Freshwater, Native

Murray Cod – king of the river, king of the night

Persistence is the first word that comes to mind when people talk about Murray cod fishing in 2015. The ‘glory’ days (I use the term loosely) of catching a dozen big cod in an afternoon are a distant memory. But there is a group of diehard anglers who will go to any lengths to tangle with the local Murray Cod population – such is the attraction of the green fish. They can be seen on Lake Burley Griffin casting spinnerbaits for hours into the nooks and crannies along the shoreline. They can be seen lined up shoulder to shoulder on the break wall at Yerrabi Pond. And they can be seen wearing head torches, gators and toting backpacks, burrowing through the tea tree and blackberry along the local rivers. Covered in scratches and dirt, these strange creatures emerge from the undergrowth like a lost traveller, except with a fishing rod in hand instead of a walking stick.

The reward for this persistence is the opportunity to tangle with southern Australia’s most iconic freshwater fish, the mighty Murray cod. I use the word ‘opportunity’ deliberately. Cod are notoriously fickle feeders. Changes in water temperature, sunlight and barometric pressure can switch them on and off the bite in minutes. Some of our most memorable sessions have coincided with a massive drop in pressure as a summer thunderstorm rolls in, or as the pressure rises during the autumn months. What this means is an apparently deserted and barren stretch of river can come alive and a known hotspot can turn completely lifeless. I’ve been lucky enough, as of a couple of weeks ago, to experience another amazing session where the fish were just ‘on’. To be clear though, it has taken dozens of sessions where the most action has been a single fish, a single bite or even nothing at all. But having experienced just how extraordinary fishing for our inland native fish can be, I feel I should tell the story so that others might treasure and revere these fish as we do.  Perhaps, thanks to the dedication of catch-and-release anglers and conservation efforts, there are signs that we are starting to get back to the glory days?

Liam and I were lucky enough to be granted permission to fish a section of the river on private property.  The owners really wanted to know what native fish might be living there and how many there might be.  So in the days before hand, we spent a few hours pouring over google earth images, zooming and flying over likely looking pools and rapids.  We had a circuit picked out that would see us hike into some remote gorge country, fish a couple of kilometres of small pools and then hike out. It was going to be steep and seriously hard work but we were pumped and ready for it.  Then the property owner said something that changed all that.  “We’ve got an old tinny parked up at the head of that long pool if you would like to borrow it?”

The mothership
The mothership

The tinny was small, covered in patches and not very stable, but over the next 18 hours it would be luxury.  No scrambling up and down sheer cliffs. No fighting through tea tree and blackberry to get the next cast in. Furthermore it gave us the ability to cast at likely looking snags from any angle.  It was bliss.  Coupled with Liam’s little electric motor this was our mothership.

The pool was vast, but the tinny opened all the possibilities
The pool was vast, but the tinny opened all possibilities

We launched late in the afternoon while the sun was still up and started the painfully slow journey to the head of the pool (it’s only a little motor).  Perhaps it was 10 minutes, perhaps it was 20, it felt like a long time when our excitement was plain to see.  Then, at the head of the pool, we both saw it. Water spilled over some shallow rapids, around a small bend in the river and then past ‘the rock’.  The rock broke the force of the river but offered the best access to any bait fish that might stray down the rapids.  It was the perfect ambush spot. We flung spinnerbaits at the rock from all angles.  Liam’s normally pin-point accuracy left him for a moment and he landed on the ‘wrong’ side of it.  A few quick turns of the handle had the lure swimming straight up the face of the rock and nearly back to safety.  But as the lure reached the surface there was an almighty BOOF, a momentary fight and then … nothing.  The line went limp.  When it returned, the spinnerbait was broken. The fish had grabbed one of the blades and ripped it clean off (and presumably just spat it out when it realised it wasn’t food).  Four casts into this adventure and we already had a BIG fish come out to play.

Liam fires off a cast at the rock
Liam fires off a cast at ‘the rock’

As the sun dipped behind the range, the spinnerbaits went back into the lure box and the surface lures came out.  Then it was my turn to get in on the action.  A small notch between two rocks was patrolled by a fiesty little cod (40-50cm).  On the first cast, I landed between the two rocks and started the retrieve <blip blip blip blip boof!>. The explosion of water and the sound startled me and without meaning to, I moved the rod tip and the lure back a few inches.  On the second cast, the same thing happened. Another boof and another involuntary movement. But by the third, fourth and fifth boofs, I was standing firm.  It was only a small fish and it was struggling to catch its quarry, but it was a valuable lesson – there is a vital half second between the water erupting and the lure finding its way into the open mouth of a feeding cod. Pull the lure back even a little and it may not hook up.  In the calm of night, this is easier said than done.

Dawn and dusk are ideal times to tempt hunting cod on the surface
Dawn and dusk are ideal times to tempt hunting cod on the surface

As the darkness descended, casting became a lottery. The moon wasn’t going to rise for a few hours and the sky was cloudy – there would be no light from the stars either.  We could make out the rough outline of the river, but individual snags and rocks were just black.  Long casts into the blackness would sometimes land in the water with a SPLOOSH, or would land on wet mud with a dull THWACK.  On this occasion, my lure landed with an ominous wood sound. I was snagged. Liam cast into the safety of the middle of the river and started the retrieve.  As I wrestled and jangled my lure free I heard a sound behind me like an underwater gunshot. “I’m on! I’m on!”. Judging by the sound of the strike, this might be a massive fish. Judging by the bend in the rod, it was.

We had a net in the boat – a prize from the recent Tuross flathead and bream comp.  It was a big net.  Comically big really, given it was a mystery length prize for bream, a fish that rarely grows bigger than 40cm long. But as Liam’s fish surfaced into the light of the head torch, it became obvious that this net was nowhere near big enough.  I tossed it back onto the floor of the boat and reached for a pair of gloves. “Wait, I’ve got a better idea” Liam said, and kicked the small motor into gear,  beaching the boat on a nearby sandbar.  In the sandy shallows, the fish was more easily controlled. Liam grabbed a glove and took hold of the bottom jaw. I grabbed the camera. It was a huge green fish, over 90cms long and fat. She swam away beautifully after a couple of photos, showering us with river water with a single beat of her massive tail.

IMG_1459 Liam 93cm Murray Cod Mantis jointed lure (4)
The smile says it all. A stunning 93cm Murray cod on the surface

In the darkness we continued.  It was now so dark that we could barely make out the silhouette of the cliffs and rocks.  The fishing had slowed substantially and we put it down to our random blind casting.  In desperation we turned on one of the head torches so we could see what to cast at.  Perhaps it was the wide soft beam from the head torch, the murky water, or the depth of water, but contrary to popular belief, we did get another strike in the torch light. It was only once and it didn’t hook up, but it was a full blooded strike. We made a mental note of the rock where the strike came from.  A few moments earlier we had heard a fish feeding in some dead willow trees on the opposite bank.  We would come here first thing in the morning. But for now, it was nearly midnight and time to get some sleep.

We barely slept. The excitement of everything that had happened in the past few hours was coursing through our veins.  Even a midnight dinner washed down with a beer or two didn’t seem to relax us much.  Before long 5am had rolled around and we jumped out of our sleeping bags and drove straight back to the river.  Any thoughts of hiking the circuit this morning were squashed by the prospect of returning to our mighty mothership. We jumped in and headed for the dead willows – surface lures tucked into the lure keeper on the rods.

We peppered the rock opposite the willows in the knowledge that there was a fish that ‘owned’ that rock. True to form, it boofed the first accurate cast but didn’t come out to play after that.  Liam turned his attention to the line of dead willows where we had heard a fish feeding the night before.  A bullet cast to a small gap between the branches, a slow steady retrieve and BOOF! He was on again. Just rewards for flawless casting.

Liam Curtis with a beautifully conditioned cod

As the light slowly increased in the pre dawn gloom, we continued our way up the river, casting at likely looking spots that we had blindly passed the previous night.  From the next hour of fishing there are two moments that will live in my mind for ever.  The first involved casting towards a large protruding rock in the river.  The lure landed with an almighty SPLASH, the sound echoing off the rock wall. I waited a couple of seconds – part of me wondering how much attention a massive splash like that would attract on a still morning. I didn’t have to wait long for the answer.  Before I even turned the reel the water erupted.  But as the water settled, the lure was still, floating and stationary. Apparently the fish had missed the hooks.

The second memorable moment was later in the morning.  It was now quite bright and we were questioning whether to persist with surface lures or revert to spinnerbaits.  I cast to the far bank and started the retrieve.  Blip blop blip blop BOOF. A full blooded strike three of four metres from the bank.  The fish had missed the hooks so I left the lure completely motionless on the surface. I didn’t see the fish on the first strike, but in an instant it circled around in plain view and eyed off the lure a second time.  It must have thought it had stunned or killed it because then, like the most delicate trout rise, it rose up and sipped the lure off the surface and started to swim away with it.  I reeled in the slack and set the hooks.  There was tension on the line for a brief moment, before the lure came free.

We returned to ‘the rock’ at the head of the pool and Liam coaxed the spinnerbait destroyer out for a swipe at a surface lure.  It was a territorial swipe and had no real malice in it.  We also looked at the spot where the 90+cm fish was caught.  It had appeared featureless during the night, just a section of water near a sand bank.  But in the daylight we could see a large underwater ledge.  So while the key lessons are to take note of every rock and stump, and that accurate casting to the structure is king, occasionally throwing lures into the middle of the river is well worth a go!

Surface lures are curious creatures, big floating pieces of timber or plastic that lurch from side to side. They seem to work well because they mimic prey like lizards, frogs, rats or even ducklings.  If you startle a water dragon during the day they enthusiastically jump into the river, swim several metres and return to a nice branch or log to sun bake.  In fact they make a sound very similar to a surface lure landing on the water from a distance of twenty metres…  But stumble across a water dragon on a branch during the night and you’ll find yourself face to face with a reticent reptile. It’s completely understandable – during the night nothing in the water is safe – Cod are king.

Once the sun had risen it was time for subsurface lures
Once the sun had risen it was time for subsurface lures

When we left our day jobs on Friday afternoon the barometer was sitting around 1015 hPa.  By the time we left the river on midday Saturday it was 1028.6.  So whether it was the rising barometer, the first signs of autumn before the onset of the colder weather, or the fact that very few anglers ever fish in this section of river, only time will tell. But for now, I feel privileged to have experienced a ‘hot’ cod session and seen or heard 8 green fish feeding in their natural environment.  Liam landed and released 3 of these – including one that measured a whopping 93cm. Sure, I’m disappointed to have had so many strikes and not to land a fish, but that’s fishing.  Every cod angler dreams of these sessions and persists through the countless slow sessions with hundreds of casts between fish.  Such is the allure of the green fish, we all keep coming back. If this one pool can support 8 fish, I can only imagine how many would be dotted up and down an entire river system if it were in as good condition as this pool.  As anglers we should support any efforts to improve the habitat in the river – it’s certainly in our interests!  Murray cod are king of the rivers, king of the night and well worth going the extra mile just for the opportunity to see one.

Long live the king!

Graham Fifield

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