Bait fishing rivers — finding the pit stops
  |  First Published: January 2015

I don’t really get a lot of questions regarding the articles I write. Every now and then someone will hit me up on social media for more information related to tackle advice or directions to a certain spot, but overall, until recently, it has been all quiet on the Western Front.

In August 2014, I wrote an article about bait fishing in early spring for yellowbelly, and I mentioned that the techniques discussed work best in impoundments. This article, more than any other, certainly got a few anglers interested. I fielded many questions and most were related to my comments about bait fishing rivers. “Do you bait-fish rivers at all?” one angler wrote, while another asked why the techniques outlined in the article wouldn’t work on his local river. So here are the answers to all the questions I received, because in actual fact I do bait fish my local rivers from late summer through autumn and even into early winter.

The Big Question

So what’s so special about this time of year? I think this question requires a two-pronged answer. The closed season for Murray cod starts on August 31 and runs through until December 1. When I first started bait-fishing rivers, I did so in early spring (not knowing of this important rule). I was still in my teens and fishing was a new pursuit. I pulled 3 small Murray cod and an 85cm beast from one snag during a particularly fruitful afternoon session. When I stopped by my local tackle shop to report my success, Dr Bryan Pratt told me about the closed season and the fact that when a cod is caught during this time, its spawning run is effectively over and it will not attempt to breed again until the following spring.

Even though I wasn’t actively trying to catch cod, I realised that they were going to hit baits regardless. From that point I only used smaller lures when fishing the rivers and have, touch wood, not caught another cod during spring/early summer. Fishing on into autumn presents a golden opportunity to pursue natives, because the cod have finished spawning and are starving, the yellowbelly are readying to shut up shop for the winter and are searching for a last meal, it’s not too hot, and the snakes have, for the most part, bedded down in preparation for winter. Perfect.


I think of a river as a long stretch of track, and scattered throughout are a series of pit stops. Being able to read the river and where these pit stops are is more than half the battle. The main sections of river (open water) can represent good fishing, so don’t count them out. Bays, small rock islands and submerged trees can also produce action. Even sections of sandy bottom will hold fish. In other words, there is a lot going on. What I suggest looking for is a spot that offers all these elements: open water, submerged timber, overhanging trees, rocky islands, and chunks of sandy bottom. These sorts of spots are ideal because the fish have shelter from the current, areas to hide from big fish around the logs and rocks, plus several different food sources washing in from open water, falling from the trees, or living in the logs.

If I were lure fishing, I would spend time on each of these spots individually, but when bait fishing it is best if they are all mixed into one. To find one of these areas may require some walking, but it’ll be worth the effort and there is no more moving around once a good spot is found. All the fish featured in the photos came from an area where all of these elements were rolled together, and were caught over two sessions.


Take two rods. Set both up with a running sinker rig and 30cm of monofilament trace, coupled with a small baitholder hook. Cast one rod into open water with a scrub worm, 5m or so from the snaggy area. Make sure you snip the very end of the scrub worm to create a scent trail. When fishing open water, it is important that the bait appeals to a fish’s excellent sense of smell.

Cast the second rod with a yabby bait right into the heart of the snag. The yabby will swim about and cause a bit of commotion, which should bring fish on the bite. Be sure to remove its claws beforehand, as they will be less aggressive towards the fish and won’t be able to grab the line. Plant both rods in some rod holders (or on a convenient stick), wind the drag right off and allow for a slight bow in the line. Wait and watch for a bite.

When the rod tip indicates a nibble, pick up the rod, tighten the drag and wait for the line to peel out. My local rivers are crawling with carp and these pests will just grab and run, but natives don’t. They can be picky in autumn and if you are too quick with the strike you will wrench it out of their mouths. Even if you feel a big hit, wait for the line to peel off before setting the hook. If there are lots of bites, but no takes, twitch the line a few times to kick the bait around. This should get the fish to bite properly.

If a big fish takes the bait in the snag, it is important not to panic. It may duck under a branch or try to wrap the line up. If this happens, release the bail arm. Allow a moment or two for it to swim out, and then come tight again. The largest perch of our two bait sessions down the river came to the net using this method.


It is important not to skimp on your gear if you decide to take this form of fishing seriously, or if you uncover a particularly good spot. You will be setting your rods up on sandy banks and will battle big fish in tight snags. Unlike most freshwater scenarios, this means that gear can rust quickly and line can become frayed after the first few runs. This is not a situation for a bargain bin special!

I use two Daiwa Advantage rods, one a medium/heavy, the other a medium/light. I matched a 3000-size reel to the heavier rod and a 2500 reel to the lighter one. The heavy rod is for the structure, the lighter for open water to maximise the sport. These rods are built on an incredibly stiff blank, as a rod with a significant parabolic curve will allow the fish too much time to get back into cover. I do like a little bit of stretch, however, and so use monofilament for all my river bait fishing sessions. The other reason is that I hate having to constantly re-tie leaders, and you do get a lot of snags with this method.

Check the line regularly for any signs of damage, especially after the first couple of fish. Snapped lines are all too common if an angler is not vigilant, and you don’t want to lose that 1m cod because of frayed line.


Bait fishing is a wonderful way of catching freshwater natives in rivers and streams. The weather is beautiful, the fish are biting, the scenery is spectacular, and as the months roll by, the snakes are scarce. Find a spot which incorporates sunken timber, overhanging trees, rocky islands, open water, and a sandy bottom, and catches of a dozen or more natives will not be uncommon at these piscatorial pit stops.

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