Red Cod – Morid cods – Pseudophycis bachus – a good eating fish

Red Cod - Pseudophycis bachus
Red Cod - Pseudophycis bachus

Red cod; also called hoka

Pseudophycis bachus

Red cod is a fish that many anglers love to hate. A fish that has none of the sporting qualities of our more sort after species. There are no heart-stopping runs. No jumps or leaps from the water, and no head shaking attempts to throw the hook. However, around much of the South Island, in particular, it is one of the most abundant species caught by surfcasters.

In fact, the poor old red cod puts up no fight at all. Instead, it meekly surrenders to its fate, almost playing dead when hooked. It is for its food value, rather than sport, that many anglers target the humble red cod. The flesh is considered watery and too soft with a tendency to fall apart when being cooking. This problem can easily be solved by drying the fillets with a paper towel and sprinkling them with salt and leaving them for a couple of hours in the fridge before cooking. This process firms the flesh. Following this treatment, the cod is excellent eating.

This red cod caught surfcasting at Amberley Beach, near Christchurch, is in good condition.
This red cod caught surfcasting at Amberley Beach, near Christchurch, is in good condition.

When first caught it is a pinkish-grey colour, but once dead it takes on a more uniform light red. This is not a muscular fish. It is quite slim for its length. Roughly half its weight is in the first third of its body. This has the effect of yielding seemingly small fillets once the fish is gutted and the head removed. Its large head has a cavernous mouth with small feeble teeth.

There is a black spot on the side of the fish just in front of the pectoral fin. The skin is covered with very small scales and coated with a film of mucus that makes the red cod a slippery customer if picked up other than through the mouth or gill slits. I have noticed that when being gutted there is often a most unpleasant odour emanating from the gut, this however never transfers to the flesh.

Red cod are one of the easiest fish to catch around the shores of the South Island. They are particularly abundant along the east coast, in the Canterbury. Bight and off Westland. This species will take almost any bait being probably the least selective of all fish in this regard. Their diet consists of small fish, crabs, shrimps, squid and shellfish. I believe the best bait to be a strip of yellow-eyed mullet. Fresh mullet fillets will catch almost anything that swims. I have had the most success with mullet, though at times they appear to ignore this in preference for shellfish such as tuatua and pipi. The common swimming crab, Ovalipes catharus, together with other crab species are known to form a substantial part of their diet, however, I have not often used crab as bait for red cod.

The secret to red cod fishing is to target them after dark. An area that during the day appears devoid of fish often yields red cod in surprising numbers after sunset. They will then bite all night disappearing at daybreak. Many anglers have made tremendous catches of red cod after dark in Lyttelton harbour for example.

Red cod caught surfcasting near the mouth of the Rangitata River, South Canterbury, New Zealand.
Red cod caught surfcasting near the mouth of the Rangitata River, South Canterbury, New Zealand. Note that they were caught in the early evening when it was still light. The sea was blue and calm. These red cod were caught right behind the breaker line very close to the beach. They could easily have been taken with a hand-line. Long casts from this steeply-shelving shingle beach were not hooking up as the fish were in very close presumably feeding on prey stirred up by the breakers right on the beach.

During the winter months, they will come right into the lagoons at the mouths of the major East Coast rivers. Here there are targeted at night by keen anglers with anti-freeze in their veins. Many a good feed of cod being had following a chilly evening spent with a rod in hand and frost on the ground.

By one year of age red cod are about 22cm (9 inches) in length. After two years they measure around 35cm (14 inches). By the time they reach sexual maturity at four years they measure 50cm (20 inches) long. Large mature females may produce a staggering 30 million eggs in a single breeding season.

I use a large 5/0 hook on a ledger rig when targeting this species. Although they can be taken on almost any terminal tackle it is best not to use too small a hook when surfcasting as the hook will tend to pull out taking a piece of the cod’s soft flesh with it. Seafood New Zealand on this fish species.

Red cod.
Red cod are much maligned by those used to eating snapper and blue cod. David H Graham wrote that experienced commercial fishermen who could choose any fish at all for dinner would often pick a big red cod in good condition.

Interestingly some years red cod seem to almost disappear from certain areas. This can last for two or three years before they are again caught in large numbers. One theory often talked about by salmon anglers is that when the red cod are plentiful the salmon fishing is also very good that year!

Allan Burgess with a red cod caught surfcasting from a beach near Haast, South Westland.
Allan Burgess with a red cod caught surfcasting from a beach near Haast, South Westland.

This fish is much maligned especially by those anglers who readily catch snapper or blue cod. Regarded by some less knowledgeable types as poor eating and a hopeless fighter even on the lightest-line weights

Granted it doesn’t put up much of a fight, however, I have spent many a warm summer’s evening with friends surfcasting for this species and enjoyed it. See also Bastard Cod, and Rock Cod.

This red cod, taken surfcasting near the Rangitata River mouth, had been dining on sprats and smaller cod.
This red cod, taken surfcasting near the Rangitata River mouth, had been dining on sprats and smaller cod.

Red Cod Fishing Over Winter

Red cod can be caught over the winter months, in Canterbury in particular. Cold frosty mornings are a regular feature for southern anglers. Some give up the ghost and pack their fishing gear away at this time of year, but now is the best time to fish for red cod. Night fishing is often productive. You have to pick
your days, but generally, still, frosty mornings also mean blue skies, settled weather, and most importantly, a calm sea. In fact, this is the best time of year for those who venture far offshore in search of groper. You have to keep an eye out for a southerly coming through, but we can now look forward to several months of lighter winds.

Red cod are abundant some years and no so other years. There seems to be some correlation between good salmon fishing seasons and good red cod numbers. Scientists believe the better fishing years for both species may relate to an abundance of whalefeed or krill in southern waters. By extension, some salmon anglers believe that if there are good numbers of red cod being caught between winter and Christmas a much-improved salmon season is just around the corner!

If you are going down to the beach for a little night fishing for red cod, now is the time. You have to plan your trip in order to make the most of the fishing opportunities on offer.

Clothing 

For beach fishing, you need a pair of waders. Even if you don’t wade out into the water very far, waders will go a long way towards keeping you warm. They break the chill wind, and most importantly, keep your feet dry. You just can’t keep warm if you have cold wet feet!

Neoprene waders are best because of the insulation they provide. Lightweight waders are still better they none at all.

Moving to the other end, you must have a woolly hat. A balaclava is even better. A pair of gloves made from wool or neoprene, also make a big difference on a cool night. Keeping your extremities warm makes all the difference when it comes to avoiding heat loss.

The balaclava I have found very good. I wouldn’t be without mine. Even for salmon fishing in mid-summer, the early mornings can still be chilly, particularly if the wind is coming off the sea. The balaclava also goes some way to preventing windburn and even stops biting insects. It is also a good idea to wear a light-weight polypropylene balaclava with a heavier woollen balaclava over the top of it. If you get too hot you can easily remove the outer woollen balaclava and still get good protection from the cold wind. I have found this to be a good arrangement when surfcasting on the South Island’s West Coast where it goes a long way towards protecting your bare skin from sandfly bites.   

Getting back to fishing on cold winter nights, my advice is always to take along more warm clothing then you think you’ll need. You can always take something off if you get too hot.

It is surprising just how hot you can become if you start running up and down on the beach carrying heavy fishing gear, even when there is a heavy frost on the ground.

Finally, take along a hot drink. I went through countless vacuum flasks before finally buying a good stainless steel model. These can take the knocks without breaking and also seem to keep their contents hot longer. For the more adventurous an even better more flexible option is to take a small gas cooker with you when beach fishing at night. A small camping model with the disposable gas canisters is all you need. Not only will you have piping hot water for tea or coffee in just a few minutes you can also heat a can of soup or spaghetti, or cook eggs, bacon and sausages very easily.   

Where To Catch Red Cod

The best thing about fishing for this species is that they are one of the easiest of all fish to catch. They come right into harbours and sheltered bays. They are caught close to rocks and right in amongst the breakers along our beaches. It is important to remember that red cod move about a great deal. Sometimes you can go to a harbour like Lyttelton or Port Chalmers and catch them in big numbers in the middle of the day. Whilst other times they appear to be completely absent.

Generally, I have always found that the most reliably time to fish for red cod is after dark. Divers report that during the day they often see this species ”hold-up” in the backs of caves and under rock overhangs, where they remain until dark. In deeper water, over 50 metres, red cod remain continually active.

It is the fish that are in the shallow inshore water, that are the moret likely to “come out” only at night!

I regularly fish from the beach at Birdlings Flat, near Christchurch. This long shingle beach runs unbroken from Timaru to the Banks Peninsula. I fish right where the look beach intersects the hills of the peninsula. I have fished here hundreds of times and discovered that, if you arrive in mid-afternoon the place can seem fishless, that is apart from a few kahawai,’ mullet and sharks. Then as the sun starts to drop below the horizon, red cod mysteriously begin to appear, as if by magic. As darkness sets in they soon become the only species taking the bait. I have also discovered over the years that they will continue to bite all night. This same rule applies to red cod over all of our southern coastlines.

You don’t have to fish the surf for them. They can be caught right from the Lyttelton wharves, for example, especially at night.

Baits

Red cod will eat anything! Specimens kept in captivity have been known to eat their own weight in food in a single day. According to David Graham, who was a well-known biologist at the Marine Fisheries Investigation Station at Portobello, near Dunedin, red cod in the aquarium will eat just about anything. He describes their devouring garden worms, slugs, snails, woodlice, pieces of cake, bread, apples, pears, plums, fruit stones, all kinds of fish, crabs, small crayfish, shrimps, worms, shellfish (shell and all), even the young of their own kind; no small fish or animal is safe from a red cod in the aquarium.

Mr Graham, who examined the stomach contents of over one thousand red cod, found that they devoured twenty-eight different species of fish, easily heading the list for the number of species eaten. He also found that they eat fourteen species of crabs, thus red cod head the list as the chief predator of crabs. Mr Graham noted that red cod consume large numbers of swimming crabs.

These crabs can be a real pest at times along the Canterbury Coast. I have found them so plentiful on occasion as to make surfcasting almost impossible because they eat the bait off the hooks before the fish can get a look-in!

Red cod are generally bottom feeders. They use the barbell under their chin to feel for small creatures buried in the sand. But as you can see almost any bait would catch a red cod. However, some baits are much better than others. I have found the best bait of all to be fresh yellow-eyed mullet fillets. I use these as cut baits, and mostly fish them on three hook dropper rigs. I’ve also had success with squid, mackerel and kahawai.

Red cod aren’t a speedy sports fish. They have a big head and a comparatively slender body. This gives them a somewhat ungainly appearance. They are slow swimming and offer only the meekest off resistance when hooked.

That said, this species forms a significant part of the marine life off our southern coasts. Because of this, they are frequently encountered by anglers, especially surf casters. Like them or not, red cod have provided many a fish dinner and seen many an angler return with what would have otherwise been an empty creel. 

This big red cod was caught near Bluff, Southland. Some years are very good for red cod commercial fishing catches, and other years not so good. It is thought this is related to sea temperatures and the abundance or otherwise of prey species like whale-feed (krill).
This big red cod was caught near Bluff, Southland. Some years are very good for red cod commercial fishing catches, and other years not so good. It is thought this is related to sea temperatures and the abundance or otherwise of prey species like whale-feed (krill).

Wives refuse to go out in rowing boat

From A Treasury of New Zealand Fishes by David H. Graham, 1953. Red Cod is to be found in Otago Harbour all the year-round but are most plentiful in the summer months. About 1910 they were so numerous on many occasions in the harbour, Mr Broadley said, that a person in a rowing boat could take a stick with a nail at the end and spear a boatload in an hour and a half. They seemed so numerous in the water as to give one the impression that a person could walk on top of them without sinking. The visitation of this unusual number of red cod was due to enormous numbers of whalefeed being in the harbour. It is stated that in some parts these crustaceans were washed up on the shore till they were a foot deep. The noise of the red cod chasing the whalefeed during the hours of darkness was almost deafening, spectators asserting that there was almost one continual flop! flop! by the cod gulping the whalefeed and rendering the air weird and uncanny by the noise.

So plentiful were these fish that fishermen‘s wives refused to go out in a rowing-boat on account of the unnatural numbers of fish they had to pull through On several occasions the red cod actually jumped into the rowing-boats. At times like this, it was impossible for fishermen to seine net for flounders, as red cod filled the net. On several occasions fishermen caught as many as ninety sacks in a forty-fathom seine net, even then having let some go as they could not land them all.

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