The Much Maligned Tropical Cods

Ben Knaggs knows our tropical cod. They can grow mighty big and test even the strongest of anglers.

All of the tropical cod species are opportunistic, highly predatory fish that will eat lures of just about any description. Slow hopped soft plastics are particularly deadly.

All of the tropical cod species are opportunistic, highly predatory fish that will eat lures of just about any description. Slow hopped soft plastics are particularly deadly.

As Aussie sportfishos, every one of us is thoroughly spoilt. This country’s relatively pristine waters offer such a wealth of fish species that make fantastic recreational targets, we fishos that chase them can sometimes forget just how good we’ve got it.

Case in point are the tropical cods. Here are fish that will eat just about anything you throw at them, grow large, fight hard and taste good. Yet the majority of Aussie anglers who encounter these fish in their tropical and sub tropical range across the top of the country turn their noses up at them. Just a stinkin’ cod!

‘Cod’ is one of those generic fish names that we Aussies apply to pretty much any sedentary fish with a big, underslung mouth, squat body shape and mottled patternation. The tropical cods belong to the Epinephelus genus of fishes, which is a globally widespread and very diverse group of fish. In other parts of the world, these fish they are typically referred to as grouper, and almost all of them are highly sought after for their eating qualities.

These fish are as greedy as they come. The author caught this big ol’ estuary cod on a soft plastic literally two minutes after it ate a vibe and cut another angler off!

These fish are as greedy as they come. The author caught this big ol’ estuary cod on a soft plastic literally two minutes after it ate a vibe and cut another angler off!

Here in Australia though, the story is completely different. The vast majority of tropical cods are treated as more of a pest than anything else, with their slimy body coating and unbelievably pungent death breath tending to put most folks off the idea of taking one home for the table. In truth though, most Australian tropical cods are really nice eating fish, often referred to by those in the know as the poor man’s coral trout.

Our tropical cod are underrated sportfish too. While they’re obviously not the kind of fish to take off on sizzling runs, jump spectacularly or even test an angler’s skill in getting a hook into them in the first place, cod do have one thing that makes them entertaining on the end of a line and that is low down power. Hook a decent sized cod in amongst a mangrove snag or over heavy reef and see if you can argue this point. In fact, many of the ‘unstoppables’ reef or estuary fishos encounter are big cod that bury the angler before they’ve really had a chance to do a thing about it.

Common Aussie Cods

The black spots distinguish this fish as a Malabar cod, often confused with the estuary cod.

The black spots distinguish this fish as a Malabar cod, Epinephelus malabaricus, often confused with the estuary cod, Epinephelus coioides.

As mentioned, the tropical cod group encompasses a huge and varied range of fish species. Just in Australia we’re talking hundreds of individual species. For a start there’s flowery cod, yellow spot cod, estuary cod, Malabar cod, wire netting cod, comet cod, radiant cod, camouflage cod, honeycomb cod, rankin cod, black cod, line cod, chinaman cod, duskytail cod, dot dash cod, greasy cod…the list goes on and on and on. Those that are of most interest to fishos though are probably estuary, Malabar, rankin and blue maori cod.

Most tropical anglers will be familiar with estuary cod, although perhaps not as familiar as they may think. There are two very similar species that both get referred to as ‘estuary cod’ – the blackspotted rockcod, Epinephelus malabaricus and the goldspotted rockcod, Epinephelus coioides. Both species look very much alike and display almost identical habits. However, it is the gold spot that is the true estuary cod, while the black spot can more correctly be called the Malabar cod.

The golden-orange spots across this fish identify it as an estuary cod, aka goldspotted rockcod, Epinephelus coioides.

The golden-orange spots across this fish identify it as an estuary cod, aka goldspotted rockcod, Epinephelus coioides.

Both estuary and Malabar cod inhabit shallow reef and estuaries, usually relocating to deeper offshore reefs once they approach their full size potential in excess of a metre long. Both species are very common right throughout northern Australia, and make good chewing if you wish to take one for the table.

Rankin cod (Epinephelus multinotatus) and blue maori cod (Epinephelus cyanopodus) are another two closely related pair of tropical cod species, yet their east-west distribution means they are unlikely to overlap and be confused with one another. Occupying the offshore reefs of north-west Western Australia, rankin cod are essentially the ‘western version’ of the blue maori cod (aka, cattledog cod) which is found in the Coral Sea.

Unlike most cod species, both rankin and blue maori cod are prized catches on the reefs. In fact, I’ve seen blokes happily swap red emperor and coral trout for blue maori/rankin cod at the end of a day’s reef fishing, such is their quality on the plate.

Rankin cod and closely related eastern version, the blue maori cod are a real prize for reef fishos.

Rankin cod and closely related eastern version, the blue maori cod are a real prize for reef fishos.

Just to throw in a bit of a curveball, in recent times the bar cod (Epinephelus octofasciatus) has become popular amongst a small but growing sect of the angling community. The bar cod – or eight bar cod to give it it’s full common name – is a deep water cod that is found along the Continental Shelf edge in 200-400 metres of water. The rising popularity of deep drop fishing with electric reels has made bar cod a legitimate target species nowadays, whereas just a few years ago very few rec fishos would have even been aware of this large cod species’ existence.

Keep in mind that most of the larger growing tropical cods are subject to maximum as well as minimum size limits. Although our northern waters are absolutely loaded with all types of cod species, these are fairly long lived, slow growing fish that require some management to ensure they are not overfished.

Several of the tropical cods grow to enormous sizes and as such, are subject to maximum size limits in most states. When releasing these fish, avoid holding them by the gills like this.

Several of the tropical cods grow to enormous sizes and as such, are subject to maximum size limits in most states. When releasing these fish, avoid holding them by the gills like this.

In the Northern Territory a maximum size limit of 90cms applies to all cod species. In Western Australia the max mark is one metre while in Queensland the regulation is 120cms with the exception of camouflage cod and flowery rockcod at 70cms and greasy cod at 100cms. Then there is the fully protected status of the true giant cod/groupers like the potato cod and the granddaddy of them all, the giant Queensland grouper which can reach sizes in excess of a staggering 400kgs.

Catchin’ Cod

With the exception of the bar cod which requires specialised equipment and a decent boat to target, all tropical cods are an everyman’s fish because they can be easily accessed and are simple to catch. As mentioned, they’ll also eat just about anything so you can almost please yourself as to how to fish for them. All tropical cods are opportunistic feeders that are more than happy to scavenge for a feed. In essence though, these are predatory fish that are primarily on the lookout for live prey so lure fishing is the most fun and arguably most effective way to catch them.

In the estuaries, it’s hard to beat a slow moving bibbed hard-body either cast or trolled into a cod’s eyeline. Most cod hits on hard-bodies are ridiculously hard, followed by a manic few seconds of pure line ripping power where the battle is one or lost, so be ready for it!

Out on the reefs, no cod will ever pass up a slow jigged plastic or vibes worked tight to the bottom. Again, any cod hooked here will immediately try to duck straight back into the lair it came out of, so go hard from the outset to avoid shredded leader and a lost fish.

There are hundreds of various cod species to be found throughout northern Australia. This one is a sweet tasting maori cod, not to be confused with the even more prized blue maori cod.

There are hundreds of various cod species to be found throughout northern Australia. This one is a sweet tasting maori cod, not to be confused with the even more prized blue maori cod.

Wherever you target tropical cod, the golden rule is to get your lure as close as possible to heavy structure. All tropical cod are highly structure orientated and very territorial so the hot spots are rockbars, coral reef, snags, caves, ledges, holes…anywhere they can set up shop and lie in ambush. With so many species of cod to be found throughout tropical north Australia, it’s almost a sure bet there will be one at home in every such spot you fish!

Ben Knaggs

About Ben Knaggs

Born and bred in South Australia, Ben’s love of fishing developed from a very early age and evolved to become an obsession which would ultimately shape his life. Actively involved in fishing related journalism from his mid teens, Ben has written articles for most Australian fishing titles and served as editor of Saltwater Fishing magazine for eight years.

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