Fishing Lines: The perks and perils of an encounter with cod

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The Independent Online
IT WAS going to be bouillabaisse for supper. But when I opened the deep- freeze, there were just four fish fingers where bass and brill, dab and dogfish, turbot and trout once swam. It was time to go sea-fishing again. Unwisely, I promised friends and neighbours that it would be cod for supper.

This is traditionally a good time to catch cod. They move into shallower water during the winter, and even after trawlers have ravaged the shoals (no wonder cod lay up to 9 million eggs) you can usually catch enough for several fish suppers. Fishing may get even better if work at the Aquaculture Centre at Trondheim, in Norway, on rearing cod in fish farms proves successful.

The great thing about cod is that they are greedy. Their enormous mouths (you could drop a Yorkshire terrier down a 20-pounder's gullet

and it wouldn't touch the sides) will gulp down anything edible and a few things that aren't. Opening their stomachs is like a voyage to the bottom of the sea: crabs, weed, small fish, crunched-up shells, rocks, unidentifiable things and even plastic cups, thrown off cross-Channel ferries (though I'm told even cod won't eat the sandwiches).

Basically, there are three ways of catching cod from a boat. The most successful for big fish is pirking. This involves drifting near a wreck where cod lurk and jerking a huge lump of chrome, with hooks attached, in a motion similar to a one-armed man ringing a bell. The pirk is supposed to imitate a small fish trying to escape. Car door handles filled with lead are very popular for this. If you live near the coast and wondered why the local car scrapyard never had any doors with handles, there's your answer.

But this is a horribly energetic method, particularly as it often involves fishing in depths of 200ft or more. Four hours of pirking is punishment, not pleasure. After all that pumping, and winding up perhaps 2lb of lead and a 10lb fish, your arm feels as if it has been hauling a bus uphill.

Far more civilised is uptiding. This is perfect for the lazy angler, because the fish hooks itself and all you have to do is wind in. It started off the Essex coast, where the water is very shallow. Echo-sounders revealed that cod (and other fish too) were veering away when they swam near a moored boat.

It's not clear why, but it's probably a combination of water noise on a boat hull, and a similar unnatural drumming caused by the tide rushing past an anchor rope. Anyway, it was discovered that by casting well away from the boat, into those areas where boat and rope noise was no longer a factor, catches more than trebled. Dropping a bait over the side, the traditional method, became obsolete.

Uptiding has been refined. A spiked weight that digs into the bottom will grip until a fish takes the bait. This moves the weight, which hooks the fish. Nowadays you merely cast out and drink tea, play cards or discuss the merits of eugenics in the poetry of Sackville until a cod hooks itself. Wind it in, and repeat the process.

Now the bad news. Cod shoals are generally preceded by whiting shoals. Whereas a 20lb cod is a big one, a 3lb whiting is a monster, and the smaller ones are a damn nuisance. Whiting don't always hook themselves, but merely steal your bait. Instead of a leisurely day's fishing, shoals of whiting mean a constant cycle of casting, missing bites, rewinding and rebaiting. It's almost as hard work as pirking.

You can guess what happened. The Blackwater estuary is stuffed with so many whiting that we ran out of bait. Although fresh whiting is a very different fish from the miserable coley that even cats dislike, they didn't get an enthusiastic welcome from the hordes to whom I had promised a chunky cod. I may have to go pirking after all.