Found throughout New Zealand, but more common in the south, the mighty blue cod is an excellent eating fish, and most anglers are very happy to see one come to the surface. But where will you find them? And what tactics should you use to land a catch? Troy Dando gives us some tips.
Blue cod can also be a name for the UK sablefish, but the one we’re talking about is exclusively found in the shallow waters around the rocky coasts of New Zealand. Also known as sand perch, the Maori names for it are rawaru and pakirikiri.
There's no perfect bait for blue cod. They'll happily eat an old car tyre and think they are living like kings.
Found at depths of up to 150m, this plump, easy to fillet fish can grow up to 60cm and weigh in at 3kg. More common around the waters of the South Island, this fishery is comercially harvested and sustainably managed, with an annual catch of up to 2000 tonnes.
The angler's angle
To understand the best way to target blue cod you must understand where they live, how they live and what feeding patterns they have.
Blue cod is a very slow growing fish and typically can take up to 10 years to get to legal catching size (30cm-33cm depending where you live). Blue cod feed on other smaller blue cod as well as other small fish and crustaceans, so when they are young they must learn how to hide and forage at the same time. This gives us our first clue on the typical area you will find cod in, it must have cover and a food source to support juvenile fish.
Now, as we know not all blue cod are hiding in amongst the weed or rocks and if you dive you will be aware they are the most inquisitive fish you will come across. These larger cod forage most of the day popping out from behind rocks and weed and even venturing out along the sandy bottoms looking for anything that’s edible. They’re unlikely to be targetted by aggressive male blue cod, due to their size, and have learned to look above for preying baracouta and kingfish. Generally, the further away from cover a blue cod ventures the larger it is, confident it can fight off an attack.
Find a rocky area along the coast holding good amounts of bait fish, kina, and other crustaceans. A good current stirring up nutrients seems to be better for an aggressive bite compared to slower moving waterways. From here I would move away from the shore until the rocks stop and move onto a flat seabed. Try to get a good drift line going along this edge occasionally drifting more onto the rocks and then more onto the sand is ideal. I also don’t mind drifting up to 50 meters away from the edge to target those big males looking for a good feed beyond cover.
The best thing about targeting blue cod is that you really don’t need any specialised fishing tackle, but some things do work better than others.
I have found that as new techniques and gear have developed you seem to get a honeymoon period where the new gear will catch bigger fish. This may be because blue cod are clever. They give your bait a wide berth but when you introduce something new, these curious creatures drop their guard.
The catch and release movement has also changed the focus of gear. The old small J hook setup was a killer rig for blue cod but really it left no doubt in my mind; a gut hooked fish was doomed. Back in the day, the quotas were 30 fish and they were thick as sand flies, but these days with dwindling populations and more smaller fish, returning them in the best condition is the priority. This has made the J hook a no go.
The official MPI (Ministry of Primary Industries) guideline is to use a hook size no smaller than a 6/0 but even these size hooks will gut hook a blue cod if the angler is not paying attention to the bite. This is where education on how to fish is as important as what gear to use. Using very heavy sinkers, heavy line and a rod and reel setup that could stop a marlin is over-kill for a blue cod, and you can’t feel what’s going on. Blue cod are the equivalent to the Labrador dog who will eat a meat flavoured mini car in two bites given the chance. One little bit of inattention will end up with a bait and hook right down in the bowels of the fish making release impossible.
I believe some of the cod rigs for sale are great rigs in the right hands. The 5/0 to 8/0 hooks on a circle hook ledger rig setup with fluorescent tubing on the main dropper to the hook keeps and bait presented well and stops the dropper getting tangled up when the blue cod does its trade mark barrel roll. It also stops the line getting memory twists in it which ultimately ends in tangles, something to be avoided.
These rigs fished with just enough sinker weight to get it to the bottom is all that’s needed. Keep in mind two hooks is plenty to fish on these sorts of rigs (and it is a MPI rule in some areas), as the three hook rig when loaded up just gets tangled up and can be dangerous.
Doing a jig
My favourite way to catch blue cod is by fishing slow or mechanical jigs. It is also one method that doesn’t seem to result in gut hooking a fish. Because you are constantly in contact with your jig, when it does get hit you are already lifting the rod or retrieving line making it almost impossible to gut hook the fish.
Crowd favourite jigs like the Daiwa Pirates and Catch Inchiku jigs are excellent for cod and you never know what other by-catch you will get, like snapper and John Dory, when targeting cod on the edges of banks, rocks and drop offs.
I’ve also used soft baits and while exceptional for blue cod I found their sharp teeth destroy the soft bait very quickly, which can end up an expensive way to catch a fed.
As for the rod and reel setup it really doesn’t matter that much what you use, just remember to go for a lighter rod reel. As some blue cod can be caught in depths over 100 meters you would obviously be using a lot heavier setup than someone fishing in 20 meters of water; just remember to use the minimum setup you can get away with for the conditions and I can almost guarantee you will get more fish and less gut hooks.
There really isn’t any blue cod favourite bait out there. They are not like snapper that want A-grade pilchards snap frozen in the Himalayas in pure Evian water. Blue cod will eat the remains of a car tyre blow out and think they are living like kings. I’ve found fresh baracouta and the old trusty squid work really well. A sliver of squid on one of my slow jig hooks and a shot of Secret Sauce up the hook skirt always produces the goods.
Once caught, make sure you always iki the blue cod and bleed them out, then put straight into an ice slurry for perfect eating.
Blue cod fisher rule change
Recent changes to the recreational blue cod fishery rules were announced by Minister Nathan Guy after consultation with industry representatives and local fishing groups in the Marlborough Sounds Area (MSA)/ Challenger East fisheries.
Figure 1: Marlborough Sounds Area (blue diagonal lines), Challenger East area (grey shading), and the quota management area for BCO 7 (black line in inset image).
While not all submitted ideas where taken up by the minister the general feeling was the new rules were a good step in the right direction. The main disappointment from recreational fisherman was the drop to two blue cod in the Challenger East area to come into line with the Marlborough Sounds area. The Minister cited it necessary as more fishing pressure is applied to the Challenger East area now since the MSA has been at two fish for a few years.
Large male blue cod can be targeted by fishing further away from cover on the sand. Their size allows them to be less wary of predation and more condident when foraging.
It was noted that he hasn’t applied the same principle to the commercial sector yet with no decrease in TACC for blue cod since 1995 when it was set at 70 tons. If Mr Guy believes that there is that amount of pressure going on in the combined fishery for Blue Cod (BC07 FMA), the question has to be asked why he has not reduced the commercial take by at least a third in the same area to help in the recovery and to keep in line with the decrease recreational fisherman have taken?
The new rules come into effect from 20th December 2015 and they are as outlined below.
Detailed information on the Minister’s decisions, including a copy of the Decision Letter and Decision Document, are available on the Ministry for Primary Industries website at: http://www.mpi.govt.nz/news-and-resources/consultations/2015-review-of-the-fishing-rules-for-marlborough-sounds-blue-cod/