It's elusive to catch, but the Murray cod is still the Holy Grail of inland anglers in the eastern states. Story by Arthur Stavrow.
Happily resting in a deep, cool hole beside a drowned river red gum is the elusive Murray cod. Without doubt he's the granddaddy of the Murray-Darling and many East coast rivers and dams. He's a magnificent native that is quite rightly revered by freshwater anglers for its sporting and fine-food qualities.
The Murray cod is certainly the stuff of legends. Stories of Murray cod with gravel rash on their bellies, or sunburnt backs are plentiful. Not surprisingly most of the big ones seem to get away!
Murray cod figured in Aboriginal mythology and also made a big impression on early settlers. The early settlers were simply amazed by their sheer size, abundance and beautiful colours.
These days it's the dream and ambition of most freshwater angler's to catch one these mighty cod. However, hooking one is much harder than it might seem and it often takes a few years before you 'join the club.'
After you've caught one of these big fish, the adrenalin-charged feeling can take weeks to wear off. The news of your catch will also quickly spreads about the town, the fish getting bigger and heavier with each retelling of the tale!
Being our largest freshwater fish, in fact amongst the four biggest freshwater species in the world, Murray cod have some pretty impressive statistics. One caught in the Barwon River near Walgett in 1902 weighed 113.5kg and measured 1.8m long!
Given the size of Murray cod it's hard to imagine how they could develop from such a small, pale amber egg once attached to a tree root or log.
Taking two to three weeks to hatch, larval Murray cod are about 6-9mm in length within three weeks. They live on their yolk sac for a short time until they commence feeding on plankton, aquatic insects and small shrimps. The majority of female Murray cod spawn in their fourth year when they are approximately 2.5kg in weight.
Murray cod pair up during the spawning season, with the males selecting one female only to 'mate' with. At other times of the year Murray cod are loners and will fight other cod to the death over territory. Even smaller Murray cod run the risk of death by venturing too close to a large Murray cod's stronghold!
Although Murray cod over 50kg are now quite uncommon, smaller specimens of 20 to 40kg are regularly captured during summer and Easter by keen, experienced anglers. However, the majority of Murray cod caught are in the 3-7kg range. Murray cod, like other fish, are attracted to their bait by vibrations, movement and smell.
However, be warned when you do catch one it only fires you up to try to catch an even bigger one. As my mate, Keith Newman, says they're 'bait' get us back again to catch an even bigger brute!
Test of Patience:
Trying to catch one of these pugnacious monsters can be a test of patience and river skills. It really helps to have a fish-finder to seek out the deep holes and structures where they tend to hold territorial rights. However, you can't beat good old river sense to really fox out the best Murray cod spots.
A good location will contain cover such as drowned trees and branches, or partly submerged logs. Other good places to look include large rocks, stumps, overhanging banks and clumps of vegetation. Weed beds and backwater are also prime spots.
Murray cod are structure-orientated creatures. A pecking order exists within structures, with the mature Murray cod taking up the best location where cover and a regular food supply are present.
Down the pecking order come the smaller Murray cod, large golden perch then silver perch located towards the extremity of the structure.
Out of interest, I was able to back up these observations by a mate who studied them underwater for many years using scuba gear.
Angling and spinning from the bank or a boat, together with the use of handlines and night lines, has given me good results on Murray cod in the range of 3-20kg.
My best results were achieved fishing around snags and fallen trees after sundown till early morning with live baits, strong lines and 4/0 to 7/0 hooks.
Surprisingly enough, I have caught more Murray cod on shrimps and bardie grubs than on any other bait.
The use of lures (aeroplane spinners, flatfish, spoons, wobblers and plugs) on the flood plain is not always practical due to the turbid complexion of the Murrumbidgee River. However, flies and lures can be extremely effective in the clearer headwater areas of the river and dams.
In clearer rocky streams, lure trolling and casting work very effectively.
It's a crunching sensation when a hungry Murray cod does hits your lure or live bait. Then it's all hands on deck to get the fish close enough for the landing net or the gaff hook. The fight can be easily lost at the water's edge, or by trying to bring the fish into the boat by hand.
Murray cod are normally nocturnal feeders. During daylight hours they usually seek shelter under logs and snags in deep, cool, stagnant holes, but at night when the river comes to life these predacious heavy weights will leave their cover to cruise around shallower water seeking food, then return to their haven after their feeding frenzy. It's often the smaller specimens that are caught in the current, or near cover during daytime.
Murray cod are voracious feeders partial to wood and bardie grubs, worms, yabbies, mussels, Murray crayfish and small fish. Very occasionally they'll even eat vertebrates and invertebrates such as tortoises, birds, frogs, centipedes, lizards, mice and snakes. They'll even eat hard-boiled eggs, or dead animals as well.
If you use live bait it should be positioned on the river bottom, fastened securely to a well-sharpened hook. However, on windy days it Murray cod have been seen to take frogs or young birds that have fallen into the river from overhanging branches of river red gums.
While the spread of carp through our inland waters is widely considered an environmental curse, in fact it has provided Murray cod with another ready food source!
You don't have to be informed when a large Murray cod has taken your bait, fly or lure. It sure is a rare thrill! The fish isn't altogether a great fighter, but its first dash for freedom usually has its full weight behind it. If the hook isn't securely fastened in its mouth it may roll and be free of the hook.
At other times a Murray cod may snag the line making it very difficult for the angler to land the fish. It's then that we hear the sad tale of the one that got away.
Often your gear will take a real hammering as the cod attempts to free itself. Straightened hooks, snagged and dismantled lines regularly occur during a battle with one of these powerful, mauling fish.
A fisho friend of mine, Keith Fraser of Leeton, was early morning spinning using an aeroplane spinner around logs and snags when he took a solid hit after hooking an 18kg Murray cod. Just as he tried to land the fish the line broke with the spinner stuck fast in its mouth. The fish swam away to freedom.
However, later that same day Keith spinning in the same location managed to land that same fish with the missing spinner still in its mouth!
Most anglers believe Murray cod attack lures, flies and live baits for territorial reasons - they want to teach the 'intruder' a definite lesson by eating him!
Curiosity is also another factor, according to experienced anglers. Whatever the reason it tempts them to leave the protection of their cover, even when they are not hungry.
Certainly during periods of low light when the cod are most active and hungry cod will be tempted to crunch your lure, fly or bait at will.
However, during winter when their metabolism is slowed the same cod become finicky eaters. At this time of the year they prefer to live a quiet existence in the sanctuary of their deep hole, or snag home.
Playing the Game:
Murray cod are not dainty feeders like trout and silver perch. They make a rush at their prey, grab at it, crush it with their powerful jaws then swallow it whole without as much as a burp!
However, it's not wise to immediately reel in your line when a Murray cod strikes. They actually tend to hold a bait fish in the mouth for a short while, then 'spit' it out before swallowing it head first.
Obviously it pays to give the fish time to swallow and get the hook into the side of the mouth, or down the throat. It's then that you give the rod an almighty yank!
Once a large Murray cod has been removed from its territory by an angler, other fish compete for the vacated property. During the spawning season, Murray cod also like to travel up river. They can travel upwards of 100km upstream before returning home to their snag, or log several weeks later. The time they're away correlates with the closed season (September to November) in NSW and other states.
There's no doubt that the Murray cod is in short supply. Ever since the 1880s Fisheries departments in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia have noticed a decline in their numbers. This is mainly to overfishing, but also the construction of dams, weirs, locks and levee banks that deprived the cod of spring and summer floods for spawning.
The silting up of inland waterways and the introduction of exotic fish like carp and English perch has also impacted on the Murray cod. The perch, in particular, bought the lethal fish disease, EHNV to our native fish.
Throw in the damage done by chemical spills and farm spray run off and you can see why Murray cod numbers would drop to their current low levels.
Catch & Release:
The story is not all bad news. The State Governments in the Murray-Darling Basin have made some progress in providing a cleaner water environment, however they still have a long way to go to achieve their ultimate goal.
It's also pleasing to see a lot of anglers practicing catch and release of native fish like the cod. Thanks to the promotion of catch-and-release programs anglers are restricting their catch to their basic needs.
With cameras so readily accessible these days it's easy for the angler to catch the moment on film and let the fish swim off to fight another day. It's actually a great feeling to see a native fish released and lazily disappear from sight.
Sadly commercial fishermen are still been allowed to operate, despite having done so much to deplete cod numbers over the years. You'd think with aquaculture now so well established wild fish would be left to recreational anglers.
Fortunately re-stocking programmes by Fisheries departments and fishing clubs are swinging the pendulum in favour of the natives, however very slowly.
Prime fishing conditions for Murray cod usually revolve around a gentle rise in the river to about 20cm, or a calm, warm moonlit night. The onset of a thunderstorm after a still day, a frost or a rise in water temperature and barometric pressure (1020 millibars and over) are also prime times for cod.
However, some anglers disregard all of these indicators and simply work on the assumption that "cod have to eat some time, or another!"
Murray cod are a moody kind of fish, becoming passive at different times due to low oxygen levels, low water temperatures or low barometric readings. Conversely when a 'flush' is coming down the river so activating a feeding cycle.
There are numerous sandy beaches and launching ramps for the boat anglers wanting to go after this handsome fish. The boat will also give you the opportunity to get amongst the snags and fallen logs, something you can't do from the riverbank.
Admittedly, there is growing frustration with the limited number of Murray cod available. However, keen fishos are optimists and figure that one day it will happen, even it takes awhile.
Hopefully, you might find a big Murray cod lurking in the depths with your name on it. Believe me, it will brighten up your whole day and give you a reason to celebrate with some of that amber fluid that fishermen occasional bring along.
Just remember Murray cod is about patience and skill.
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