Over the years I’ve fished with a bunch of anglers who are really good at catching cod. These experts range from my good mates Marc Ainsworth and Dirk Wendt to some of best in the business such Dave Hodge, Bill Classon and Roger Miles. All of these anglers have one thing in common: they believe you can catch a fish at any time if you’re in the right place.
I’ll grudgingly admit that tournament angling has changed fishing attitudes. Historically, when we’ve looked at a species of fish we’ve focussed on the best time to target them. That’s great if you have the time and money to go where and when you want, but if you’re like me, your fishing time is limited to whenever work and life lets you go. This means you have to believe you can catch a fish regardless of the conditions.
It’s tough to admit to yourself that you weren’t good enough to tempt a fish onto your lure. It’s so much easier to blame the barometer, the weather, the time of year, the moon phase or the water temperature.
Of all these factors, water temperature is the easiest to blame. With Murray cod, for example, the rule has always been ‘the warmer the water, the better the fish bite’. As a general rule I agree with this, but I don’t let it restrict when I fish.
After all, what is a cod-mad angler meant to do in April, May, June and even July, when the water temperature can often be as low as 14°C? Go fishing of course! The cod and golden perch are still there, you just need to refine your plan of attack.
I’m not going to write about why Murray cod and golden perch can be caught in cool water because all the cod I’ve ever asked have flatly refused to answer me. What I am going to do is describe some of the tactics we use to get a cool water natives onto the line.
While fishing at Bundalong recently, I had the chance to sit down with some of my best mates and have a round-the-fire talk about how they catch these shut down, slow fish. It’s an interesting insight into lure choice, retrieve techniques and productive structure, and each angler had a different view on what was best.
My mate Dirk Wendt shines as far as catching big cod in cool water goes. He’s dedicated and a damn good fisherman. He was one of the first people to start casting oversized lures in deep water for very big cod with his mate Neal Thomson, and they caught some great fish while refining their technique.
Marc ‘Ainsy’ Ainsworth started chasing cod on lures about 15 years ago with me. We’ve made countless trips up and down the Murray, learning all we could about the way to catch these fish. Marc is now working for Fisheries Victoria following an 18-month stint at the helm of VFM, and he has been into the cod hard since moving back to Victoria from Queensland. As much as I hate to admit it, he’s turned into a really good cod angler and this season’s results are testament to that.
So with the introduction done, let’s get on with learning what tactics we use to catch cod in the cold water.
There are so many lures out there that it’s really hard to recommend just one, but that’s just the task I gave the crew.
The No. 2 StumpJumper gets my vote. It’s my favourite casting lure and probably always will be, because I’ve caught so many fish using it that it just feels right whatever the conditions.
Dirk chose a different lure, and for different reasons than my lure choice. His favourite is the Humpback lure, and his results on this lure in cold water are pretty hard to argue with.
Ainsy is a reconvert to spinnerbaits. He was using them for a few years, had a break away from them and has now taken them up again with a vengeance. His choice is a Bassman 5/8oz modified to have a single copper or bronze willow blade.
This is the nuts and bolts of catching cod in cold water. We all have our theories about why we catch fish where and how we do, but we all admit to some creative speculation. That basically means we make up really good stories about why the fish are where they are!
My tactic is pretty simple. I look for fairly shallow water off the main stream of the river. Water from 4-7ft is about perfect for the lures I use and for the fish I target.
On a typical cast and retrieve with a No. 2 StumpJumper I reckon the lure only gets about 3-5ft deep and this is dramatically influenced by the retrieve style. The more rod tip jiggles the shallower the lure runs. I fish these backwaters because they potentially heat up quicker than the main river with the sun, but on the other side they probably cool down just as quickly in the cold night air. A cloudless day of about 25°C will have me very keen to hit some backwaters for cool water cod in the afternoon.
I look for a slight current flow in a backwater with good snags sitting in 4-7ft of water. I spend a good 10-15 minutes at each snag and really cover it by moving the boat around the snag. This allows me to present the lure differently, and also helps me build up a good mental image of the underwater terrain. Pretty simple.
Dirk chases a whole other level of fish – big specimens in deep water – and to do this he looks for fallen trees in the main river. He assesses where he thinks the crown will be, and if it’s lying in about 15ft of water he gives it a solid work over from upstream and downstream. He even fishes it from out wide and then from the bank if he’s confident a fish is in residence. He casts a long way past the snag to ensure the lure is at the right depth, and when he’s close to the snag he slows the retrieve down to work the lure through the timber.
This tactic doesn’t rely on the right temperature, the right barometer or anything like that, it relies fully on persistence and belief that there is a fish in the snag – and when he choses a snag it usually does have a fish!
Ainsy fishes in a similar way to Dirk, except he substitutes a hard-bodied diving lure for a spinnerbait. He really likes riverside snags that are complex, with lots of intertwined sticks and logs and a bit of depth. Water from 8-15ft is prime territory for Ainsy’s spinnerbaits.
His basic tactic is to cast right into the snag and helicopter the spinnerbait down to the bottom. He then starts a slow retrieve that has the blades just ticking over, lifting and dropping the spinnerbait over logs and sticks to ensure it is down in the strike zone. This method means he snags his lures a lot, but it also means the big fish sitting in slightly deeper water will be hit on the head by the lure and not have to rise up to it.
Current is an important part of the equation and snags on the outside of bends in rivers where the current runs fastest are key areas to target. If there is a bit of a log jam, all the better. Ainsy also stresses the need for spending the right amount of time at a snag. If you think you’ve spent a bit of time at a snag, spend a bit more time, just to make sure you’ve covered the area. Like me, Ainsy also likes to rotate around the snag, presenting his spinnerbait in a number of different angles.
So what did we learn from our chat over the fire? Surprisingly, we found many similarities in our approaches, given that we all like to use a different lure.
The first common point was hitting the same snag from a number of different angles. This increases the chances that you’ll present the lure to the fish in the direction that it is feeding. In the low flow situations commonly found when the water cools, cod and golden perch often take up position in places you’d not expect them to. That same snag that produces so many fish when the water levels are up in irrigation season will still produce fish in low, cold flows, but maybe from a different part of the snag.
We all like current. In a river environment where there is current there are fish hanging around. We’ll rarely fish snags that are tucked around a lee corner and which miss the current flow. Maybe it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy where we only target current areas so we only catch fish in current areas. That’s true to an extent, but we do fish good snags out of the current because they just look right and yes we do catch fish from them. However, for the best results hit the areas with current.
The next thing in common was spending a bit of extra time. This gives a slower or lazier fish a few more chances to nail your lure. The more chances the fish has to eat your offering, the better your results will be. We all agree you’ll fish fewer snags, but you’ll fish them better.
And as for depth and position of snags, I like action so I fish shallower water. I get more hits and golden perch than the other two but on the negative side, don’t come across too many big monster fish. Dirk and Ainsy are really targeting bigger fish and their approach is very successful, whether you choose a spinnerbait or a hard-bodied lure.
So you can catch good cod, and plenty of golden perch too, when the water is cold and low. The season for lure fishers doesn’t stop when the water gets below 20°C – in fact, you can still catch them when the water is 14°C with some consistency. Choose whether you want more action or big fish, and hit the shallows or slug it out in the deeper water – it’s your choice. Just rest assured there are fish there and they will eat your lure.Reads: 1707