Haddock is one of the best tasting fish in the sea, learn how to catch haddock from the boat with this Talk Sea Fishing How to Guide.
Table of contents
Haddock is one of the best tasting fish in our seas and, alongside cod, the most popular fish supper by far. They are also famous when smoked and are called Finnan Haddie and also Arbroath Smokie. Finnan Haddie is named after the village of Finnan or Findon in Scotland where the fish fillets were cold smoked over smouldering peat fires to produce a rich yellow colour to the flesh. Traditionally, it was served for breakfast poached in milk, or added to fish pies for added flavour.
Though cod were the principal target, huge numbers of haddock were caught over the famous Grand Banks off the southeast of Newfoundland during the mid to late 19th Century. The fishing was undertaken by individual men in small dory’s dispatched from a mother vessel and caught on hand lines. By the 20th Century, the fishing there was already known to be declining. Fishing intensity increased during the 1950s but the fishery has never recovered.
There are also two separate stocks of haddock. One off the northeast coast of America and Newfoundland, the other encompassing the eastern Atlantic from the English Channel, Iceland and northward as far as the north coast of Russia.
Haddock have a distinctive black spot below the first dorsal fin. This is often called the “Devil’s Thumbprint”, but in Greek, it is referred to as “melanos” meaning “black”. The latin name for haddock is Melanogrammus, this derived from “melanos” for black, and “gramma” meaning a letter or a signal.
Although a member of the cod fish family, the haddock is quite distinctive to look at and hard to misidentify. The key features are the first dorsal being triangular and noticeably pointed at the tip. The head is relatively small and the jaw does not extend back as far as the eye, and the upper jaw lip protrudes distinctly further than the lower jaw. The underside of the lower jaw carries a single small feeler barbel. The eye is fairly large as this fish feeds at depth and the eye concentrates any available light. The most prominent feature is an ovalised black spot on the back set below the lateral line mid-way between the base of the dorsal fin and pectoral fin.
The colouration is a dark grey to green back over rougher ground, but the back can be more brown when feeding over sand. The flanks shade from a dull grey to a silver grey, with white on the belly. The lateral line also stands out as it is noticeably black.
Haddock are found from the English Channel and all around the UK and Ireland with their numbers increasing the further north you go. There are good concentrations in both the North Sea and off the Irish southwest, west, and northwest coasts, also Northern Ireland.
Their range extends to Iceland and right up the Norwegian coast and into Russian territory.
Haddock can reach a weight of about 10lbs (4.5 kg) and a length of 30-inches (76cms) in modern times, but during the Grand Banks heyday and during the 19th Century, haddock exceeding 20lbs were recorded.
They spawn between February and June, but more so in March and April. The eggs are oval and between 1.2 and 1.7 mm in diameter. They float on or near the surface and the very young fry accompany large jellyfish using them for protection. At about 2-inches long (5cms), they revert to a bottom living life. Haddock can see extreme years where stock levels increase dramatically above the normal and this will see their range extended slightly as competition for food increases.
In their southern range, they will be in deeper water in the summer, but can come shallower in winter due to the colder sea temperatures. In the north of their range, the opposite is true with haddock moving into shallow water in summer and deeper water in winter.
They are found in depths from 150-feet down to 1000 feet plus (40 – 300 m). They are a bottom feeding fish, but will lift a short way off the seabed to intercept prey such as sandeels. In the Norwegian fjords, they are also caught within 30-feet of the surface over deep water when prey fish are pushed up by coalfish and other predators.
They are found over clean sand or muddy bottoms, but also can be in mixed rough ground where sand patches break up heavy rough. They are often found on the downtide side of reefy ground where the clean ground meets the rough.
It is little known, but haddock can also concentrate around deep water wrecks and its often this scenario that can produce a haddock of a lifetime with bigger than normal fish more likely.
Being bottom feeders, their typical diet are worms, molluscs and brittlestars. They will also eat small fish such as gobies, small haddock, sandeels and other small bottom dwelling fish. They are also happy to scavenge and will take any bits of fish that fall to the seabed after a predatory attack in the upper water column.
There is no real season for haddock. Mostly, they can be caught all-year round, especially in the northern half of the UK and Ireland.
More haddock are caught in the summer simply because that is when the weather is most suitable for boat activity. That said, winter can be good closer inshore when numbers can increase in the shallower water that is more easily accessible, weather wise. If there is a time when numbers may be low is during that February to June spawning period, but some fish will still be caught.
Being generally a deeper water fish with regard to the UK and Ireland, they are not overly influenced by the size of the tide regards feeding. It’s more the tides influencing the boat that dictates the best tides to fish.
This means, that in areas of faster tides, such as say the Pentland Firth and areas within the North Sea and Irish Sea where tides can run really fast, then obviously the smaller tides are going to be better due to the drift speed of the boat being reduced. Once drift speed exceeds more than 2-knots or so then the fish start to struggle to turn, catch up with and then intercept a bait passing at speed. Below 2-knots, the fish have the acceleration speed to easily intercept baits. This is always something to bear in mind and actually applies to most fish that dwell on the bottom.
The stage of the tide though, is important and does affect the way the fish feed. Haddock like some tide run, so tend to feed best when the flow is picking up and easing down. Bites usually lessen either side of low and high water, and in fast flowing tides, during the mid-tide period when the flow is strongest. During the mid-tide period a stronger flow in shallower water will find them tight to the seabed often in depressions, or tucked in behind any seabed structure, also in the bulb behind a wreck.
Being a relatively deep water fish, haddock are rarely troubled by rough seas and swells. Again, due to the distances boats may need to travel to reach the haddock grounds, weather applies more to sea state and safety.
Even at depth though, you’ll notice that haddock are more active on dull overcast days than they are on very bright sunny days. Even at depth that big eye takes in a lot of light and this can affect how the haddock are inclined to feed. Also, seas with a slight swell on and an agitated surface that limits light levels getting down in the water also help increase the number of bites.
Wind direction also affects haddock and the way they react. They feed best in winds from the western quarters, especially a south or west wind and in falling barometric pressure. Easterly winds, high barometric pressure and very settled seas are less likely to fish well. This is especially so if the winds have been in the east for some days.
Boat Fishing Tackle
In deeper water with a fairly fast boat drift speed, you’ll need to use lead weights around 10 to 12ozs, possibly more during the peak tide flow. This dictates a 20/30lb rod with a multiplier reel capable of holding 300yds of 30lb braid plus mono backing. Star drag reels are fine, but a lever drag reel can give just that bit better degree of control, and we’ll talk about this in the technique section. The longer fast tapered 8ft rods are good as they have a tippy action but with a quick stiffening of the mid section and a stiff butt. This gets the maximum message coming back up through the braid straight into your hands improving bite detection and also identifying the ground composition you’re working over as the lead bumps across the seabed.
In areas where tide runs are less fierce, even in the deeper water, a 12 to 20lb rod can be enough, but the TSF team suggest retaining the multiplier and the 30lb braid as this higher line capacity retains a higher retrieve rate when you’re retrieving tackle from deep water. The faster gear ratio reels in the 6.1:1 range are best for this. There’s little real advantage in dropping to lighter 20lb braid. You might be able to use slightly less lead to reach bottom, but that’s about it. All we do is set the reel drag slightly lighter to work better with the rod action and not to over-stress the rod with the higher breaking strain braid should a big fish be hooked.
Rigs for haddock
The best rig for general haddock fishing is a simple 2-hook rig keeping both baits fairly tight to the seabed. It rarely suffers tangles and can be dropped at speed down through the water column. It’s easy to build, too!
2-Hook adjustable rig
1. Take 40-inches of 60lb clear mono.
2. At one end tie on a Gemini Lead Link.
3. Slide on a 3 mm length of neoprene tubing and pass the tag end back over the tubing and back through the same hole, then pull tight to lock it in place. Slide on a 3 mm rig bead, a size 6 rolling swivel, another bead, and finish with another neoprene stop knot.
4. Repeat the stop knot, bead and swivel sequence as above.
5. Finish the rig with a size 2 rolling swivel.
6. The hook traces are 15-inches of 20/25lb Fluorocarbon ending in Kamasan B940 Aberdeen hooks size 2 to 1/0, you can also add a lumo bead for extra attraction.
This rig is so versatile it covers most bait fishing scenarios when drift fishing and even at anchor. Using the neoprene tubing as described allows the hook traces to be adjusted up and down on the rig body. For example, if all the bites are coming to the top hook, slide the top hook up tight to the rig connector swivel, and the lower hook is then slid up to fish mid-way up the hook putting both hook baits in the feeding zone. If all the bites are coming to the lower hook, slide this down to sit tight behind the lead link and drop the top hook down to fish in the mid rig position, again putting both baits where the fish are feeding.
Generally, the size 2 Aberdeen is a catch all size, but if you’re hitting bigger fish consistently and need bigger baits, then change to either a size 1 or 1/0.
2-Boom adjustable attractor rig
Another top haddock rig is a 2-Boom Attractor Rig.
1.Begin with 45-inches of clear 60lb mono.
2. At one end tie on a Gemini lead link.
3. Slide on a 3 mm length of neoprene tubing, pass the line through the tubing, double it back over the top of the tubing and take it back through the same hole and pull the line tight to lock the tubing in position.
4. Slide on a rig bead, a 3 to 4-inch plastic boom, another 3 mm bead, another length of neoprene and lock the tubing in place as before.
5. Slide on another length of neoprene and lock in place.
6. Slide on a 3 mm rig bead, a boom, and another 3 mm bead, a length of neoprene tubing and lock it in place.
7. Finish the main rig by tying on a size 4 rolling swivel to the free end of the 60lb mono. Position the top boom up the rig body to a position about 34-inches above the lead link. The lower hook is positioned about 6-inches above the lead link.
8. The hook traces are about 12-inches of 20/25lb Fluorocarbon.
9. On to each hook trace slide on a 5 mm bead, a small red or silver plastic spoon, and three to five more coloured beads. Finish each hook trace by tying on a Kamasan B940 Aberdeen hook size 2.
The two boom presentation sees the lower boom fishing one bait hard on the seabed. The higher boom puts a bait up in the water and will tend to take haddock that are feeding slightly up off the seabed.
The sliding neoprene tubing stops allow some adjustment to suit bites. Say for example, the majority of your fish are coming to the bottom bait, then you can slide the lower boom down to sit tight behind the lead weight, but also bring the top boom down to sit say 15-inches above the lower one, then you have two baits in the feeding zone and can double your catches. It works opposite too, if most fish are taking the top hook, slide this up to sit just under the top connector swivel, then reposition the lower boom in the middle of the rig. This again gets two baits in that higher feeding zone.
The choice of bead colour is optional. However, in shallow clear water coloured combinations such as alternate red and yellow or red and white work well, but in deeper water change the beads for luminous yellow or white. Also note that the spoon sits below the single top bead, with three beads below. This is deliberate as the weight of just one bead does not stop the spoon revolving when water pressure is added. If you use more than one bead, then water pressure and the weight of the beads will restrict the spoon from turning.
Why silver and red spoons? The red spoon works well on the bottom hook, especially for haddock. The silver spoon is best up in the water where any natural surface light, and the light from luminous beads, catches the spoon and advertises something is going on to the fish. The spoons also add vibration when they revolve helping to draw fish in.
The choice of fluorocarbon hook lengths is important. Firstly, it is stiffer than mono and tangles less giving better bait presentation. Also, it suffers less abrasion from teeth and ground contact, so saves fish and lessens the need to frequently change a mono hook length. Keeping the hook traces under 12-inches in length also reduces tangles when dropping the rig at speed. The booms, being quite stiff, are also ideal for this type of drift fishing, again massively reducing tangles.
By far the most consistent bait for offshore haddock is a simple mackerel strip. Cut these from the white belly of a fresh mackerel. Use a very sharp knife or a Stanley type craft knife for the best results. The neater and more precise the strips are, the better they fish. Cut them about 2-inches in length and no more than a half-inch wide. Pass the hook just once through one end from the flesh side through to the skin side. This gives maximum movement. If the haddock are bigger use 3-inch strips, but that is as big as you need to go.
Other fish baits such as herring and bluey will take haddock and can be cut the same way. Sandeel can also work. Strips from the flank of a big launce are best, but smaller sandeel can be cut into two halves or sections and just slid over the hook from the point around the bend and onto the hook shank.
Haddock also take fresh lugworm, blow or black, even in deep water. Use enough lug to fully hide the hook and up as far as say an inch above the hooks eye.
Mussels can also work well, especially among mixed rough ground. Use one big or two smaller mussels, slide them around the hook and secure with a few wraps of bait elastic.
Haddock will also take small pirks or pilks. The smaller ones around 6 to 8ozs are best with silver and silver/blue ones seeming to do the best. Baiting the pirks with a little mackerel or herring can force the haddock to take at the hook end.
When drift fishing we need to ensure that the baits are always fishing tight or on the seabed. It’s also important to gauge the weight of your lead weight to be just enough to keep in constant contact with the seabed. No more. If you can stay in contact with the seabed using a 8oz weight, try a 6oz and this might achieve the same result but respond better to the movement of the rod tip and just lift and drop the bait now and then adding extra movement to the baits making them behave more naturally.
When you feel the lead hit the seabed, release line off the reel allowing the line angle to shallow. Release say 40-yards of line, then flick the reel in gear. If the lead weight keeps touching bottom, fine, you’re fishing. If you can feel the lead weight lifting or don’t feel anything at all, then release 10-yards of line at a time until you feel the lead weight stay in contact with the seabed.
During drift speeds up to say 2-knots, you can leave things as they are and just feel for bites. When drift is faster, every 30-seconds release a few yards of line then let the line retighten. This gives fish either chasing the bait or watching it time to intercept it and eat it.
Bites are easy to decipher. You’ll feel the weight of the haddock as it takes the bait, then a series of knocks on the rod tip as the haddock tries to turn with the bait. There is no need to strike as they hook themselves.
Learn to feel through the rod and the braid the changes in the seabed from say clean sand to the bump bump of the lead as it rattles across stone. When you feel a change from clean sand to stone, you can expect a haddock bite.
Also try occasionally lifting the rod tip to lift and then drop it again to give the baits some movement. Bites often come as the bait flutters down.
If you see smaller haddock coming up, a quick way to catch a few is to use red or silver tinsel feathers with a small strip of mackerel on the hooks. Alternatively, in very deep water, switch to lumo bodied Hokkai type lures, but again add bait. Baited feathers can be deadly for haddock!
If you’re using small pirks or pilks, then feel the pirk hit the seabed and then lift it up 2 to 3-feet by retrieving that amount of line. Now use the rod tip to lift and drop the pirks so it works just above the seabed. Occasionally, release line and reset the depth so that you keep in touch with the seabed and keep the pirk working tightish to the seabed.
Top tips for haddock fishing
1. In deep water, try adding small luminous green muppets to the hooks, or add two or three small lumo green beads above the hook. These can advertise the bait better to fish some distance away from the hook and help them home in.
2. If the drift is very slow towards slack water, try bouncing the lead weight on the seabed. This rhythmic noise will pull nearby haddock in to see what’s happening, and they will then take the bait. This works especially well with baited feathers and muppet rigs.
3. If you hook a fish on the drift, then sometimes it pays to leave the fish there for 20 to 30 seconds. Haddock while not necessarily being a shoal fish, will form up in small groups and a hooked fish can draw in another that will take the second bait.