Over the past few months, we’ve been lucky enough to spend a bit of time in western NSW filming for our forthcoming season of Escape with ET. Most of our time has been spent on and around the Murray Darling river system, including the Macquarie River and marshes. We were there to look into the health of one of Australia’s iconic species – the mighty Murray cod. During our time on the water I learned a lot about this iconic fish, including its habits, habitat and the best tactics needed to bring one to the boat or river bank.
Now the Murray Darling is a unique system that meanders across 2530 kilometres and four states, before ending in sight of the sea in South Australia. It is steeped in history, with the river providing a pathway for pioneers to open up vast areas of land to agriculture. Townships sprang up along the Murray’s length, utilising the constant fresh water as a life source for locals, livestock and crops.
Hidden among the fallen timber and overgrown banks lives a fish with a reputation as great as the Murray River itself. In fact, it carries the name of the river in which it is best known. According to legend, some Murray cod grew so big they could swallow a calf whole! And there was a time when terrified mothers were said to keep their children from swimming in certain waterholes in case a big cod took a liking to them.
Our greatest freshwater species is a long-lived, large fish with records of captured specimens topping 110kg. With small eyes, a large, deep body and green to dark green, mottled markings, they are perfectly camouflaged for the muddy, timbered waters they call home.
After European settlement, they soon became part of the staple diet for many inland regions, with countless numbers finding themselves onto dinner tables via a variety of fishing methods.
It may be hard to comprehend today, but at one time the species was so abundant, a thriving commercial fishery operated from various ports along the river. But without regulation, over-fishing of Murray cod saw breeding stocks decline and the once fish-rich waterways soon saw catches shrink alarmingly.
With agriculture in full swing and weirs and dams put in to capture water, even more stress was put on the reduced population. But in more recent times, we have seen the species recover in many areas, with breeding programs and other measures intended to guarantee that the mighty cod recovers in strength. Improved river management of the whole Murray Darling system has also played its part and most experts now agree that the species has a much better outlook than it did a decade or so ago.
With government support, fishing clubs and hatcheries spread over the four states through which the system runs are getting behind stocking programs and there is evidence that numbers in certain rivers are on the rise. But even so, it will take many generations to get species stocks back to a fraction of what they were at the start of the last century.
One ongoing threat which I am steadfastly against is the use of set-lines – a scourge that hits large breeding cod particularly hard. In fact, I am amazed that people still think it is acceptable to use this technique, which involves setting 50 or more heavy duty lines with large J hooks along a river bank. As far as I am concerned, anyone caughts laughtering our endangered fishs tocks like this should be jailed, – no questions asked.
Fortunately, many anglers recognise the value of this national treasure, only taking what fish they need for their own food, while releasing the rest to live and breed.
Murray cod reach sexual maturity at around 2 to 3kg and four to six years of age. The bigger the fish, the more likely they are to be breeders and as they spawn in spring, it is vital that fishing be curtailed during this time. After laying her eggs on the side of a boulder or tree stump, the female leaves the babysitting to the male.
They can be very territorial and I have witnessed them working a beat on the hunt for food around their local lair. The biggest cod tend to live in prime ambush spots along the river, with large boulders or old eucalypt stumps providing cover to ambush passing prey. Cod will eat just about any small animal that ventures close to their territory. Other fish, crustaceans, lizards, frogs, ducklings and snakes are just some of their regular dining options.
Waking one morning by a lake in northwest NSW, I watched a flock of waterfowl work their way through a large patch of small insects that had settled on the water through the night. It was a great sight as the sun slowly made its way over the horizon and the gaggle of excited birds fed happily.
But the tranquillity was suddenly broken when something large exploded in the centre of the flock. While the rest of the startled birds scrambled to get away, I watched as one bird vanished from the surface, being taken whole by a huge cod. Ten minutes later we were on the bank casting huge poppers out towards where the commotion took place. One of the boys ‘blooped’ his popper and moments later it was engulfed by another huge fish. He played the cod into the shallows and jumped in cradling the huge beast. We estimated it to be around 50lb and as it swam off back to the deep we stood in awe of this magnificent fish. This was an amazing firsthand look at the size and power of our biggest freshwater fish.
What I’ve learned over the years is that Murray cod are slow movers and would rather the food came to them. They like big prey and so if you’re targeting large fish, you need to use a big lure with a slow rolling action and one that dives deep enough to present close to decent looking structure. A big boulder with an overhang in deep water is a perfect example of the type of cover a big predatory cod will hold up in. This provides both a great ambush spot and protective lair, making it a prime cod residence.
If lure fishing, it’s important to pick a lure to match the terrain you’re in. I like Oar-Gee hard bodies or Bassman spinner baits for deep water, and top water walkers like Jitterbugs when the cicadas are buzzing and occasionally falling from the trees.
Murray cod also love top-water lures. As the weather warms up and spring kicks in, many insects start to hatch. Frogs spawn and become active and cod have their eyes focused up towards the water surface. This is the peak time to use Jitterbug surface lures. Simply winding these lures across the water creates a popping sound that the cod can’t resist. The violence of the hook-ups can be amazing, with lures sometimes disappearing in a foam of white water as the fish strikes.
Mornings and late afternoons seem to work best, with low light conditions often keeping the fish active longer. Night fishing under a full moon can also be a blast, with strikes sometimes coming right at the rod tip as the lure is being wound out of the water.
Most big cod live close to, or in big waterholes, between shallow rapids and sandbanks. These deeper sections of river allow the fish to get through a hot summer or extended drought. Therefore fishing these areas thoroughly with a combination of shallow-and deep-running hard-bodied lures, as well as snag-proof spinner baits, will give the best chance of success.
You may find that the cod are there, but not feeding actively. In this case, target the key snags and boulders and put a series of casts hard up against the structure, where you may get an aggressive strike from a fish out of pure anger rather than looking for an easy meal. Murray cod are very territorial. I have seen them work a beat much like trout and as they patrol their patch I’ve witnessed them aggressively nudging smaller cod out of their zone.
CLOSE QUARTERS COMBAT
There is something special about the deep thud of the lure as it stops abruptly in the middle of retrieval and shakes violently before racing back to the nearest log. Cod put up a short, but gutsy fight as they use their powerful tail to drive away from the line. The combat is usually close quarters, with the angler keen to stop the cod’s explosive bursts to the nearest cover. The big risk is losing a fish through line wear at the trace. Cod don’t have large fangs, but a series of fine, rasping teeth that are more akin to sandpaper than a cutting tool. They usually grasp their prey and, with their inward-facing, needle-like teeth, prevent the quarry exiting from their hard jaws.
As I’m gliding through a waterhole I am always on the lookout for the best stretches of deep water lined with large snags. I will pepper these structures several times, varying my retrieve speed and depth. Cod will follow lures right to the rod tip so it’s very important to keep the lure working all the way back to the rod.
One thing I’ve found is that Murray cod tend to live in picturesque locations, from gum-lined rivers that cut their way through wheat fields, to spectacular gorge country with large boulders. They can be caught all year round and it’s the smaller cod that are the tastiest in the pan.
Rods need to be around 6ft long and around 6 to 10kg, with 4000 Shimano Stradic reels perfect for the job. Line should be 14lb braid, with a 30lb fluorocarbon leader of around a rod length, with a loop knot tied to your favourite lure. And, of course, you’ll need a camera handy to take a snapshot of your trophy catch before a quick release.
The Murray cod is an awesome Australian freshwater fish deserving of our respect and we need everyone, from government bodies to keen anglers, to do the right thing to preserve this iconic species.