The single most important reason for the decline of sea-angling on the East coast over the last ten years has been the absence of codling.
Over the same period, available numbers of several other species have similarly reduced ,but the codling were always the star attraction. Prolific throughout the winter and present in good numbers over the summer, they attracted anglers, boat and shore, in large numbers to the grounds between Greystones and Wicklow.
Looking back, it is not hard to understand the popularity of the species. For a lot of anglers, the fact that they are a superb table fish was important. The sheer number of fish and the fact that, in general, they did not require specialist tactics , could be caught from, clean easy to fish beaches, and fell to standard baits like lugworm and mussel were all powerful factors. Modest casters, beginners and casual anglers alike could go forth with a high expectation of landing a handful of fish or more. The arrival and presence of the shoals were predictable and this was the greatest stimulus to the vibrant angling community.
The unhappy situation today is that codling are a rare catch in most anglers bags. The traditional beaches cannot be relied upon to produce them in any numbers. To continue to catch the species, we are faced with two principal questions. The first is relatively simple, are the fish there any more ?. Many anglers feel that the predations and efficiency of inshore commercial activities have depleted the stock to such an extent that the fish are simply gone, that year classes having been completely wiped out and even the prolific breeding of the cod cannot match the numbers removed.
A connected argument condemns the specific type of commercial activity, which often results in the destruction of the environment, removing fundamental layers of the food chain. This leaves a glimmer of hope for the sea-angler, reasoning that fish are still around but not in the places we used to catch them and leads us to the second question. Assuming that some codling are still to be caught, albeit not in the numbers of before, then where and how can we target them?
If we take it that the commercial boats take the majority of the fish, then we need to look for areas where the boats cannot operate and the obvious choice is in the dirtier grounds. Submerged tracts of rock and kelp are natural food larders and have always attracted codling. They have never attracted anglers to the same degree . Some of this prejudice is in the mind – a belief that no fish would live there or that it would be impossible to fish effectively. It is true that this type of fishing is more demanding on general skills and requires that the angler puts up with tackle loss as a natural consequence but the right approach can provide some excellent sport.
The type of grounds that will consistently hold codling are made up of large rocks, gullies and plenty of kelp. Bare rock will also attract fish but it is the gullies and kelp that hold the various smaller food sources like prawns, shrimps and crab that in turn provide the larger residents with sustenance. These reefs are also natural collection points for shellfish, worms and other life forms dislodged by onshore winds.
Examine a reef that strips off only on big tides and you can get some idea of the type of ground you can be fishing into. Jagged rocks covered in barnacles and mussel, gulleys with a collection of razor and clam shells, prolific clumps of wrack strongly anchored to withstand the incessant battering of the tides. All indicate that the anglers choice of gear must be stout if he is to have any hope of retrieving tackle or fish. There is no doubt that , even with powerful tackle, the chances of snagging are almost certain , so one or several means of counteracting this must be built into the gear. We have to balance strength and weakness in our approach.
Beach rods are expensive and many anglers cannot afford specific rods for different environments but a light , tip sensitive tool is not ideal for rough ground fishing and if utilised, should be done with due care. Pulling for a break by bending into a snag and using the rod as a lever is asking for a break. You will also have occasion to bully a fish as you feel it come through the dirt, and this requires a degree of backbone and dragging power from your tackle.
There are a number of very good reels available specifically for this type of fishing and again, you will need some serious winding power. Strong gears and high retrieve ratios are essential ingredients. A lot of these modern reels are also superb casting tools which, although not as essential as on clean venues, is nonetheless an important benefit.
The line and the end gear are the items that take the most abuse , hopefully hooking and landing your fish and require special consideration. For main line, 30 lb is the best option and Berkley Triline is very popular. It is a rugged line that will withstand abrasion and maintain a high knot strength. If you are casting with any style that involves swinging the lead, then a shock leader should be used. I know some anglers that successfully fish rough ground with no leader, but they are mainly competent casters and adopt their style to suit . Unless fishing alone or with a few people, I always employ a leader. The best knot to attach the leader is the Bimini Twist. This complicated knot is detailed in a number of publications but it is better to ask an experienced tyer to show it to you. An east-coast match angler demonstrated it to me a couple of years ago during a slack time in a match. That practical lesson was worth a thousand diagrams. After that it is just practise and more practise.
We now come to the trace itself and the point where we must balance strength against weakness. The tackle discussed so far is designed to prise fish from their homes by dint of force. The trace must allow for a similar measure of strength plus the ability to jettison or release any part that snags tight.
The body of the rig must withstand the severe nature of the terrain and be at least 50-60 lbs. My favourite material is Gantel. The hook snood can be attached by any of the popular means i.e. trapped swivels with either crimps or stop knots, or blood loops, and all have advantages and drawbacks.
One consideration is cost, as you are likely to experience multiple losses, but the more important is effectiveness. I used to favour power-gum stop knots, as they eliminate the weakening of the line and can often pull free of snags by slipping. I felt though , that the very fact that the snood slipped under pressure was leading to missed bites, giving the fish, which often hit hard , too little in the way of resistance.
I then graduated to trapped swivels and crimps which I thought were superior until very recently. At a recent competition, I could not get a gear back, including some with fish on, despite using what I though adequate tackle, including rotten bottoms. Talking to a friend after the event, he pointed out that if was not the lead snagging , which I had catered for, but the metalware on the trace. When I thought about it, it was obvious he was correct and I have since gone back to traditional blood-loops for snoods and a large loop at the top of the trace for connecting to the leader link , a good example of the old ways complementing the new and of the necessity of talking to anglers with an open mind and constantly tuning your approach.
A traditional paternoster is the most uncomplicated trace type and is often best . The only realistic option is a pulley rig, very good if you are fishing over rocks onto clean ground but it does involve more in the nature of swivels etc. which can lead to snag ups.
Hook snoods should be less than the strength of the main line, in the range of 15-25 lbs. , which will break if caught. Hooks patterns need to bend rather than snap so that they too will yield before the main line. I like Viking and Limerick patterns, which will hold a bulky bait , especially now that they are available chemically etched. The hook points will take a lot of punishment and should be regularly checked and changed.
The weight, because of its bulk, is the single item most likely to snag and because of this has to be regarded as being dispensable. To achieve this, a rotten bottom has to be used. The traditional method involves a panel-pin and a piece of cork or polystyrene that will float free and leave the lead attached to a weak section of line. Again, I know anglers who use this method successfully but I don’t have full confidence in it from a casting perspective. If the lead is swung, there is a chance that the pin could work loose from a slackening of the line. It may never happen , but it is always in the back of mind, especially at night, and I cannot fish effectively while the doubt exists. I prefer the modern bead releases , such as that marketed by Tony’s Tackle, which are 100 % effective if set up properly ,and regard the extra metal as a conscious trade-off against safety and confidence.
Over the rock grounds, big natural baits with a high scent factor are the best choices. Crab, fresh and frozen, big mussel baits , lug and mussel cocktails all work. Frozen sandeel can sometimes produce . I generally choose a long snood, reckoning that the bait will lie atop or among the kelp and not be dragged down. Some anglers like to fish a relatively short snood some three foot above the weight. Experimentation and results will determine which is best on a particular venue.
Once a fish is hooked, the object is to get in out of the rough as soon as possible and here is where the strength built into the gear plays its part. You will in turn have to ease, lift or drag the fish through obstructions as the occasion demands. The immediate decision only comes with experience and knowledge of the venue. Seasoned kelp anglers develop a feel for snags that is impossible to describe and instinctively know when to lift or when to reel faster.
When the gear becomes totally locked, the only option is to resort to a direct pull and use the weak points created in the trace design. Do not use the tip of the rod for this. The rod should be lowered and pointed directly at the snag. Wrap the line around the butt a couple of times and clamp your hand over the reel spool. The gears of the reel should not be used directly to force the issue. In possible, vary the angle of the pull, by walking either side of your stance. This is often very successful. After a while , you will become familiar with your set up and be able to judge just how much pressure can be applied before all is lost. If all these ploys fail, the only option is to pull for a break, tightening everything and easing the rod backwards until either some component of your trace gives or everything goes. On important point here is to ensure that should the line snap , you will not be thrown backwards by being off balance. It is often the source of amusement among anglers to witness this occur, but on a rocky footing a fall can be very dangerous, so save your blushes and your health by thinking about it before it happens.
I would be among the first back to the beaches if the cod were to appear again, and there is scope for the adventurous angler to experiment on new venues and hopefully prove the theory that the fish have just changed location, but in the meantime, we have to be content with what is currently available. It is almost impossible to predict whether we will ever see the likes of the great winters runs of before. I have tried and been disappointed on the traditional venue many times over the last few years.
On the subject of tradition, there is an old ballad which tells of a small boy waiting for his fishing father to return from sea . He is comforted by the fact that ‘ Thou shall have a codling… when the boat comes in ‘. This line was written at a time similar to that East coast anglers used to enjoy, when we could say with certainty that fish would be taken. Nowadays, we would certainly have more fish if all the boats came in and stayed in. Until then , to make the most of winter codding with any degree of confidence in catching, my advice is to take a trip to the dirt.