Words & Images: John Cahill
I don’t fish for cod with any degree of zest (or at all) until we get our first frosts at sea level in Victoria, usually in mid to late May – then it’s time for me to get excited. In reality, though, preparation starts in March (when I am writing this piece). For many the pursuit doesn’t end, and I admire that – guys who target trophy cod year-round and are one-fish specialists. That does not quite suit my mould but during the winter months, the period I call big bait season, it sure does.
I have probably got your attention already with the big bait season reference and you may be wondering what it is, so let me explain. Many cod guys agree that as we move into winter, smaller cod get very scarce and hard to find, and so do a lot of smaller food sources such as yabbies and shrimp which go into a state similar to hibernation. The popular but misinformed opinion long ago was that winter was just no good for cod, and you had to wait for warmer weather. That idea, quite frankly, is wrong, as oversized (or at least breeding-sized) mature cod debunk that every time. These larger, sexually active fish appear to go into a mode of actually putting on condition in preparation for the spring spawning season, when they will expend a lot of energy and to an extent lose interest in food altogether for a while. This winter behaviour, typically known a ‘pre-spawn’ period is common in many species, and with mature cod it seems that large value food items are on the menu – hence the term ‘big bait season’.
Now this is not a how-to article, it is about preparation; how you can get yourself squared away for the impeding winter of thousands of casts. Those old seven Ps apply – ‘prior planning and preparation prevent piss poor performance’. In preparing, however, you need to know what you are actually preparing for.
Through often extreme cold and sometimes wet conditions, it’s a battle to remain alert through the fatigue of early starts and long hours on the water. The cold can hamper your ability to make good decisions through literally hundreds and hundreds of casts, in the search for the sometimes very subtle tell-tale ‘tic’ felt through the line as a giant implodes your swimbait metres below the surface. If you can react suitably to that bite indication, you hope (or pray) you have prepared your gear appropriately and the hooks stay in and the rest comes together. If it fails, or you do not connect, you die a little inside, pick yourself up and start again.
Winter cod guys will be mostly nodding at that description, and newer guys to the game possibly wondering if it’s for them or questioning if it can really be that bad. It can be, and is made a whole lot more pleasant and rewarding if you get set now.
The Right Clothing
Staying warm and dry is essential. Long days and nights, early starts, bad weather and long drives across the dam at 25 knots or more through fog to your honey hole are not nice and will leave you very wet. Hypothermia can be a real threat if things turn bad but less dramatically, staying warm and dry will keep you productively fishing for a lot longer. It’s also a balance of still being able to cast. There is not a significant exercise factor in big bait casting other than a short effort in firing the cast, so it’s more about having a range of movement while being warm.
One of the keys to a comfortable day on the water during bitter cold conditions is proper layering. There are multiple layers needed for winter fishing, including a base layer, mid layer and outer shell. I take a few different approaches and have spares on the boat in a dry bag under the deck in case I have underestimated the conditions or somehow get wet. For footwear I start with a pair of Bogs boots. They will stand up to any conditions as they are made for saltwater offshore use, and I find the sole design more insulated and comfortable than regular gumboots. If I know it won’t rain but will be simply freezing cold, I wear Ugg boots, which are significantly warmer but useless when wet. It can be a roll of the dice here but so good if you get it right. The footwear situation is rounded out by thick wool-blend socks.
My underlayer is thermal underwear: long-sleeved top and tights, and I always shout myself a new set at the start of each season. Buy the best you can afford; 100% merino is best, merino blend next and poly prop the cheapest but less effective option. This layer traps warm air close to your skin (a proper fit is important) and absorbs perspiration away from your skin so you won’t feel damp during activity.
My mid layer is pretty simple and ‘home brand’ thick and warm tracksuit pants and a thick long-sleeved thermal top (I often wear a Spika hunting shirt) with a thick hoodie over the top of it all. Fleece hunting pants are also excellent.
The outer protective layer comprises bib and brace overall-style waterproof pants and long jacket with hood. I’ve used both Helly Hansen and Simms gear to good effect and, depending on your budget, you can get internally lined models that are a delight to wear – with quality gear you could sit in a puddle and be fine. I find that most of the time I end up fishing without the jacket on (unless it’s windy or rainy) but the waterproof pants stay on.
The finishing touches are a beanie (leave the cap at home or pull it out if you get a nice day), a polypropylene neck gaiter (the single best piece of winter gear you will ever own), a pair of ski gloves for when underway – and see if you can source some firm-fitting neoprene gloves that you can fish in. One other thing in my kit are ski goggles, essential for running into rain or freezing fog.
Hot tip – invest in a supply of Hot Hands, which are small activated carbon hand-warmers. Remove from the packet, shake to activate and shove them in your pocket. Dip your hands in between casts to keep your fingers functioning! Final word – I think waders are dangerous on boats. Yes, modern styles are a better fit and belts help to prevent water getting in but man, if you fall in and those waders fill, you are in big trouble.
Staying Nourished And Hydrated
Relatively easy to organise but super-important is working out what you are fuelling your body with on the water. Your body is going to crave frequent high-carb / high-fat snacks to keep going.
I will make some sandwiches and supplement those with muesli bars but the centrepiece will be to take a short break to heat up some homemade soup or stew in my Jet Boil. Hot food just does it for me when I am cold and the Jet Boil will get a workout making a coffee or two through the day. I am a big fan of the new style of pre-loaded drip filters such as those sold by Dog & Gun Coffee, which are perfect for on-the-go barista brews. Don’t forget to drink water and still use sunscreen. Dehydration is very real and the UVs can still very strong despite the cold.
Big Bait – Big Fish-Ready
Make sure all your gear is dialled in for the big bait-big fish mentality. Make a checklist and go through your boat and gear and tick it off. You may have invested in some big baits with a sound winter plan, but have you got the rods and reels to cast them with? These heavy weights will destroy the wrong gear or leave you in a position where you can only lob short casts, so double check those cast weights and make sure you are in a safe range.
Upgrade those trebles, especially on Japanese swimbaits and glides, which are 99% designed for bass fishing, don’t forget the rings! Make sure you balance these out, as you can destroy the action of these highly tuned lures if you go too aggressive with your hook choices. I use a kitchen scale to match the weight of the hooks I replace as it’s crucial on glidebaits. Make sure you use only hooks that are deadly sharp.
Consider different rigging options; some soft swimbaits in particular don’t have hooks past midway along the bait, and you might feel more comfortable rigging a stinger. It’s time to experiment and find a solution that gives you confidence.
Sort out a new headlamp and batteries (make sure it has a red filter). Check your electric motor and crank batteries and if you haven’t already done so, recondition them as cold weather will spell a quick death when you need it most. Replace your old lines and consider experimenting with fluorocarbon straight through for soft swimbaits to increase the bite to hook-up ratio, which is especially important if not rigging stinger hooks.
The biggest change to big bait season is the coming of age of forward-looking live sonar. Being able to see active cod and set up to make a move on them is one of the most significant advances in some time, and truly a game-changer (yes, we know that term is over-used, but it fits here). Garmin’s Panoptix, Lowrance’s ActiveTarget and soon Humminbird will roll out its forward sonar. These advances have redefined not just what is available to users, but it will actually change how we fish. There is furious debate regarding notions of unfair advantage and time will tell on this subject, but you cannot deny it’s a hot item for the big cod brigade.
Develop the Mindset
By far the biggest advantage you can give yourself is to develop a mindset around this fishing style. Accept that you will be uncomfortable at times and may feel that gnawing feeling that you are wasting your time (and that being home in a warm environment is a more inviting option). The best go through this but I can promise you those big green slabs come to those who persist and believe, but you cannot persist if you are hypothermic! Be prepared, accepting and embrace the grind so that you are focused for the bite when it inevitably comes.
Get Your Gear, Now
OK, it’s the elephant in the room… if you need any gear, not just specific tackle, there is a global manufacturing backlog caused by the shutdowns during the peak of COVID-19. If there is gear that you need and it is available, get it. We will see this across a lot of gear until things get back to normal. You cannot buy a new boat at the moment, with 12 month-plus waiting lists the norm. Good luck, get ready and keep warm.