Southern Bastard Red Cod, Rock Cod, and Red Cod
Anglers fishing around the South Island of New Zealand for red cod occasionally catch rock cod and Southern Bastard Red Cod – yes that is the correct name. These two species are very similar in appearance to the more common red cod but vary quite a bit in colour. They belong to the family of fishes with the rather unflattering name of Morid cods. They all have a single barbell beneath the chin which they use to locate prey in soft sand and mud.
All of these Morid cods will eat just about anything that comes along including small fishes, crabs, octopus, shrimps, and shellfish. I have caught a lot of red cod over the years on squid but the best bait for them around southern New Zealand is probably freshly caught yellow-eyed mullet fillets. I have caught red cod and rock cod with quite large fish in their stomachs such as juvenile red cod and stargazers.
Red cod have large mouths and small teeth. I would describe their teeth as being more like coarse sandpaper. Most of the weight of these fishes is in the front third of their bodies. In my opinion, they are good eating though the flesh is generally soft and watery. This can be improved greatly by sprinkling salt over the fillets and placing them in the fridge for a couple of hours.
The easiest way of recognizing a red cod is to look for the dark blotch just above the pectoral fin. Only red cod have this. As the name suggests red cod are a bright red colour when first caught but this quickly fades to more of an orange/grey. The skin of a live red cod has a vivid iridescence which also quickly fades. The upper body is red while the lower body and undersides is a lighter reddish white. A really big red cod can measure as much as a metre in length but most are about half this size.
In shallower coastal waters red cod hold up in caves, rock overhangs, and crevices during the day. They are more likely to take an angler’s baited hooks in the evening and after dark. Red cod are caught in very deep water down to 700 metres. They are most abundant at depths of between 200 and 300 metres, particularly over mud or sand. If you are out in a boat over deep water and are hauling up red cod you are probably over a soft bottom and would be better to move in search of more desirable fish over rocky ground.
Several decades ago I regularly went surfcasting at Birdlings Flat on the south side of Banks Peninsula. It seems to me that red cod were much more plentiful then than they are today. I can remember many surfcasting expeditions to this steeply shelving shingle beach during summer evenings during which we would make good hauls of red cod. They were definitely easier to catch on fresh-cut mullet baits than they were on squid. It isn’t that I had a preference for red cod it is just that they were readily caught at that location, at that time. Many other surfcasters have also told me that they are no longer as plentiful as they were then.
Southern Bastard Red Cod – Pseudophycis barbata
I’m not kidding that really is what it is called. This species has more fin rays in the rear dorsal and tail fins that a red cod. The colour of this fish can vary a fair bit. Some are dark red-brown while others are lighter and more orange. Southern bastard red cod have a dark outer edge to their dorsal and tail fins. I have seen the odd one caught in Fiordland, off Oamaru and off Banks Peninsula.
Northern Bastard Red Cod – Pseudophycis breviusculus
This species is little known. It is thought to grow to a much smaller size of perhaps not more that 25cm. It has a rounded rather than square tail fin and a smaller mouth.
Rock Cod – Lotella rhacinus
This species is generally dark brown in appearance. Unlike the red cod, which is more white underneath, the rock cod is much the same in colour all over. It is generally dark brown or even almost black and sometimes has a darkish green appearance. I have occasionally caught rock cod while rock fishing around Banks Peninsula. However they are relatively rare compared with red cod. A big rock cod can reach 60cm in length but the longest I have caught would be little more than half that.
The most reliable means of separating the different cod species is by counting the fin rays. The first dorsal fin of a rock cod has just five fin rays while the red cod has ten.
As the name suggest this species is more often found over rocky ground. It is caught all around New Zealand but is more common around the South Island.
TePapa have produced a wonderful series of books to help identify New Zealand sea fishes.