Blue cod are one of our most popular eating fish, especially for anglers fishing from boats. However, they can be taken from the shore, too.
Some of my earliest rock-fishing memories are of casting into deep water from the cliffs of Otago Peninsula and hauling fat blue cod up the cliff face. Definitely deep water helps, but I’ve caught blue cod in a wide range of shore-based fishing scenarios since, including wharves, shallow surf beaches, steep gravel beaches and, of course, from the rocks.
Whilst fairly regarded as a southern species, blue cod are present right around the coastline; it might sound a cliché, but I have caught them from Cape Reinga to the Bluff and many places in between. Generally speaking, blue cod numbers and size diminish from south to north, but don’t be put off by that too much – only a couple of months ago a mate and I were catching big blues hand over fist in the eastern Bay of Plenty!
So what’s the trick to catching blue cod? Well, pure and simple, the trick is in finding them. Once located, they are very aggressive biters, and it is possible to catch them in large numbers. This might sound good to a fisherman, but this sort of feeding behaviour renders blue cod highly susceptible to localised fishing pressure. In fact, serious rock fishermen often use the presence or absence of blue cod as a barometer of the amount of fishing a spot receives. If blue cod are present, there’s a good chance the spot doesn’t receive much pressure, because they’re always the first species to disappear.
However, I don’t want to give a sweeping impression that blue cod sit in one patch of the coast all year, because there are seasonal movements. For example, in Wellington and the Wairarapa they move off the reefs to feed over clean ground in very shallow water. That is when surfcasters can catch them in big numbers.
My recent experience in the Bay of Plenty suggests there is a winter inshore movement there, too, because never in many years of fishing the area during spring, summer and autumn, have I seen blue cod like those I mentioned earlier.
In terms of habitat, blue cod have a clear preference for areas of rock and weed running off onto sandy bottoms. However, on the Chatham Islands I found they could be caught over very clean bottoms quite a distance from the shelter of any rock or weed. The population is very healthy there, so perhaps this is how the species spreads out under those conditions?
Blue cod feed actively at dawn and dusk, occasionally during the day, and appear not to feed at all during the dark hours – at least, that’s been my observation when fishing for them, primarily from the shore. The dawn and dusk bites can be very intense if you find yourself amongst a patch of fish. I’ve experienced fishing where my sinker has barely hit the bottom before the bites come on thick and fast.
These fast, suicidal bites can be very frustrating, and this, combined with the tendency of blue cod to swallow baits deep, can see a lot of your time tied up retrieving and freeing deeply-hooked fish. As catching several undersized fish for every legal one can also be a feature of blue cod fishing, this can be very frustrating. So, with this in mind, it can pay to use larger, barbless hooks (compress the barb with a pair of pliers), saving a lot of time and increasing the survival rate of any fish caught.
Apart from a tendency to gut-hook themselves, blue cod often bite fiercely on a bait, hook themselves, and then just sit on the spot. This can make it very difficult for surfcasters and rock fishermen to know if they actually have a fish on the line. In this situation, it helps to feel closely for action on the end of the line, and wind in a few metres now and again to feel for weight on the line. Doing so might spark the fish into life, though blue cod are no sport fish, so don’t expect a screaming-reel experience!
Staying in close touch with your bait is also beneficial for staying out of the rock and weed. After biting, blue cod will generally head straight into these areas and snag you up. Among smaller inshore species in New Zealand, only snapper can rival blue cod for this very annoying habit!
Bait-wise, I generally find that blue cod are not fussy at all; if feeding, they’ll take just about anything. You’ve possibly heard stories about them taking pieces of cotton or plastic looped onto a hook. Squid is a very popular blue cod bait from the boat, probably because of its durability, but from the shore I’ve found pilchard and mussel and any number of other baits to be very effective. Mussel is particularly good, but given the need to intricately tie this onto the hook and the effectiveness of other easier-to-handle baits, using mussel is not justified most of the time.
Blue cod will also take soft-baits and other slowly worked lures, and are quite happy to move up the water column to do so, despite having a reputation as a species that holds firmly to the seafloor. I’ve seen them actively chase lures and other hooked fish right up to the surface when fishing from rock platforms. They do seem to have strong visual predator instincts, so items such as float beads, saltwater flies and lumo beads can improve your catch rate.
As I’ve already noted, blue cod are not a sport fish by any means. They will give a few energetic pulses as you wind them in, but are not especially big, strong or built for speed. What they will do when hooked though, is spin around and leave your rig in a twisted mess, so if specifically targeting them, make sure you have some spare rigs to combat this eventuality.
The legal size limit is typically 30cm, but varies around the country (and there are area-specific bag limits), so make sure you know the rules for your chosen fishing location. What this tells us is that blue cod are not a big fish, and in my local waters 90% of legal blue cod taken from the shore would be less than 1kg in weight. However, they are beautifully shaped, like a tube, so provide great cooking fillets – and the flavour is delectable.
When targeting blue cod, my preferred tactic is to fish areas of broken rock and sand, which is plentiful on Wairarapa and Wellington’s southern coasts. Here, I set up with a surfcasting rod to allow me a long cast into the deepest water I can reach. It is very easy to snag up amongst the broken rock and weed where cod are most plentiful, so I use a single-hook ledger rig and a spoon sinker that lifts my hook up off the bottom during the retrieve. Here, again, a vigilant approach is best, so I prefer to hold my rod and strike at large bites and retrieve fish aggressively, keeping their heads up to prevent them from darting for rocks and weed.
If bites are regular, it is very difficult to fish two rods effectively, so fishing one rod is more practical. If that still sounds like too much hard work, then put yourself on a plane to the Chatham Islands, because you can catch really big blue cod almost anywhere using any old fishing method there!
Many people would say that the real pleasure of blue cod fishing is found at the kitchen table, because they are first-class eating. For eating’s sake, it is always best to gut and clean fish straight away, but this is not strictly necessary with blue cod – just put them on ice and get another bait in the water.