‘Codtroversy’: catching a monster cod during closed season

After nearly 20 years of serious fishing, I’ve finally caught a ‘trophy’ fish. I went out to my local lake on Sunday to chase redfin on soft plastics. The plan was to suss out whether the reddies were active, and if I got lucky, bring a few home for the table. I was also keen to get another look at a spot in anticipation of cod open season. There is some beautiful deep water flanked by sheer cliffs, standing timber and weedy banks. In light of cod closed season, I was sticking to a little 65mm squidgy wriggler in green: the perfect redfin lure. I was fishing with a little bream stick, 6lb braid and a 10lb leader that I’d been too lazy to lighten.

I had finally reached a spot where I was confident of getting a fish, and started casting towards a fallen tree off the point I was standing on. A few little touches and I was on to a little redfin. It was tiny – only about 20cm long, so not really big enough for the table. I caught a few more of these and started to get the feeling dinner might be harder to come by than I’d hoped.

Suddenly, as the lure was wafting towards the bottom, I got crunched, and my immediate thought was that I’d hooked dinner. I managed to get a bit of line back on the reel before the fish woke up and with a few huge thumps, started powering off towards the snag. I persisted with a bit of pressure, and after a few more runs and my growing inclination that I’d hooked something big, I finally saw a flash of colour: green. What I suspected, but didn’t quite believe, was that I’d hooked a monster cod. I only believed it when I saw her. The next 10 to 15 minutes were purely surreal. Being out there in the heat, by myself, with a huge fish on light line in utterly ridiculous circumstances, was like some sort of drug. I still get excited about every fish, and often get a surge of adrenaline in many fishing situations, but this was a constant surge of adrenaline for the 15 minutes it took to catch the fish, and for about 20 minutes afterwards.

One of my first views of the fish...looks small doesn't it!?
One of my first views of the fish…looks small doesn’t it!?

It swam into the snag, then out, then towards the rock wall I was standing on. I moved, trying to get a better angle, while rock-hopping along some precarious shale about 5 metres above the water. The fish came with me when I backed it off, but went hard when I put the pressure on. It was a pure battle with a true leviathan. Not the biggest cod in the world, but on 6lb line, it sure felt like it. She went into another snag, so I backed off, and feeling the line grating against the timber, I was sure that I’d lost her.

Heading towards the snag
Heading towards the snag

She finally swam out, and was in clear water. By this stage, I had moved from the 5 metre rock wall (read: cliff) I was standing on, and had managed to find my way to a ledge a foot or so above the water. She was close now…and finally, at the bank. I had my boots and jeans on, but I just had to jump in the water and be next to such a majestic fish.

Almost there...
Almost there…

IMAG0977

The fish was tired, and so was my arm, although I was pumped with adrenaline. Perhaps it was too. I reached into the water and felt compelled to run my hand along its back, a huge green mass of muscle. The soft plastic was lodged firmly in her jaw, and stupidly I hadn’t destroyed the barb on the hook. I stuck one thumb in the mouth and used the other to jiggle the lure free. It took a few moments before the fish realised it was free. With a few kicks, it was swimming off strongly back to the depths.

IMAG0985_BURST020
I estimated the fish to be around 1m long and about 15-20kg

Catching a fish like this was something special…not because I can brag to my mates, or say that I’ve got one, or because of the ridiculous gear I was using, but more about seeing an animal that is so uncommon, so revered, and so beautiful. It might sound mushy, but a big cod really is something special. They are spectacular – an example of millions of years of evolution, in an often incredibly unforgiving environment, to become the apex predator in our temperate Australian freshwater systems. A big mouth full of raspy teeth, big, curious eyes, a huge, powerful tail, and the ability to put on weight for the lean times. It was a beautiful fish, and cod are a beautiful species.

So, the title of the blog, ‘codtroversy’. It was closed season, and I caught a big fish. Was it a she? Was she a spawner? Or was is a he, fanning the eggs? Was it feeding, or was it an aggressive territorial strike? I’ll never know, but it got me thinking about whether fighting the fish was the best thing to do. Would the true cod ‘purist’ have realised early on and simply snapped the line? Hindsight can be 20/20, but it can also be a blur. I was so excited at the time, I honestly don’t think I really considered the fact that it was closed season.

A majestic fish
A majestic fish

There is clearly a continuum of thought on the matter out there in the cod community. The true purist might not have been fishing for redfin in the first place, knowing that there was a small chance they would connect to a cod in closed season. The purist might have broken the line when it was first hooked. The ‘casual purist’ might have released her safely in the water. The excited angler might have taken her out for 30 seconds for a quick photo. The kill and grill might have disregarded all of this, and taken her home for many coddy dinners.

I’m not sure of the current science, but a few studies seem to suggest that cod, if caught during closed season, can reabsorb their eggs. Thus, the closed season makes a lot of sense, and it’s great to see that fewer people are targeting them during this critical time. However, if it was stress that caused my fish to reabsorb its eggs, the process would have started long before I had her at the bank. This is the sad thing about catching a big fish on light gear…it took a long time, and the fish would have inevitably been tired.

Hopefully I’ve provided a little food for thought. For some reason it still feels like a bit of an illegitimate catch, so it has got me super keen to get a good one during open season.

I considered for a while whether to share this post (closed season was a few months ago now), but figured it’s good to get people thinking about these things. You might disagree with my decisions on that particular day, and that’s fine. Others will hopefully share in the sense of respect and awe that such an encounter can bring, and the fact that this can strengthen one’s desire for conservation of these fish and protection and improvement of the environments in which they live.

Thanks for reading.

Lee

flickandflyjournal.com

Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

6 thoughts on “‘Codtroversy’: catching a monster cod during closed season

  • January 30, 2015 at 12:46 pm
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    Excellent and very important topic.

    Excellent and noble thoughts.

    I think you did the right thing. You were doing the right thing. You were using a very small lure, very genuinely *were* targeting another species, and absolutely minimising your chance of hooking a cod during the closed season.

    The fact that you did hook one then isn’t your fault.

    This is a far cry from the practice of some folk who will fish “for golden perch”, and while yes, they are using golden perch sized lures, not cod lures, they know damn well the locations they are working their lures in during the closed season is going to result in a cod hook-up or two. Their subsequent claims that it was accidental and they couldn’t see it coming is pretty poor and pretty non-believable.

    Then again, this is not as bad as blokes blatantly poaching cod in the closed season.

    Busting the fish off is an interesting question. This happened to me many years ago. I made the choice to land the fish as the 50 mm deep diver was right down its gills (fortunately, hooks were barbless and ultimately came out fine). I also made the choice to jaw-grip and cradle the fish for this surgery, and get a few pics rattled off by someone else as went through the whole gripping and unhooking. Typically, a few fishing chatboard trolls tried to make out this was me deliberately targeting cod in the closed season, which anyone who knows me knows is laughable, as I am passionate about the conservation of this utter magnificent native creature (love your comments there) and a big believer in the closed season.

    I don’t know if I’d actually bust a closed season cod off. Certainly, I’d have to see it’s not deep hooked before I did bust it. Also I’d see if a very quick “shake-off” or in-the-water, whip-it-out-with-pliers release was possible (aided by the fact I ALWAYS use barbless hooks on native fish). It’s a course of action worth thinking about though.

    cheers mate

    Simon

    Reply
  • January 30, 2015 at 1:14 pm
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    PS Published scientific papers by Lake (1967a, b) and Rowland (1988), plus numerous observations from government and private hatcheries, show roe resorption following the stress of capture and release in winter is a common thing in the Maccullochella cod species. Lake and Rowland both noted it, so have many hatchery operators/technicians.

    It’s also been recorded in quite a few other fish species around the world. And there’s a few papers on the negative effect of cortisol (stress hormone) on egg quality and larvae size in a few species.

    People targeting cod in winter and causing numerous spawning failures within each year’s cohort of spawning fish is a BIG problem in my opinion, and something needs to be done about it … especially considering we have some people actually encouraging winter fishing for cod in the media (*rolls eyes*).

    I have always been disappointed by the “don’t wanna know” attitude from many native fish anglers on this issue.

    Reply
    • January 30, 2015 at 1:38 pm
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      Thanks Simon. It is an interesting read that got me thinking. Lee articulated the feelings that go with something like that really well I think.

      On the closed season stuff, it is probably high time that the protections granted to trout, that is rivers completely closed to fishing during the breeding season, are granted to natives. It would make the whole process far easier to understand and much cleaner than it currently is. I’ve seen the odd spring “Golden” report where people caught 10 cod to every golden, which is frankly a little ridiculous. Simply banning all fishing on rivers for the 3 months of the closed season would solve all that. Leave impoundments open to fishing and if fishermen want “compensation” open the trout season a little earlier in NSW (bring it in line with the Vic opening, which pretty much coincides with the cod closure).

      Hopefully thats the direction things are moving. The changes to the cod bag limits etc seemed to be a step in the right direction. The reduction in bag limit from 2 to 1 in rivers being a big positive. Hopefully when they are next reviewed the closed season protections can also be bolstered.

      Cheers
      Hamish

      Reply
      • January 30, 2015 at 5:18 pm
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        Couldn’t agree more mate 🙂

        Reply
  • February 1, 2015 at 9:02 am
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    Lee,
    Exceptionally well written post.
    I think you were right to play the fish and land it for hook removal. NSW DPI have previously published photos of cod with un-disgorged hooks (and consequent injuries). They are not pretty. Better to have the fish miss a spawn for a year than die, in my view.

    Keep up the good work

    Reply
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