Norway's World-Record Cod Fishing

Cod fishermen brave northern Norway's arctic winter seas in the hunt for giants.

I’ve fished in many different conditions and countries, but this time I questioned my sanity. We were headed to the Arctic Circle in mid-March to target world-record-size cod.

There we’d face cold so bitter that salt water would freeze quickly to our clothing, braided line, reels, rods, boat and just about anything else the salt spray touched. Even the fish would freeze if we removed them from the water for long.

But the biggest obstacles are the massive waves and turbulent seas miles offshore. Smaller cod are available closer to the harbors, but giant females require a run far out to sea. Winter winds are reliably strong and constant, yet can still double in intensity without notice. If you were ever to fall into the water, hope that your flotation suit allows enough time for your friends to find you among the waves.

These are some of the most extreme sport‑fishing ­conditions one can experience. Check out the gallery above to experience this incredible wintertime fishery!


The Colossal Cod of Sørøya

Survival suit, rubber gloves, and even a ushanka, are vital garments to wear when targeting the world’s largest cod in Norway. (Photo Credit: Johan Mikkelsen)Johan Mikkelsen

Getting There

We booked flights north, and after two transfers, our last plane landed on a frozen, snow-traced runway in the town of Alta. The Norwegian fjords and offshore waters of Sørøya were our final destination, where we hoped to experience the renowned run of mature Atlantic cod that Norwegians call skrei. Even after landing, we still had 100-plus miles to go. On our first night, we stayed in a hostel, in a wilderness full of islands, fjords, reindeer and big fish. In the morning, we watched and cheered the last mushers finishing Finnmarksløpet, the world’s northernmost dog race. A bus named the Fisherman Express picked us up after lunch to head for the fishing village of Sørvær on the island of Sørøya. The road was full of winter beauty but also danger. Our bags were so full of pilkers (lead jigs) and soft baits that I’m certain the bus leaned off-kilter. During the journey, we felt like we were inside a snow tunnel as the bus passed through an escarpment near a fjord. Then we lost confidence in our driver when he busted his side mirror on an oncoming truck. The bus driver stopped to pick up the mirror, and then continued on at the same speed. Alta to Øksfjord was about 70 miles, and Hasvik to Sørvær added another 20. In between, we took an 85-minute ferry from Øksfjord to Hasvik, from which we could see ominous waves far out along the horizon. (Photo Credit: Johan Mikkelsen)Johan Mikkelsen

The Colossal Cod of Sørøya

Happy to survive the ­four-hour trip to Sørvær, we knew the most dangerous moments were ahead: fishing from Swedish-made aluminum Arronet boats in brutal weather conditions. (Photo Credit: Radek Filip)Radek Filip

The Colossal Cod of Sørøya

Soon after our arrival we met with local fishing guide Johan Mikkelsen. He said that our timing couldn’t be better: Just days before, two anglers caught 10 cod over 44 pounds. They didn’t count smaller cod, and released all the fish immediately. From Mikkelsen we learned the cod were holding at the final step of their migration in the open sea, close to seamounts and edges of the ­continental shelf. (Photo Credit: Johan Mikkelsen)Johan Mikkelsen

The Colossal Cod of Sørøya

Headquarters for cod fishermen is Sørvær, Norway, located inside the Artic Circle. The top fishing months for record skrei are March and April, but also some of the coldest. Arronet fishing boats handled the salt spray frozen to the deck and turbulent waves offshore. (Photo Credit: Johan Mikkelsen)Johan Mikkelsen

The Colossal Cod of Sørøya

At sunrise we met with Erik Axner, our Swedish guide. In total, four to seven boats fished each day with four anglers. Axner put on his ski mask to protect against the snow as we prepared for the run out to our first spot. Fortunately, the ride initially lasted only about 15 minutes; everybody talked about the great weather for the time of the year, but the waves were still 6 feet tall. “Big fish are showing from the bottom, at 130 meters, up to 70 meters (230 feet)!” yelled Axner. “We’ll lift them off the bottom if they’re biting. Remember, the biggest cod are always on top of the smaller fish.” Immediately, we hooked up to skrei. The best technique calls for anglers to land the fish slowly, increasing chances for the shoal of fish to follow them higher in the water column. At about 30 feet from the surface, we stopped reeling completely; cod need intermittent breaks to equalize pressure so they can be released without harm. We refrained from gaffing the cod when they finally made it to the boat, handling them gently and unhooking them for immediate release. Over the VHF radio, we heard that a nearby boat landed a cod weighing 64 pounds. Minutes later, a 57-pound cod is landed on another boat. (Photo Credit: Johan Mikkelsen)Johan Mikkelsen

The Colossal Cod of Sørøya

All the boats around us reported cod catches over 44 pounds, and my friends answered them with 48-pound fish. I had no such luck. Soon after, Václav Heřman, a fellow angler, landed a 61-pound cod.Radek Filip

The Colossal Cod of Sørøya

Axner tied on a 17-inch soft bait to deter the smaller cod, the same problem I’d encountered. He quickly landed a couple of skrei about 3 feet long, and soon fought a cod weighing 50 pounds. (Photo Credit: Radek Filip)Radek Filip

The Colossal Cod of Sørøya

We slowly drifted with our 135-horsepower engine in reverse, but lost touch with the shoal of fish and moved on. At the next location, one boat had already landed a 72-pounder. We paid little attention to cod not weighing at least 44 pounds, and caught them up to 58. (Photo Credit: Radek Filip)Radek Filip

Sign of the Aurora

However, the next morning, 5 degree F temperatures and strong winds made the actual cold feel much worse. We had to wear three layers of warm clothing but would have welcomed even more. Amazingly, some anglers who fish for cod in Sørøya seem immune to the bitter temperatures. We headed for seamounts 12 miles offshore and found fish immediately, though mostly smaller cod attacked our big lures. Smaller cod were the order of that day for most boats. My biggest fish went 33 pounds. Martin Urban and Heřman caught a couple of fish close to 44 pounds. (Photo Credit: Radek Filip)Radek Filip

The Colossal Cod of Sørøya

That night, an aurora provided a full display directly behind our cottage. The dancing curtains of light quickly emerged and then hid, rather like large female cod. In the morning, we noticed that Hrubeš and Urban had frostbite on their fingers. Hrubeš toughed it out at sea, but Urban stayed ashore. We went out, but all of us were having difficulty with water finding its way into our gloves and under our collars, where it freezes almost immediately. Worse, we encountered high waves that prevented fishing beyond 6 miles offshore that day. (Photo Credit: Radek Filip)Radek Filip

The Colossal Cod of Sørøya

The final day of fishing had us all hoping for a huge cod. We asked first-day guide Axner to take us out in the morning. To start, most spots held small fish, but then a radio call revealed that a nearby boat hand hooked a 55-pounder. Axner immediately motored us into position near the successful boat. A second boat landed a cod upwards of 44 pounds. My heart pounded faster as we started the drift. The guide marked big fish on the fish finder, and we dropped our baits quickly. The fish that bit were in a category known as the Sørøya Standard. These fish weigh up to 33 pounds, which is ­respectable in most parts of the world, but just average in Sørøya. Then the wind picked up and water sprayed ­everywhere, drenching the boat. (Photo Credit: Radek Filip)Radek Filip

The Colossal Cod of Sørøya

On the airplane ride home, we realized there was little room for gloom. Between all of us, we had caught hundreds of cod in just a couple of days. That’s an astounding number of big fish anywhere in the world. Perhaps our hopes were too high after the first day, catching the majority of 40s, 50s and 60s then. Weather conditions had deteriorated further, and it wasn’t until the last day that monster cod ­reappeared on our fish finders. But that’s fishing, and skrei fishing is one of the most difficult and ­challenging fishing adventures the world has to offer. (Photo Credit: Johan Mikkelsen)Johan Mikkelsen

Prepare for Sørøya

The island of Sørøya is beyond main tourist attractions. It’s an island of fishermen, where even more fishermen come for holiday. Gulf Stream temperatures warm the air and sea some, but climate in the Arctic Circle is rough. Daylight temperatures around 4 degrees below zero are common. The winters are very wet, with snow piles and snowstorms beating the frozen roads and towns. Northern Norway is often described as the Land of the Midnight Sun (May to July) and the Land of the Northern Lights (September to April). The best skrei fishing season is somewhere in between. The peak month for giant cod is March. Still, during mid-March, we wore one-piece flotation suits with several layers underneath, and insulated shoes. If the snow is falling, you need to wear a ski mask on the boat. The biggest issue is protecting your hands — only rubber gloves with a strong fleece layer can keep your hands dry and warm. In calmer summer months, small- and medium-size cod catches offer great fishing. Sørøya offers a surprising amount of other targets in warmer months too, species such as coalfish (pollock), tusk, catfish, haddock, halibut and plaice. Outfitters like Nordic Sea Angling (; 46-070-211-23-40) provide the boats and fishing know-how to be successful most months of the year. (Photo Credit: Radek Filip)Radek Filip

About Skrei

The word “skrei” originates from old Norwegian language meaning “to move or migrate.” Millions of skrei (Gadus morhua) travel from the Barents Sea to the Norwegian Coast each winter. Several different masses of mature cod migrate to the Norwegian islands and mainland from January to April. The most famous group spawns off beautiful Lofoten. Other groups head even farther north to Breivikfjorden Bay at Sørøya, where we fished for them. Often, the largest and biggest females come to shore first. Much smaller males move in later but dominate in pure volume. Skrei are famous for their tasty meat, sold commercially in Europe and the United States. (Photo Credit: Radek Filip)Radek Filip