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New England Murray Cod

By David Brace

Late one Sunday afternoon, in March this year, I received a phone call while in the back paddock at home. On the other end of the line was Leigh, Aka ‘Big Red’ from My Fishing Place, wondering if I would like to target some Murray cod in the New England area around Tenterfield, in mid-July, with him and his two brothers, Darren and Kerrin. With that being said, I didn’t have to think twice before saying “My gear is already packed”. Well-known and respected angler Dean Silvester was also joining us on this adventure, and I was busting at the seams for the date to arrive.

The five-hour journey south from the Sunshine Coast was spent thinking of tactics for catching big cod based on past experiences. We all arrived in Tenterfield at various times on a Sunday afternoon, with Kerrin driving all the way from Victoria to join us. Later that evening we met with our guide Harry, from Northern Rivers Sports Fishing, to construct a plan and to discuss what type of fishing we were hoping to experience over the three days while fishing. After a brief chat, we were all excited about the prospect of catching some big cod in some amazing country. The thought of fishing some unpressured waterways, due to Harry having access to numerous private properties, was just as encouraging. This alone is one of the major benefits of having a guide, along with obtaining local knowledge about the waterways in the region.

Over the few days we all caught numbers of quality Murray cod, averaging 70cm in length. I did however catch a significant and special fish on our first morning… a fish that will be etched in my memory forever. Over the past few years this catchment area has been hit hard by drought, fire and then floods. During our time fishing this area, the hard work and dedication of OzFish Unlimited volunteers was evident. Their work restoring Australian fish habitat within these waterways is worthwhile and a valuable project.

I barely slept on the eve of our first day of fishing. Up early, at the crack of dawn, we were met with a light frost, minus temperatures and that crispy cool air that stings your face. It was that cold. If I was asked “What’s your favourite type of fishing”, targeting Murray cod in this environment would be right up there on the list. It’s not purely just about catching the mighty Murray cod, the landscape in the New England area is breathtaking, which makes the fishing so raw and equally special. The clear waterways cutting through the granite boulder lined gorges, waterfalls, rock pools and the rapids are just spectacular and a freshwater anglers wonderland.

I have been fishing the New England rivers and creeks of Northern NSW since the mid to late 1990s and although I’ve caught many big fish around that one metre mark using live bait in the early years, I was yet to catch a metre plus fish casting lures. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve caught some noteworthy fish during this time, but that magic metre fish has always eluded me. For some reason, on this trip, I had no expectations and I think this was purely because of the fantastic company I was with. Having the pleasure of knowing these fellas for some time now, I knew it was just going to be a barrel of laughs from the get-go.

I packed a couple of rod and reel combos for the trip and although I do like fishing quite light for these fish, guided by Harry’s experience and his knowledge of the system where he was taking us, I opted to use gear to match the size of the fish he knew were resident in these waters. The outfit that I chose to use was a 6’6”, 8-15 kg Okuma Komodo baitcast rod, matched with a 364 SS Okuma Komodo low profile baitcast reel. The reel was spooled with 30lb Platypus Platinum Braid and 60lb Platypus Game leader. This outfit, including the line, gave me every bit of confidence that I needed should I hook up to one of these oversized fish.

Environmental influences generally determine what lure I tie on at any given time during the day. In low light periods I would normally tie on a surface lure or a lure that swims just below the waterline. The surface strikes from these fish are just spectacular. Other times of the day when I would tie on a surface lure, even though the sun could be well overhead, is when I see terrestrial movement, such as lizards dropping onto the water as the day heats up. Excluding night fishing, nine times out of ten in daylight hours you’ll commonly see a spinnerbait tied to my leader. The versatility of this lure allows you to target fish in every type of structure, with confidence of not getting the lure snagged, caught up on rocks or fouled by weed.

The TT Striker spinnerbait comes in a variety of weights and colours, to cover all applications, and it is by far my favourite type of spinnerbait to cast when chasing these iconic fish. Its slender body bounces over the thickest log jams and cuts through weed effortlessly. The lures cod tough stainless steel wire frame, Mustad black nickel, chemically sharpened hook, ball bearing swivels, quality blades and tough silicone skirts give me self-assurance in terms of landing those bigger fish too.

The tow point on the heavy-duty wire frame is closed off, unlike other spinnerbaits, which allows me to attach the lure to my leader with a loop knot. This gives me the ability to swim the lure more freely through the water, especially when pausing the lure and letting it drop through the water at its own accord. The lure also has the versatility of being able to attach a stinger hook and a ZMan soft plastic to enhance the profile of the lure if desired. Where I’m fishing will also dictate what type of blades I prefer to have attached to the spinnerbait and for good reason. After all, this is essentially what attracts the fish to the lure.

The flash and vibration of the spinning blades are a focal point to any fish. In more open, deeper water, when fishing faster flowing water, I’ll tend to use a spinnerbait with the slender willow blade (tandem). The lure can be swum faster and can keep up to the speed of the water more efficiently, especially when casting upstream and retrieving the lure back in the same direction that the water is flowing. The willow blade also gives off a more subtle vibration and can be used in scenarios when you are trying to ‘match the hatch’, upon noticing the presence of smaller baitfish, or if the fish are wanting a presentation that is less intrusive.

The Colorado blade (double Colorado) however is preferable if you want to keep the lure in the strike zone for longer. It swims a lot slower than a spinnerbait with a willow blade. This is due to its more rounded, egg-shaped blade profile. The Colorado blade gives off a real thumping vibration and noise that can attract fish from a greater distance. It’s a standout when targeting fish in tight structured areas, such as fallen laydown trees and bouldering rocks. The reason why it is also my preferred blade to use when targeting these fish within, or either fishing the head or the tail end of rapids, is the sheer noise the lure makes, which is a contrasting sound to the raucous noise of the water cascading downstream. Don’t be disillusioned, thinking that cod can only be caught in deep water, in fact they can tuck themselves away out of the flow behind the smallest of rocks, within areas of shallow and faster flowing water. Here they wait, poised to ambush any baitfish swimming downstream, all the while using minimal energy.

Our inaugural morning was a little bit slow, even though the conditions were perfect. We decided to move to another location, where the creek was skinnier. After pulling up the vehicles in front of the creek and Harry informing us about the size of the resident cod in this waterhole, I decided to hang back and change my lure to a 3/8oz Purple/Blue Scale TT Striker Spinnerbait, with a small Colorado blade.

With everyone now casting upstream, I walked to the creek through the lomandra bushes a little further downstream, arriving at a section of small rapids. Casting to a pocket of the creek on the opposing bank, behind a large boulder, I retrieved the lure through the rapids while walking downstream with the lure to cover more water. The area of the creek was extremely shallow and looked prime for any cod that may have been in a feeding mood. There was a large rock formation mid-stream, and I was trying to retrieve my lure past its leading edge with every cast.

On my fifth cast I decided to pause the lure momentarily, just past the foreside of the rocks. BANG! Right on point a shock was felt right through the line to the rod tip as the lure was aggressively hit. I struck and loaded the rod up to ensure the hooks were set firmly in the fish's mouth. Being in water about a half metre deep it was quite spectacular seeing the fish come to the surface quite quickly, rolling and twisting, all the while using the current to attempt escape in vain.

It wasn’t until I saw the huge white under girth of the fish’s chin, as it came up to the surface, that I realized this fish had some substantial size about it. “Fish on, fish on, big fish” I yelled to get the attention of the other anglers, knowing that I might need some help to land this fish. I wasn’t going to take any chances in losing this one, especially when I finally got to see its enormity as I gained line back on the reel.

About three metres out from the bank there was a very shallow area of about 10 centimeters deep and consisting of small fist sized rocks. I had to coax the fish over! At this point of the fight, I was extremely anxious about how this was going to play out. This obstruction was the only thing in my way of landing this fish of a lifetime. It was in this very moment that all the experience, time on the water and knowledge I had obtained over the years came to fruition. With a cool head I applied light pressure to the fish, ensuring I always stayed connected to the fish and didn’t allow the line fall slack. The butt of the rod was well over my head, arms fully extended upright to increase the angle of the line and in turn lifting the fish’s head over the rock face edge.

I knew that once I could get its nose over and past these few shallow rocks, the rest of its body would follow. As I continued to apply pressure, slowly but surely the fish kept on slithering over into the deeper water at my feet. By now Harry was beside me with the net, after running to my calls of excitement. This gave me more confidence of landing this fish of a lifetime. With a few more cranks of the reel the fish was in deeper water. Harry guided the net headfirst and under the fish’s huge undercarriage. It was only then I had the realization that this fish could be that fish I had been chasing for nearly two and a half decades.

Was it over a metre in length? I wasn’t convinced, even with Deano next to me saying “You’ve done it Bracey, she’s well over a metre”. Harry was also convinced that she was a metre plus fish, along with Big Red, Dazza and Kezza. Maybe I was just being too reserved from past experiences, after coming so close on many other occasions. The wellbeing of the fish was paramount, so we placed her back in water before getting out the measure mat to confirm the length.

This was also an opportunity to retrieve the engulfed lure, with my two hands in her bucket mouth. After wetting the mat and preparing her for a quick photo opportunity, we slid the fish onto the mat. It was a tense moment as I gazed down at her massive caudal fin on the mat. There before me lay a 102cm wild river Murray cod. The relief was insane, followed by a moment of sheer exhilaration. It was during this time that I could still feel the adrenaline pumping through my body. After a few happy snaps were taken to capture the moment, I was incredibly excited to release her back into the water and watch her gracefully swim away.

The wait to catch that fish that I so desperately wanted to catch was finally over. After the crew congratulated me on the achievement, I sat on the bank, reflected, and processed what had just happened. Over the years I would despise adding up the hours that I had spent on the water or walking the banks for kilometres and kilometres, casting lures while targeting these fish, however it all lead to and added to this very moment. To think that this fish could be approximately 50 years or more of age, survived droughts, fire, storms and floods. Sometimes special fish of this magnitude find you and not the other way around.

Cheers, Dave

Gearing Up:

Okuma Komodo Baitcast Rods - KM-C-661H 6'6" 8-15kg
Okuma Komodo Baitcast Reels - KDS-364
Platypus Braid - 30lb
Platypus Leader - 60lb
TT Striker Spinnerbaits