colder Scandinavian and Nordic waters. In many parts of Britain there is a ‘spring run’ of cod as they feed even more voraciously than usual before making their journey northwards. However, smaller immature cod (and a number of larger specimens) will stay in British waters all year round, especially offshore where boat anglers can often catch larger cod throughout the summer. Once cod have migrated to colder waters they will spawn there, and then return to Britain once the seas around the UK begin to cool as winter approaches.
Maximum Size of Cod
The maximum size which cod can grow to is a matter of much debate. Many people with no interest in fish or fishing – who are used to only seeing plate-size fillets of cod covered in batter – assume that cod only grow to a few pounds. They do, of course, grow to sizes much bigger than this. The British record for shore caught cod has stood since 1966 with a 44lb 8oz specimen caught by Mr B. Jones from the Tom’s Point mark in Barry, Glamorgan, Wales, while the boat record belongs to Mr N. Cook who caught a 58lb 6oz cod when fishing out of Whitby in 1992. In 2013 a new IGFA all-tackle world record for cod was set when German angler Michael Eisele caught a 103lb cod when boat fishing in Norwegian waters (read a news story with pictures of the fish here). The world record for a shore caught cod was also set in Norway, with a 66lb 8oz specimen being caught by British angler Tom Ascott in 2016.
Oceana (the world’s biggest not-for-profit ocean conservation group) states that cod can reach an absolute maximum size of 200lbs, and in 2022 a 112lb cod was caught by a commercial vessel off the coast of Iceland. However, due to the intensive commercial pressure that this species is under it is very rare for a specimen to reach this weight. Today a cod of 30 – 40lbs can be considered a very large fish, while a shore caught cod of over 10lb is a very good catch indeed.
Cod: A Highly Commercially Valuable Fish
Cod have been commercially important for many centuries with evidence existing that the Vikings used to catch and salt cod as far back as the year 800AD. Today cod remain a fish of massive commercial importance, being the most popular food fish in much of Europe and North America. Cod is usually described as having a mild, sweet taste, and the flesh once cooked is white and delicate in texture. Cod can be baked, fried, poached or stewed and is consumed the world over. The classic British dish of fish and chips is most often made with cod, while Jamaica’s national dish of ackee and saltfish is commonly made with cod. The famous Scandinavian dish lutefisk uses cod that has been soaked in water for up to ten days prior to cooking.
There has been intense debate about the sustainability of existing cod stocks, and there is no doubt that overall the number of cod left in the sea is significantly reduced from levels they were just a generation ago. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) classes cod as Vulnerable on a global basis due to the intensive commercial pressure on this species (although they are still listed as least concern in European waters. Britain and Iceland came close to war three times between the 1950s and 1970s due to conflict over cod fishing grounds, while the collapse of the once-abundant cod fishery of Canada’s Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland led to mass unemployment and economic turmoil.
Attempts at European Cod Recovery
With European cod stocks being constantly overfished there have been numerous attempts to reduce the fishing pressure on this species and allow cod numbers to recover. Cod stocks in the North Sea were at their lowest level on record in the early 2000s, but a Cod Recovery Plan was put n place by the European Union and Norway in order to try and restore stocks. By 2015 cod stocks in the North Sea were definitely on the up and in 2017 the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) verified north sea cod stocks as sustainable, stating that North Sea cod stocks had reached their highest levels in thirty-five years. This recovery was short-lived as the news of increased stocks led to the inevitable pressure to increase commercial catches. By the summer of 2019, the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (the organisation which provides expert advice on fish stocks and quotas) stated that North Sea cod was back at “critically low levels” and catches needed to be reduced by two-thirds. This led the MSC to place North Sea cod back onto the list of fish to avoid and revoked the sustainable status of this species. Read a full article on North Sea cod stocks by clicking here.
Techniques and Methods to Catch Cod
Cod can be found across every different type of seabed, meaning they can be caught from a wide range of fishing marks across the UK. Cod can be caught on sandy and shingle beaches, mixed and broken ground, and the roughest and rockiest of marks. However, the chances of locating feeding fish will be increased if a food-holding feature can be located, such as a gully on a sandy beach or mussel or shellfish beds on rough ground. Cod will feed in a range of water depths, although they do not generally come into very shallow water, meaning it is an advantage to be able to cast a decent distance when fishing for this species on a sandy beach. Anglers specifically targeting large cod should set up their gear accordingly with big hooks, big baits and strong tackle. Hooks are generally sized 3/0 – 6/0 in a strong pattern, as this size of hook can also prevent the smaller whiting from being caught, as they can become a bait robbing menace when targeting big cod. Anglers using smaller hooks to target species such as flatfish can also often catch small cod.
Exactly which rig anglers should choose depends on the type of ground which is being fished. From a sandy beach it is a good idea to use a clipped down rig as this adds to casting distance and also prevents large baits from flying around and getting tangled. Hooks arranged in a pennell configuration are also a good idea as they will increase the chances of any cod taking the bait becoming hooked. From rough ground marks the pennell pulley is a good choice as it also allows clipped down baits to be cast a good distance, and the pennell design means that any fish which are hooked are more likely to be landed.
In terms of baits, peeler crabs are an excellent choice for cod bait (although anglers have to use frozen as fresh peeler is unavailable in winter) with blow lugworm, black lugworm and squid and mussel also considered top winter cod baits. Cocktail baits are also popular when fishing for cod, and full single squid is also a favourite when targeting large cod. The popularity of these baits means that others are overlooked. Sandeel, razorfish, cuttlefish, mackerel strip, and even a small mackerel head and entrails can all account for big cod over winter. Indeed, the wide-ranging feeding habits and unfussy nature of cod mean that they can be caught on almost any bait that sea anglers offer.
Cod and the Colour White: There is (or at least was) a belief that cod are attracted to the colour white. Feathers to catch cod (from a boat) are usually white while The Fisherman’s Handbook from 1977 states that cod will eat white pieces of metal and plastic cups that have been discarded into the sea. The handbook even includes a design for a rig incorporating a white attractor spoon for cod fishing. There is little evidence to support this theory about the colour white, and it is rare to see anglers persevering with white attractor spoons when cod fishing these days.