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Murray Cod Basics

MURRAY cod are one of the true icons when it comes to native Australian fish. Up until the past two decades the species was generally considered to be in decline, and in the past generations of anglers pulled in thousands of big cod throughout the whole Murray Darling basin. I’ve seen plenty of old photos of multiple big cod strung up by the gills on poles with their captors smiling at their success. Once considered an inland delicacy and heavily commercially trapped, cod numbers were in huge decline for decades. Rivers were often strung up with dozens of set lines. European carp caused massive bank erosion and had a big effect on cod habitat. In more modern times excessive irrigation, often related to cotton farming, greatly reduced river flows and in drought conditions major fish kills have been common, decimating large sections of our inland rivers of their cod populations. Despite all the threats, Murray cod have proven to be very resilient animals.

Murray cod are increasingly popular with recreational anglers and bag and size limits mean the days of massive catches are now long over. Most anglers release all their captures, and maximal legal sizes mean all big cod must be returned. The hatchery breeding Murray cod and stocking suitable dams has led to a sustainable fishery in many places. A lot of fishing tourism is based around major inland impoundments, and having a good population of cod in a local waterway attracts anglers from far and wide. When I was a kid Wyangala Dam, near Cowra in NSW, was a pretty good trout fishery. Now, due to changes in the species being stocked, it is a thriving Murray cod fishery that generates a lot of income for the local community.

So what is the best way to catch a cod? I think it is important to realise that all Murray cod trips are a journey and the cod you catch are the end point of that journey. A cod trip is all about being in tune with your environment, enjoying nature and slowly putting all the clues together so you eventually put the cod jig saw puzzle together and catch your fish. They aren’t an easy fish to catch regardless of whether you fish rivers or dams. Sometimes you can cast for days without a bite, on other trips they are more responsive. Never catch one on your first cast! I’ve done that twice and didn’t get another bite for days.

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When fishing rivers you are likely to encounter many more fish than you find in impoundments, but in most streams they tend to be smaller fish between 40 and 70cm long. In some areas such as the lower Murray there are some true monster cod, but in general most of the bigger cod encountered are caught in stocked impoundments. In some impoundments, such as Copeton Dam near Inverell in north- west NSW, there is no closed season and you can fish for cod year round. In Queensland the Murray Cod season is closed in the rivers from August until the end of October, in NSW and Victoria it runs from the first of September until the end of November.

Murray cod are the apex predator in all the waterways they inhabit. Big cod have few natural enemies apart from the environmental impacts described above. They are also quite cannibalistic and it is quite common to have big cod engulf smaller cod hooked on a lure. They have evolved so they are able to inhale large prey, commonly eating water birds, lizards and larger fish such as yellowbelly and carp. They are an aggressive ambush predator and are able to stalk and hunt their prey much more effectively in low light conditions. I’ve found I get most bites in the predawn period or just after sunset into the night. It is important to understand that cod feed at all levels of the water column depending on the available food sources and the prevailing conditions, so you need to use methods that cover all depths. While catching cod on swim baits and surface lures is very popular, sometimes it just doesn’t work when the fish are feeding in the basement layers on bait like crayfish. In these situations large vibes, deep trolling hard bodied lures and spinner baits are much more useful tools of trade.

Murray cod have one of the best bites you will encounter in lure fishing, followed by one of the poorest fights! When that big mouth crunches down it expels a lot of water and the impact is a dead stop. While big fish can pull hard with quite bullocky runs, they are not in the league of barramundi or black bass. When fishing in areas of submerged timber you need a stout outfit to keep fish out of the timber, and a standard barra style outfit with around thirty pound braid is adequate for most cod.

Wherever cod are found there is always someone producing unique and innovative cod lures designed for local conditions. Small towns such as Tenterfield, Glenn Innes and Inverell all have some fantastic local lure makers. Some, such as those made by the late Peter Newell, are collector’s items and are extremely valuable. Australian made wooden cod lures have an avid following. There is a lot of history in this fantastic fishery. One of the first Australian made cod lures was the Aeroplane spinner. This unusual contraption was originally made from the lids of sheep dip tins and a short piece of fencing wire, and consisted of two large metal blades that rotated on a wire frame. This was slowly towed behind a row boat along the river edge. It incorporated noise and flash and was relatively snag proof. After their initial success of this strange looking lure there were a few commercially made models including those made by the Alpha Company.

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There are many ways to catch a cod on a lure, and it is important to have a range of different lore styles to cover all depths. Spinner baits are probably the most versatile of all cod lures. Cod require a slow retrieve on the cast, and for this reason round blades (Colorado) are preferred to narrow Willow blades. Colorado blades rotate more slowly and push more water than narrow blades. The commonest size spinner baits I use for cod are between 5/8 and 1 ounce, and I generally use a stinger hook and a soft plastic trailer under the skirt material. Glen Casey makes Bass Man Spinnerbaits in Australia and these lures have a well- earned reputation as being great lures for Murray cod. In both rivers and dams spinnerbaits attract cod. When fishing points or deeper water make sure you let the lure sink to the bottom and slowly wind it up through the rocks and snags. Many anglers cast towards the bank and retrieve the spinnerbait back on a shallow trajectory. This is far less effective as the lure isn’t in the strike zone for most of the retrieve. Bring the boat in tight to the edge and cast out to deep water so on retrieve the lure stays down amongst the structure. Cod will eat all spinnerbaits and colours can be confusing. I like to use purple and black with silver blades in the night and green, yellow and orange in daylight hours. The key to using spinnerbaits is patience. Work them slowly and deliberately through likely places and remember you can make the same cast a dozen times and then get a bite. There seems to be an annoyance factor with cod, and sometimes the strikes are territorial rather than predatory. If the lure invades their personal space for long enough they will eventually attack it.

Hard bodied deep divers work well on cod and can be trolled or cast. In general cod like a lure with a wide, slow action. Popular hard bodied lures have a round body style and a wider bigger profile than most hard bodies typically used for fish such as barramundi. This rounder shape gives the lure greater buoyancy. The Stumpjumper is a very popular effective hard bodied lure and dives to over 8 metres. Original Stumpjumpers made from timber by John Ellis are valuable collector’s items these days. One of my favourite lures for trolling in impoundments is the Mudeye lures “Thingy”. This strange looking lure covered in fake fur looks like a rat. I originally bought one as a joke, but when slowly trolled it got slammed repeatedly by big cod, and it has been a ‘first pick’ since that day. When slowly bumped through the boulders in Copeton Dam this lure has been very successful, particularly at night. Casting hard bodied diving lures is very effective in rivers in the gorge country of the New England are of NSW. Casting into deep shady pockets is very effective. Pull the lure down to its running depth and then retrieve very slowly. Quite often a cod will follow the lure almost to your feet and strike just as you are about to lift it from the water.

Soft vibes like the Zerek Fish Trap work well on cod, as do hard vibes. Retrieved in a series of hops along the bottom, these lures tend to be a bit snag prone but can be very effective in both timbered areas and those spots full of big granite boulders. It is a good idea to try a variety of lures in a known productive spot. I generally have three rods rigged, one with a vibe, one with a spinnerbait and a deep diving hard bodied lure on the third. This is a great tactic to deploy in daylight hours. Vibes are also very effective on yellowbelly.

Working the surface layers with swim baits and surface walkers is one of the most exciting ways to catch a big cod. This has become very popular in recent years. The prime time for this approach in most dams and rivers is in the pre- dawn hours when the temperature is approaching freezing point in the middle of winter. At this time schools of spangled perch often move into the shallows, and are stalked by big cod. On surface lures the bite of a big cod is very impressive, it’s a “boof” of massive proportions. Unfortunately a lot of these bites actually miss the lure completely! Slowly drifting along long shallow banks can be a very effective tactic. Big swim baits like the Jackall Ganterel are used by hundreds of anglers and while expensive the outstanding results justify the price.

When it comes to terminal tackle it is important to use quite heavy leader. Murray cod have a very abrasive mouth and will easily fray through light leader. I use a minimum of 50 pound fluorocarbon in dams and 30 pound in the rivers. I have a preference for Black Magic Fluorocarbon leader. It is tough, abrasion resistant and strong. Treble hooks need to be upgraded on many imported lures as do split rings. BKK Raptors, while expensive, are a high quality treble ideally suited to cod. I also tend to use double split rings on most of my treble armed lures. This gives a better swing and has a better hook-up rate and also reduces hooks pulling out.

This article is an overview of some of the things I’ve learnt about catching Murray cod. They live in some of the most beautiful environments you can fish in and are a beautiful looking fish. The colours and shades of these fish vary from almost yellow to very dark green. Most Australian anglers have Murray cod on their fishing bucket list, and with patience this is an achievable goal. My main piece of advice is to persist and be patient, you may have to make a thousand casts to get a bite, or your lure may be crunched after just a few minutes on the water. The most successful cod anglers do the most casts! 

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