The golden hue of late Autumn willows sets the backdrop to the start of cold-water cod fishing along the Murray River. It’s a prelude to the chill of Winter’s breath that brings clear blue days and lays frost to the ground.
While many anglers pack the gear away, those in the know are privy to the buzz that is Winter cod fishing, where the highs are high and the lows are low.
The warmth of the riverside campfire is savoured at dawn’s first light as a sea of nervous baitfish flick and rain across the river’s calm. Beneath the water, giant green frames hover close to the many snags, their bulk testament to their ability to hunt and survive even in the dead of winter.
While their feeding habits change, Winter cod are a viable proposition and most they come in mega sizes.
So what changes during the cooler months and where should you look for these giant fish?
The water temperature drops away very quickly and this alone changes the dynamics of every living thing in the river.
Shrimp and other crustaceans, normally plentiful, bury in the mud and thus strike a billion easy meals from the menu. Those that remain are often found in the shallows where the water perhaps remains a few degrees warmer.
Either way, numerous giant cod also take up residence in these areas, often holding in just a couple of metres of water. These huge fish now become viable propositions on the cast and when it comes to cod fishing, that’s about as good as it gets.
Cool heads, heavy drags and well-weighted thumbs can dictate results when the caning strike of a river giant can turn you inside out in seconds flat.
Drag settings are crucial, possibly the major difference between booming photos and a busted butt. Succeeding on big Winter cod in the shallows is all about stopping them. If you allow them to turn back to the snag, chances are it’s over.
If you look at the fish’s bulk and the paddle-sized tail pushing it, you will understand that a giant cod that turns its head around is all but impossible to stop.
The idea is not to allow the fish to turn in the first place and this is where the heavy drag does the job and the fish, used to having its own way, is suddenly unable to turn.
This is not normal to the fish and in most cases it will charge straight past the boat into open water, looking for depth. The angler has just dictated terms and the river giant has just made its first mistake.
Once wide of the snags, few cod find cover and with a cool-slowed metabolism, the fight is often short – an explosive few minutes that makes up for many hours’ work.
When casting the shallows we prefer to work as many snags in a day as we can.
What we are looking for are active fish, those that are ready to go, and from many years experience these seem to come in the first few casts.
Sure, you might tempt a fish with 40 or 50 casts but what if there is no fish there to tempt in the first place? Don’t waste time better spent looking for active targets. Several casts are delivered on each snag to the most likely holding spots; then move to the next; it’s about finding fish.
Lure styles for the most are dictated by structure formations. Newer snags with spindly limbs are better worked over with hardbodies that float and ride their way over the numerous vertical branches.
Older snags that have broken down are better worked with large spinnerbaits that ride and hold a consistent depth above the snag.
It’s no secret that bony bream, AKA bony herring or pyberry are very high on the Murray cod menu and Winter has a strong influence on these silver ‘cod lollies’. With the water temperature down, they cloud in giant schools of underwater cod fodder, often hanging mid-water in the deeper holes.
Many large cod take on a ‘pelagic’ nature and openly hunt in numbers. Several times we have trolled multiple metre-plus fish from the same bait cloud and on a couple of occasions almost had a double hook-up.
Numbers of cod tend to hand around the schools. Mid-water trolling is very productive when anglers can detect bait clouds and active cod on the sounder.
It can also pay to troll large shallow-running lures in the general vicinity upstream and downstream of where the bait is holding in deeper water. Here you often turn up good fish that are resting out of the main feeding area.
Just as with casting the snags, most strikes come in the first few passes. Early mornings seem best.
Much of what we know of cod is founded on very little knowledge and disseminated by those none the wiser.
How cold is too cold for cod? Fact is, one of the best day’s fishing I have ever had on the Murray started with a –5° morning when the ice on the swag actually crackled as I crawled forth to a white landscape under a clear dawn.
With a frozen electric motor and the water hovering just under 9°, we started one of the hottest big cod sessions I can recall, with several cod over 1m smashed cast lures as reluctant fingers worked the reels. I recall other trips with that same icy chill and a similar bite. How cold is too cold for cod is a question we have not yet answered.
Winter cod fishing has much to offer, not least being the chance to tangle with some monster fish. Add to this the warmth of the riverside campfire where yarns of cod fishing roll on well into the night. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the highs of Winter cod fishing far outweigh the lows.
• Hardbodies, troll/cast: Shimano Raider 6kg-10kg rod, Curado baitcaster with 50lb Power Pro braid and 60lb leader. All lures connected with a loop knot.
• Spinnerbaits: G-Loomis Mossyback 12lb-16lb rod, Curado reel, 50lb braid, 60lb leader.
Mostly big, 100mm or more. Koolabung 120mm Codzilla, StumpJumper and other large profile lures that cast well. Big spinnerbaits like the Codman range by Bassman with upsized Colorado blades. Large Mumbler-style shaker blades with soft plastic trailers and stinger hooks.
Bony bream are the major food source for Murray cod during the colder months.
A good-sized net is mandatory for winter cod fishing.
Fat as mud, this cod was trolled mid-water off a large bait ball.
A mouth full of bony bream did little to stop this cod snacking on a spinnerbait.