The cod family | 10 tips for lure fishing

Cod are fat, demersal fish that cruise into our waters once temperatures get cool enough towards the end of Autumn. Our winter is like a summer vacation from the Arctic for them. Cod fishing has come on considerably in recent years due to advances in gear, but unfortunately, we have eaten most of the cod and specimen fish are no longer caught. Catch & release is therefore a good move if you’re up for it. We will begin with lure fishing for cod, then move on to the best bait fishing approaches.

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cod fishing
Lure caught cod – credit: Lee Barn

The best cod lures

9. Pirks are the old-school classic for heavy boat fishing approaches

While boat fishing, large metal lures called ‘pirks’ are often used, which are essentially long thin metal bars that sink very quickly into the depths and glimmer and shine at the cod. Perks can be very heavy – with some perks being half a kilo in weight. These are what you should reach for if you’re more of a traditional boat angler and will be using rods with very high casting weights fishing deep, deep water. They’ve been around forever and work, but they aren’t as sporting as some other lures since the rods required to use them are so damned heavy.

8. But modern jigging for cod looks very different

Boat fishing for cod with lures is often done by drifting over offshore wrecks or by jigging close to a wreck. On the south coast this is usually done inshore in the Spring. Jigging is a retrieval style whereby the lure is lifted up vertically and then released to sink back down to the bottom. Like most fish species, cod love to hit lures OTD (on the drop), as this is a very natural presentation for an injured fish. Jigging, therefore, increases the amount of time spent with your lure falling. Jigging also allows you to fish in one precise spot and stay away from the snags of a wreck. Slow jigs are hugely popular for the way they flutter slowly as they fall.

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Casting jigs that flutter as they fall are deadly for cod from shore and boat

7. The best soft plastics for cod are also deadly

Another popular cod lure is the twin-tailed curly tail – it’s a simple jelly eel with two curly tails. In my experience, these curly tails aren’t as effective as paddle tails for most species, but members of the cod family seem to go wild for them. Other classic cod lures include the Rhubarb and Custard coloured (red and orange) Sidewinder and the Redgill. A more recent addition to these is the offshore Fish Minnow, which has a weedless design and more natural presentation than the classics.

soft plastic lures for cod
Spot the cod lure… Red and yellow is a popular colour, but all would work.

Shorefishing for cod with bait

6. The best cod baits are big worm and squid cocktails

There is no species that anglers put more care into their baits for than the cod. If anglers put this much effort into meals for their wives they’d have exceptional marriages. Cod are greedy fish and will take a huge variety of baits, but it pays to try to match what they’re feeding on. That could be peeler crab, razor clams, mussels, ragworm, lugworm, bait fish, squid, sandeel etc. The most popular bait for cod is squid tipped with rag or lugworm. Baiting elastic is essential to hold the squid bait in place on the hook, otherwise the crabs and dogfish etc will annihilate your baits before the cod can get to them, and they will come off just when casting.

The same holds for lures. These fish will take very big lures, their mouths are huge.

5. Cod move with the tide through deep estuary channels

It’s also common to fish for cod in the channels in estuaries as they push up with the tide, slurping on worms and crunching down crabs on the seabed as the water drifts over the sand and mud flats. Cod fishermen will therefore often fish the tide on the push, starting the session at low tide in the darkness and fishing all the way through to high water. Whatever state of tide the cod move up the estuary, that’s likely to prove a pattern for that mark. Then you know roughly what times to expect the cod to move through. This makes cod fishing a waiting game, so hand warmers and a flask are essentials.

From beaches, you’ll tend to catch cod in places with some rough ground and especially from shingly beaches. Cod are demersal fish, which means they feed on or near the bottom. They will hunt in the middle section of the water column when they’re older and are chasing fish, though.

weymouth beach
The Dorset coast is famous for cod fishing, with steep stoney beaches and deep water close in

4. When beach fishing for cod, look for mud, stone, depth and rough ground.

Cod are not usually caught on sandy beaches or from shallow beaches. Rather, they favour heavy rough ground, like broken rocky underwater structures like wrecks and areas of rocks. They also like stoney beaches with steep drop-offs like those found at Chesil beach in Dorset. Mudflats and muddy-sandy beaches can also be productive, especially if there are channels for the cod to move through.

Larger specimens are caught from boats with lure fishing gear over wrecks in the South West and East. Artificial eels are a favourite lure for their capture.

3. The cod season varies depending on your location

Cod can be caught all year round if you’re far enough in the North of Britain, whereas in the south they only grace inshore waters in the depths of winter. Around Dorset, they get runs of cod in Autumn, winter and especially spring. The best way to find out if there are good numbers of cod at marks near you is to join local Facebook groups, as FISHMAG doesn’t have good intel on the best cod fishing spots yet for the whole country. Inshore, you tend to catch codling, which are juvenile cod under 5lb in weight. The range of the cod has dramatically shrunk and reduced. The cod fishing in the south of England has pretty much ceased in many areas except for occasional runs. However, the range of the sea bass has increased in the UK further up North. The good news with cod fishing in the UK is that if you don’t catch cod, you’re always in for a very good chance of catching something else like a huss or conger on the same rigs and baits.

how to catch big cod

2. Overfishing turned cod to codling for UK anglers

There is something very exciting about catching cod, partly the fact that they grow to such a decent size. Cod are known as ‘codling’ until they’re about 5lb, and a 5lb shore cod is sadly a very decent fish nowadays. The size of cod caught used to be fricken’ huge – maybe not as huge as some people remember it – but still pretty huge. The trouble is, the overfishing was so bad in the 70s that actually a lot of old guys now can’t even remember the days of good cod fishing.

Cod are one of the most sought-after fish for commercial fishermen and recreational anglers. People like them because their flesh is firm and doesn’t dry out easily during the cooking process compared to most other fish species. This is the fish that even your non-fishing friends have heard of. Unfortunately for this reason, there is only a fraction of the population of these fish there used to be. Pollock are much less endangered and can be cooked in the same way, so are the best fish for the sustainability-minded angler.

1. Timing is important – cod don’t stick around

Cod are a very mobile species that often demand fish finders to locate while boat fishing. One day they might be in one spot in great numbers, and the next they are likely to be gone. While shore fishing in an estuary however you do get the benefit of the Cod exploring enough to locate your bait, there’s still a bit of chance involved in them actually being present.

The best fish finders are quite expensive, but worth it for the huge increase in catch rate they offer. It helps to know there are fish where you’re fishing!

The cod family

Ling fishing

Ling are an offshore species caught over wrecks with lure gear. They look like a cross between a cod and a conger eel, and their barbule hints at their relation to the first of those species. Ling are very powerful fish, with huge tails that propel them through the water as they hunt around wrecks in deep water. They reach over 60lb, though an excellent fish is 30lb.

Often ling will hit lures as they fall down the water column, which is why they are often targeted by drifting and jigging over wrecks. This method involves dropping your lure into the current, allowing it to fall naturally down the water column and letting the current or tide take the lure across the structure you’re fishing over. This puts the lure right in front of the Ling, which will swipe them and offer no mercy to your tackle…

Ling grow to up to 2 m in length and are caught in decent numbers off the coast of Cornwall. These fish will venture down as deep as 400 m and don’t enter water shallower than 40m. As you might expect from a fish with this profile, it is not much of a scavenger, unlike some other fish in the cod family. It’s for this reason that ling are targeted with lures exclusively.

Whiting fishing

These slender members of the cod family are welcome fish during challenging sessions in winter, though they rarely grow beyond a few pounds in weight. They are most commonly caught while targeting cod and can be avoided by using large hooks which whiting shouldn’t be able to get hooked up with.

Whiting will hit lures more aggressively than some other members of the cod family, and one look at them reveals that they are designed to hunt, as well as to scavenge. They generally feed on or near the bottom but will move into the mid-water to chase bait fish, which is why they require that slender profile. This profile is designed more for speed than for sluggishly patrolling the seabed in search of worms.

LRF whiting
Most whiting are very small

The fish often have a pinkish sheen and are commonly caught in estuaries and from harbour walls in autumn and winter where they are caught with all kinds of baits and all kinds of lures, provides the lures are small enough to fish in their relatively small mouths.

The season to catch whiting is from first frost till spring

Whiting spawn in March and April offshore and have a preference for cleaner ground when they venture inshore. They often arrive in the UK with the first frost, as they like calm and cold conditions. Late October into the depths of winter are the best time to catch them. In the far North, you can sometimes catch them all year round.

Whiting are a widespread species that can be caught from the North sea all the way down to the bottom of the South West of Spain.

Smaller hooks will result in more whiting catches

Whiting are generally pretty small and have small mouths, so they are often caught on scratching rigs in winter aimed at flatfish. Under size 1/0 would be best. You can filter them out more effectively by using size 2/0 hooks and above but then you’re going to filter out other species like flatfish too.

The best bait for whiting is lugworm tipped with squid

Lugworm tipped with squid is popular, but ragworm or oily fish like mackerel, garfish or pilchard also works. They are not particularly fussy fish so don’t waste expensive baits on them The oils in those fish are quite pungent to fish and so get a lot of attention. The lugworm and squid I suppose appeal to the cod-like side of this slender predator.

Baited feathers add scent to lures which whiting love

Whiting love to take baited feathers, worms and squid baits. Baited feathers are effective because they trigger the predatory instinct to chase down prey while also providing scent which all members of the Cod family are very attuned to. This is the most common approach taken while fishing from boats. Sabiki feathers are more appropriately sized for the mouths of Whiting than size 1/0’s found in tackle shops, but the hooks may not always be as strong and it’s helpful to have stronger hooks to be prepared for larger species that go for your feathers while boat fishing. Sabiki’s will probably be fine for most things you hook, but just make sure the hooks are decent on them to avoid losing a dream bass or cod!

If you are using lighter gear and aren’t using baited feathers, try a simple casting jig or spinner tipped with Marukyu Isome or Gulp. These are scented worm imitations that can help add scent to your lure for targeting species that don’t just rely on sight.

LRF is the most sporting approach for catching whiting

Given that Whiting are rarely caught above a couple of pounds in weight, they are an obvious species to target with an ultralight kit. Even from a boat, so long as the water isn’t too deep (requiring a deep spool), a rod that casts no more than 10g is going to provide the best sport from this species and is perfectly capable of handling these fish. Whiting have a tendency to take small, tentative bites (but lots of them) and so a rod this light allows you to detect their bites. The extreme softness in the tips of an LRF rod like this is going to prevent hooks from being pulled away from their snapping mouths, giving the fish more of a chance to hook up properly. When fishing is slow on a winter’s night at your local estuary, giving the whiting a chance with ultra-light gear is a great shout!

Pouting fishing

Pouting have a pinkish-coppery colour, with stripes down their sides and a little goaty (bib) that gives them away as a member of the cod family. Pouting are typically under 2lb when caught inshore and have a habit for stealing baits intended for larger or more prized fish.


These fish have a mushy feel about them once dead, and their scales are a nuisance. The scales from these fish are a good ID for the fish, since the very similar looking Poor Cod does not shed scales on your hands.

Where to Catch Pouting

Classic sandy beaches and rough ground inshore for the smaller specimens, and offshore wrecks for the larger fish.

The best baits for pouting

Pouting will take almost any bait and are not fussy, though they prefer worms, squid , crab and clams to a fish bait like sandeel.

When to catch pouting

Pouting can be caught summer and winter in the UK.

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