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article: flyrodding murray cod by neil schultz
Dated: 31 January, 2006
A weight forward floating line on a quality 8 weight outfit and a Dahlberg and you're in business.

A smile still appears when I recall the capture of my first freshwater cod on fly. On that particular day back in the early eighties I was engaged in one of my favourite pursuits; fishing surface flies. An overnight storm had a small waterfall trickling into the shady pool I was working. Cast to the base of the waterfall the fly was engulfed on splashdown. Impressed by the fight that followed, I was ecstatic when the mottled green head emerged from the depths. Even now some twenty three years later that tiny 2kg fish remains one of my most cherished angling memories and helps to keep my long standing love affair with the green fish alive.

If you are keen to catch cod on fly the most difficult part of your quest will be locating and accessing the right location. Most of the Murray-Darling system has some cod in residence. The streams on the western plains may hold good stocks but the visibility is usually nowhere near good enough for successful fly fishing. Most of the streams flowing westwards from the great divide provide far greater visibility in their upper reaches. How clear does the water need to be for fly fishing? I like to be able to see my fingertips with my arm submerged to the elbow.

Those streams in the Granite Belt, the tableland country stretching from Tamworth into Southern Queensland, have good populations of green fish as well as clean water. I won’t nominate a particular stream for a couple of reasons. By naming a stream fishing effort is concentrated there and the fishery it supports will suffer. Secondly, you will gain more satisfaction by studying a topographic map, selecting a spot and finding fish through your own powers of deduction.

DO NOT fish for cod in streams east of the great divide; I can’t emphasize this point too strongly. NSW Fisheries have protected the East Coast cod for a very good reason, the species is endangered. They want the fish to be able to go about their daily business without being hassled by anglers. Adopting a self-righteous attitude saying, “we release all of our fish so we aren’t doing any harm”, just doesn’t cut it. If you are fishing for cod in eastern flowing streams you are in breach of fisheries regulations and can be fined. QLD Fisheries has closed several streams to all fishing in order to protect that state’s species of eastern watershed cod. A bag limit of zero has also been introduced in its native river system.
Wading can put you within reach of fish others never encounter.


When you’ve selected your target stream don’t roll up to the local swimming hole or common and expect to start hauling in cod. There may be a few there but they will have been hammered by all and sundry. You will find the fish more receptive to flies and in greater numbers once you get away from the public access points. Moron droppings, (cigarette packs, empty stubbies, plastic bags, etc.) are sure signs that the mob is fishing the area so keep walking.

The encouraging side of the story is that it appears that many of the tableland streams have more green fish in residence now than fifteen years ago. There are several contributing factors for this happening. Fisheries managers have introduced bag limits, size limits and a closed season all of which are contributing to the cod’s comeback. Restocking projects by keen community groups have helped restore cod populations in areas where they had been decimated by set lines, nets and explosives.

The spread of sportfishing ethics with an emphasis on catch and release has definitely helped. The growing awareness of the general angling public that our native fish are not an infinite resource is possibly the greatest step towards ensuring the future prosperity of all of our inland species. Finally the communities intolerance of the greedy few who fill corn bags with fish, (often to sell on the black market) or those who kill every big fish caught just so they can hang them on the veranda of the local pub as something to brag about, is having a positive effect. Peer pressure is a powerful persuader.

Once you are on your chosen stream finding the fish should not be too difficult. Stream reading is fairly easy and similarities are numerous regardless of the target species. The heads, and to a lesser extent the tails of pools are choice feeding areas. Any object that breaks the flow is also worth your attention. Midstream boulders and snags, especially those with some current passing are prime ambush points for a hungry cod. Deep, shady corners are more likely to be used as residences during the daylight hours. Fish in these areas are not out of reach if you use a full length sinking line. Weighted flies are a good choice for probing those deep pools. Dawn and dusk as well as most of the night will see cod moving into shallower areas to actively hunt.

TACKLE

The average fly caught cod are smallish fish from 2 to 5kg and could be easily handled on a good trout outfit. This is not practical however because most of the flies you’ll want to throw will be too heavy to be comfortably cast on anything less than an eight weight outfit. My favourite outfit for green fish in big water where giants swim is a 10-12 weight rod loaded with a full length #10 weight forward sinking line. A ten weight rod has plenty of pulling power to turn a stubborn fish and you don’t want to be under gunned if the fish of a lifetime gets into the act. In areas where I know the average size is fairly small like some of the upper reaches where the holes aren’t large enough to hold huge fish I’ll use my 8 weight Pflueger Trion. By using smaller flies with less weight it handles the work nicely and is much more pleasant to cast. This rod is very crisp to cast and after landing some quality fish I am greatly impressed with its fish handling ability.

You don’t need a large capacity reel for cod, as most won’t run very far at all. I have never had the whole fly line off of the reel when playing a cod. The same reel you have been using for barra or medium saltwater work should do just fine.
A sub-surface fly fished on a floating line lured this cod from a fairly shallow pool.


Because of the possibility of a very big cod grabbing a fly I usually fish with a 6kg tippet. A short length of 10kg shock tippet will stop the fish’s teeth from rasping through the line. Keep your leaders simple. Mine are just a short butt section tied directly to the class tippet with the shock tippet at the end. Short leaders are the way to go when using sinking lines, about a metre and a half is as long as you need.

When fishing surface flies for cod, change to a floating line, still in a weight forward eight or ten weight. Big Dahlbergs cast like ping-pong balls so you’ll need a reasonably heavy line to get the distance. There are some fairly radical weight forward tapers available that have been designed for throwing wind resistant flies like deer hair poppers, Dahlbergs etc. I have been using a RIO Clouser Line for cod and have found it an excellent delivery vehicle for bulky cod sized surface flies. Its heavy short head section loads the rod well and throws bulky surface flies comfortably.

FLIES

A few years ago a young bloke just starting to fly fish asked me a volley of questions regarding my favourite fly for several species. His list included flathead, barra, jacks, trevally, cod and a few more that I have since forgotten. My answer to all was the same; a pink thing. I still throw pink things at green fish but there are other patterns that will work. I have a preference for flies with a bit of weight added at the head. Any pattern with lead eyes should work, as will silicone head flies. These flies swim with an undulating motion, sinking between strips. This action has been far more effective on cod than the level swimming motion of unweighted streamer flies of the deceiver ilk. We also catch a surprising number of cod on saltwater Clousers in colours like blue and grey.

You don’t need a huge array of different patterns. Keep it simple and carry a few patterns in different colours. My box usually contains a few pink things, silicone head streamers and whistlers with a couple of Dahlbergs or foam bodied poppers for surface fishing. My most used colours are yellow/red, yellow/black, white/pink and purple.

A very interesting fly that has been producing well is known as the “woolly grubber”. A pattern developed by U.S. small mouth bass anglers it is basically a woolly bugger with a plastic curl tail. I tie some with lead eyes to get them down faster and to give an up and down jigging action on the retrieve. These things look alive in the water and are often eaten on the drop.
The quarry.


I am currently tieing all of my cod flies on Mustad signature C52S BLN stinger hooks. The wide gape of these hooks gives a better hookup rate than standard patterns. The fine wire, sharp points and unobtrusive barbs all add to the hook’s utility. These hooks are much stronger than the old fashioned bass bug stinger hooks we used a couple of decades ago.

METHODS

Cod are not hard to catch on fly. If you can locate clean water with a reasonable population you should have no trouble persuading a green fish to hit a fly. Delicate presentations are definitely not what you need to aim for. Try to splat the fly down hard to create a bit of noise. This will get the inquisitive cod’s attention. Let the fly sink for a few seconds before commencing a slow, strip, pause strip retrieve. Allowing long pauses between strips will let the fly sink keeping it deeper during the retrieve. Work any likely holding positions at the head of a pool thoroughly. Cod will wait behind any object situated in or beside the current to snatch the passing food items carried with the flow. Remain alert at all times. Quite often cod striking at a sub surface fly or lure will miss but there is an audible “crump” sound. Often you’ll see a boil or flash of white behind the fly or hear the crump of a cod chopping at the fly without following it up. Keep casting back to the same spot when this happens and you have a good chance of turning a looker into a taker.

DETECTING THE STRIKE

ALWAYS retrieve with your rod tip low and pointed straight down the line at the fly, using your line hand to impart action to the fly. This eliminates slack line and allows greater feel of what is happening below the surface. When green fish hit a surface fly you will know about it. The strike will be audible and visible. The situation is entirely different when fishing subsurface. Strikes can be subtle and hard to detect. The deeper you are fishing the harder these soft strikes are to detect. Many of the cod you encounter on wet flies will hit hard and hookup on the strike but a lot of fish will pick up a fly and remain stationary while they decide it isn’t edible then reject it.

Often the only indication of a strike is a subtle difference in the feel of the fly line while retrieving. The line may feel heavy, tight, become slack, move sideways or you may feel a bump or vibration. Strike at any unusual movement or feel of the line. A good rule of thumb is “when in doubt, strike!” Strikes cost nothing and although you will hook a few snags you will also hook a lot more fish. A recent nocturnal session with unweighted subsurface flies illustrated this point well. Retrieving parallel to the bank on which I was standing I felt what I thought was the fly bouncing along a gravel bottom. Applying the “strike at everything” principle I struck hard and was rewarded with an instant hookup on a plump 60cm cod.

The opposite in striking habits will also be encountered. Flies with lots of action and flash are regularly nailed while sinking before the retrieve has commenced. These fish usually hook themselves making for easy fishing.
Fishing surface flies at night can be hard on the nerves but great fun.


SETTING THE HOOK

When you feel, see or guess that a fish has taken the fly quickly strip with your line hand without moving the rod. When you feel the weight of the fish, strike firmly, still using your line hand only. Resist the urge to lift the rod as you would with lure casting tackle. I like to follow this with another line hand haul or two, to make sure the hook has been set. You may then bring the rod into play to tire and land the fish. Fly rods are very inefficient striking tools. If you strike with the rod the flexible tip will absorb most of the force of your strike transmitting little to the fly to hook the fish.

The reason for the second and third line hand strikes is due to the feeding habits of cod. When they take a food item or a fly they clamp down hard crushing with teeth, tongue and gill rakers, so hard that it is difficult to move the fly enough to effect a hookup. As the fish relaxes its grip to eject or turn the prey a strike will pull the fly home and the fish is hooked.

SUNDRIES

There are a couple of other items that can be useful when chasing green fish on fly. A stripping basket will come in handy when you are fishing country with heavy bank-side vegetation or a lot of flotsam on the banks. The banks of a lot of the best cod streams consist largely of rock and so negate the need for a stripping basket as the loose line has little on which to catch. A vest is a worthwhile inclusion in the kit of most inshore fly anglers. All of your tackle needs for a weekend hunting green fish on fly can be crammed into a vest. You will need to carry spare leader material, a box of flies, pliers or forceps, hat and polaroids. Don’t bother with a landing net, as you will find it a real pain when hiking through thick scrub. You should be able to lip most of the cod you are likely to encounter.

AFTER DARK

Don’t pack up your fly gear when the sun goes down. Nocturnal fishing for cod is one of the most exciting scenarios a freshwater fly rodder can encounter. All you’ll need to tap into this fishery is to change to a floating line, a topwater fly and add a head torch to your gear. The fish will be out prowling for an easy feed so you don’t need to cast to cover at night.

Cod will sometimes be in such a hurry to grab a surface fly that they miss on the first attempt. If you strike with your line hand only, keeping the rod low and pointed down the line, the fly will remain in the strike zone. This enables you to keep working the fly after a missed strike and more often than not the fish will be back for another go. Be warned; a five kilo green fish nailing a popper just a leader length away in the dead of night can come as a hell of a shock. No matter how much you psyche yourself up for it you are never quite ready. Heart stopping is a good way of describing this style of fishing.

The fly rod and top-water flies will regularly outfish hard bodied surface lures. A stop start retrieve with a fly will cause some slack to develop between strips. This is advantageous as it allows the cod to draw the fly in with a generous gob full of water on the strike. Lure casting tackle doesn’t allow that rearwards movement on the strike. Night fishing is not the exclusive realm of surface flies. You can enjoy good results by swimming standard unweighted subsurface flies after dark. This method is a lot easier on the nerves than using poppers. A mono weed guard is useful on most cod flies but is invaluable for nocturnal work when you can’t see submerged snags, weed, etc.

Yes, more than two decades and countless captures have come and gone since that first beautiful little fly caught cod but I still get a buzz from them.
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