Sometimes there are just not enough tides in the week for all that fishing, travelling and bait collecting us cod nuts have to do in order to feed our addiction. But do you ever stop and think of what else actually swims out there during the colder months? It is so easy to fish for cod and nothing else for months at a time and if the season is a good one then maybe this is the way to go, but believe it or not there are a number of other species worth targeting. What is out there depends on where you live, but down here in the South-west our seasons seem more and more to be blending into one big mass. Things have changed from maybe ten years ago and it is up to us to get out and rewrite the rule books.
There are tides and weather forecasts on which, of course, one must go codding, for it would be foolish to ignore those sessions we think are going to produce, but there have to be times when the cod have momentarily disappeared and you may be left wondering what to do. Get out there and have a bit of a play and you may just be shocked by what turns up.
Contrary to the belief that big huss are a spring only phenomena, let me assure you that down here it is quite possible to catch 10lb plus huss every month of the year, and the dead of winter can often produce quality fishing. More than likely you will get the best marks to yourself on the best tides and even better if the water is all stirred up and coloured from onshore winds. Our best huss tend to come on the big tides and this can tie in perfectly; the Bristol Channel often fishes best on the neaps, so that allows us the chance to get out hussing on the springs if we want and we do not feel as though we are missing too much on the cod front. Whole calamari baits tend to work well in the cold months and, as we go into spring, you may just pick up one of those early, egged-up monsters. I personally have had some of my best huss fishing in December.
The mighty conger eel
Right on my doorstep lies the famous River Tamar, and from these swift waters have come a huge number of specimen fish over the years, including the current British record shore conger of 68lb 8oz, taken in November 1991. Most of the marks fished in the Tamar by conger, cod and thornback anglers are seriously deep, so there is no way that any amount of cold weather puts big conger off the feed. A number of dedicated specimen hunters will continue to target congers all through the winter and may well put out cod baits at the same time, thus doubling their chances of seeing something. Locals know that to catch quality fish from the river requires serious dedication, but eventually one will be rewarded. Do not for one minute think that you are going to catch huge numbers of fish from the Tamar, but it is close and accessible and can be fished somewhere in any weather, and as a result is mostly fished by locals for whom a blank trip does not matter. We can fish plenty of short sharp sessions close to home when those long jaunts are just not possible, so in a way the Tamar is like our local "beach"!
Put down big cuttlefish baits into any of the popular Tamar marks through winter and there is always going to be that chance of an eel; a 57lb conger was taken a few years ago in the middle of January and the angler was targeting cod at the time, so you just never know what is going to take your bait. Likewise the odd big cod is taken on a conger bait, as well as huge pouting and those infernal dogfish.
Plenty of anglers would rather fish for these cheeky flatfish rather than cod, so for those of you this way inclined, apologies for this short paragraph! Floundering is a way of life down in the south west and you can most likely understand why when I mention such famous rivers as the Teign, Exe, Kingsbridge Estuary, Yealm, Plym, Fowey and the Camel. I am no flounder angler, but I know plenty of cod addicts who happily go and target these flatfish with the same relish as when codding. Countless thousands of anglers wait for the arrival of flounder just as I wait for the cod, but for the die-hard cod brigade, the chance to go floundering may be a viable opportunity to go fishing when the things are not right for cod. The perfect time for a plump flounder is often a crisp, bitingly cold winter morning when the wind comes from the north or east, and conversely these are not the finest conditions for a lot of our cod marks. Downsize your tackle, take the same peeler crabs as you would for your codding, and get down to the banks of a stunning estuary to await the typical tap, tap, slack bite of a flounder.
Many specialists will continue to target outsize wrasse from a number of deeper water locations all through the winter, and often the biggest wrasse of the year come at this time. Not that many people think of wrassing in winter, but it is perfectly possible and theoretically there should be less small ones around. South Devon can be the best place to try for a cold-weather wrasse, with big hardback crabs being the ultimate bait. Bites will be savage and often the crab will be ripped from the "safety" of the hook before you even have a chance to strike, so it is best to hold the rod as much as you can. Go for a quicker strike than you would when using, say, peeler crab that is bound securely to the hook.
If we don’t receive the continual monsoon conditions that we did last year, then you stand a good chance of catching mullet almost right through the year. Admittedly the coldest months of January and February can be very hard times to catch or even see mullet, but chances are that they are lurking somewhere in some south western river/estuary system. December can produce good fishing, as indeed can late Feb and early March, and you can as good as guarantee that you will find no other nutter out doing the same thing as you. The days when people thought that the mullet swarmed out of our rivers in great shoals once winter set in are gone - often some big fish will hang around all winter.
Whereas the open coast winter mulleting in the Channel Island of Alderney can be breathtakingly fantastic, if you want a serious crack in our waters then head for a river or estuary. As you can imagine, abnormal amounts of freezing cold freshwater filtering down from the moors is not going to help, so do pick your times to try with a bit of common sense. There is one particular, extremely underfished river that can fish well in early March and as yet the few anglers I know who go there have yet to see one "stranger" doing the same thing; if I were to name it then I might have to emigrate! But you can bet your life that there are other places where it is worth trying. Indeed, a number of flounder anglers take some mullet gear as a habit in case some turn up and fairly often they do, just when you would not think it possible. Anybody who has any interest in catching mullet must remove that age-old load of codswallop that is "mullet are a summer fish" from their heads; it is a complete and utter rubbish.
The Tamar throws up very big pouting every year, without fail, and although people don’t generally target them specifically, the big specimens are more than welcome when they jump on a big cod bait. Many a local competition and club fish-of-the-month have been won by specimen pout, although I prefer to stick them on a hook for conger!
Big bass are a possibility all winter, especially from the slightly shallower Tamar marks, although any captures are generally kept very quiet; big mackerel and garfish baits work well, as indeed they do for conger.
Thornback rays lurk in the Tamar and the extensive Bristol Channel all year, and some locals would attest to winter being the best time to fish the Channel for a big thornie; crab and squid baits work best for the lunkers.