In search of Murray monsters

Al McGlashan | VOLUME 29, ISSUE 6

They can grow to over 100kg, but even smaller Murray cod are a worthy quarry as stocks expand and river health improves.

I have fond childhood memories of camping and hunting on the Murrumbidgee River in Western New South Wales. Drowning scrub worms, I would sit on the bank for endless hours waiting patiently for a fish. My success was marginal at best and while I did catch heaps of carp, the highlight was the occasional yellowbelly. However, the one fish I desperately wanted was the mighty Murray cod, but sadly, despite the long days, I never did hook that cod.

Now, decades later, I have been focusing on the offshore scene around the country and the dreams of catching a cod have faded. However this all changed when I caught up with my old mates Harro and Rod, from Wagga Wagga, in Western NSW. Craig runs the marine store and Rod, a local icon, runs the the Wagga Wagga Compleat Angler store. These two characters always have their finger on the pulse and love nothing more than showing off the region's fishing opportunities.

The fact that Wagga sits right on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River soon had me reminiscing about childhood pursuits of chasing the infamous green fish.

"Cod? No worries buddy, we'll get that sorted in a jiffy," Rod casually commented over a beer and suddenly my urge to catch a mighty Murray monster had been rekindled, big-time.

As the plans developed, they expanded to include ex-fishing guide Jamin Forbes as well Maso from the neighbouring Compleat Angler in Albury. Together these guys have caught thousands of cod and since they were literally guaranteeing fish, I decided we had to film our exploits and bring the camera crew along for an episode of Big Fish Small Boats.

On the bite

A few weeks later I found myself cruising down the highway loaded with fishing gear, cameramen and equipment. Meeting the guys in Wagga the news was good; the river was low and clean and the fish were snapping big-time. I was so excited I couldn't even sleep that night because it was all so new and different to my saltwater exploits. Cod may not fight like a huge marlin, but there is something very special about fishing in the outback and the next day it was finally going to happen.

The following morning we rose in the dark and, loaded with the biggest coffee I could buy, we met up with everyone else and headed west. Despite the fact the river runs through town, our destination was an hour away. Rattling down dusty, corrugated dirt tracks we eventually came upon the river in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. Here there were no luxuries like concrete launching ramps. Instead we selected a bit of sloping bank, slapped the cars in 4WD and dumped the boats in.

As we made our way downstream through a sea of drowned timber, the sun was only just starting to break free of the horizon, bathing the land in its golden touch. Better still, the guys were all happy with the water clarity, which looked terrible to me - but if there is one thing I have learnt over the years, local knowledge is gold.

Sure enough, just to prove the fact, Jamin hooked up after only a couple of casts. It was only a little cod, but it was still green and it was on a lure. Then it was my turn and after dropping my Halco Deep Diver tight in against a log, I hooked up. I had only fished for a few minutes and already scored a cod on a lure. Again, it wasn't big, but I was stoked!

Lifeblood

Starting its life in the Snowy Mountains, the Murrumbidgee winds its way down past the nation's capital and out across the open plains of Western NSW. Snaking through river red gums, it eventually meets up with the Murray River near Robinvale, northern Victoria. Since its discovery, the Murrumbidgee and its accompanying rich black soil plains have been important agricultural assets, supporting everything from wheat crops to sheep grazing.

Sadly, demand for irrigation water has seen the river converted into an oversized channel at the cost of the natural environment. Today it's at the centre of a vicious battle between radical environmental groups and farmers. Environmentalists want to lock it up and throw away the key, while farmers are fighting to utilise the resource and feed the country. The irony is that many of those most vocally opposed to the farmers still happily buy all their produce at the supermarket.

While the whole Murray-Darling system has suffered abuse over the years, the good news is that things are on the improve and, as is so often the case, it's the angling community that is at the forefront.

Habitat rehab

Habitat rehabilitation, like re-snagging the river, working with irrigators to better manage the flow, restocking programs and, above all else, a real push to catch and release the bigger cod is having an amazing effect. What anglers have done is simply awesome and today the cod fishing is as good as it has ever been. We were certainly witness to this, catching a couple of dozen fish before lunchtime in the very same river that I fished as a kid without ever seeing a cod. It wasn't just cod either - I was surprised by the number of trout cod we caught. At one stage there was even a double hook-up on a cod and a trout cod.

Rather than just filming cod being caught, we teamed up with NSW Fisheries to do an experiment. Fishing a series of snags, we pulled a couple of fish out with lures, averaging a fish a snag. Then Fisheries worked the same stretch in their electrofishing boat. Electrofishing is a common technique NSW Fisheries employs as a research tool to count stock levels or to collect brood stock for breeding programs. It doesn't hurt the fish, but immobilises them briefly so they can be scooped up and studied.

Working the same stretch of snags we had just fished conventionally, I was amazed at just how many fish floated to the surface. The water literally swirled with fish, including cod, yellowbelly, trout cod, carp and even silver bream.

There was also plenty of variation in sizes, with some of the bigger fish up in the 70cm range. In the space of 30 minutes, they picked up literally dozens of fish, but what was most thought-provoking was the fact that electrofishing stuns just 10 per cent of the fish. It was a real eye-opener for me and gave me a whole new appreciation of how rich our inland rivers are.

With the day wearing on we headed upstream to fish a new stretch of water. Fishing inland rivers is not easy, especially when they're low. The lower the river, the more snags and sandbars are exposed, making navigation a nightmare at times. It's impossible not to hit them so the best approach is to just cruise around at a slow pace - and always carry spare props!

Afternoon action

Working a deeper section of water, things were a bit slow initially, but the moment the sun dropped and the shadows lengthened things kicked into gear. It was as though a switch had been thrown and suddenly the fish came to life.

In fishing it's amazing how quickly things can change and we were soon hooking up consistently. According to Jamin, it is traditionally after 3pm when the fish start to stir. Weirdly, that is exactly the same for pelagics, be it big blacks on the Great Barrier Reef or tuna off Sydney.

Cod are an extremely aggressive and territorial species that will hammer anything that comes within range. However, they can be extremely fussy at times, too, and for this reason it is imperative to have a good selection of lures in various styles and colours. While I had persisted with my beloved RMG Scorpion, the others had opted for Icon Spinnerbaits and were leaving me for dead. However, as the arvo wore on, my once neglected Scorpion started to see more attention.

A majority of the fish were around the 50cm range initially, but then they started to grow and Jamin kicked things off with a solid 65cm fish. Moments later on the same snag, I got slammed big-time as soon as I started the retrieve. I missed it initially and then hooked up solidly on the second shot. This is a real trick that smart anglers use on a number of species. The secret is to stop the lure the moment it's nudged, then twitch it on the spot. It works best with neutral buoyancy lures imitating a baitfish that has been stunned before waking up and scooting away.

Big hitters

My cod charged back to the snag, but loading up on the little baitcaster I pulled him up just in time and then unceremoniously dragged him into the clear. Cod don't fight particularly hard, but they do strike like a ton of bricks and that is what makes them so much fun to catch. The fight was short, but when another 65cm specimen popped up boat-side, I was absolutely stoked.

Murray cod are an exciting fish to catch, not only because they are so aggressive, but because they live in such beautiful country. It's not just the fishing that makes cod fishing so exciting it is being in the great outback miles from anywhere. Chasing them with lures is more like hunting than fishing, where you need to read the water and pinpoint that prime real estate where the biggest cod will be in residence. Then you need to get the cast right on their nose to provoke them to bite.

Anglers have been at the forefront of conservation efforts to re-snag the river, working with irrigators to better manage the flow and, above all else, paying for restocking programs. IĀ look forward to the day green groups follow suit in the interests of the environment and fish stocks - but I'm not holding my breath. What anglers have done is awesome and today the cod fishing is the best it has ever been.

Local lures

I'm convinced Wagga is the lure-making capital of the southern hemisphere. A tall claim for sure, but just walk into the local Compleat Angler and see how many lures adorn the wall, most of which are made locally. What is really impressive is that these lures have evolved to meet the increasing demand as more and more anglers target cod on lures. TheĀ overseas lures simply don't cut it as they're mostly designed for smaller fish like bass, whereas local lures have been developed specifically for cod. When you go to Wagga, do yourself a favour and drop in and see Rod. Good luck trying to resist buying one of his lures...

The biggest cod - fact or fiction?

The Murray cod is the biggest freshwater fish in Australia and, in fact, is one of the biggest in the world, growing to more than 100kg. The biggest recorded fish I can find was 113kg, but there are countless rumours of bigger fish, although distinguishing fact from fiction can be hard with sketchy reports. Mind you, considering they can live for more than 50 years it is highly likely they can grow considerably larger.

Endemic to the Murray-Darling system, they can be found in surprisingly small waterways at times. They are widely distributed from the granite-lined streams flowing west out of the Great Dividing Range right through to the arid farming country of Western NSW and Queensland.

If you want to learn more about cod, do yourself a favour and get a copy of Jamin's book Jamin Forbes Cod Cod Cod. It's packed with detail and worth its weight in cod.


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