Occasionally, along comes a fishing trip that’s so eventful in so many ways, I could barely do it justice with a small book, let alone a blog. So, this is going to be the merest precis of what just happened; the longer version can wait until I have time to digest a few things that are still swirling around in my head.
Last week, long-time fishing mate Peter Julian phoned and, as you can with old friends, he got straight to the point. ‘Do you want to come cod fishing up the Ovens valley?’ he asked. Part of me, maybe even a big part, felt like replying, ‘If I’m going to the Ovens valley in January, it’ll be to fish for trout.’ But for years now, a few of my fishing companions and I have wondered if we’ve neglected an opportunity by not taking Murray cod more seriously.
It isn’t as if I’ve never fished for cod. Under Rob Meade’s guidance, I’ve caught some stillwater cod, and last year I saw – or rather heard – brother Mark miss a monster on the upper Murray. Mate Paul catches a few ‘trout country’ cod, and fellow Millbrook guide David Dodd has become quite cod-committed. So, I thought, maybe it’s high time I actually went river fishing with cod as the main objective – at least at first. We could always fall back on trout if that didn’t work out.
Peter has a bit more cod experience than me, but only a bit. To be honest, our combined knowledge didn’t feel as if it amounted to much. We knew cod ate ridiculously big flies (perhaps one reason we’d never encountered them as trout fishing bycatch), they liked cover – particularly snags – and they were most active when the sun was down. This last point bothered me a little. I wasn’t really interested in fishing for a species I couldn’t catch in broad daylight, so I hoped my cod quest wouldn’t be over before it had even begun.
As Peter and I started fishing at our first spot on the Ovens River near Wangaratta, I was immediately fighting the sense that I was just going through the motions – never a good mental place to be when flyfishing for any species. I dutifully found a large fallen redgum and began placing my 20cm fly (literally the size of a small trout, it occurred to me) as close as I could to the half- submerged trunk. Even with a powerful 8 weight, this wasn’t easy, particularly with a precarious foothold on the slippery log and an almost vertical bank of clay, roots and saplings looming behind.
I was fiddling around with fly position, depth and the right retrieve (whatever that was!) when suddenly, there was a cod on the end. I couldn’t believe how hard it pulled – with all the snags nearby, the 20lb tippet I had on wasn’t so ridiculous anymore. At about 55cm, that cod would have been a ‘rat’ to more experienced cod fishers – but not me! Fifteen minutes into the trip and I had one. You can imagine the improvement in my mental attitude.
From then on, the trip was a case of steadily increasing success, punctuated by the odd setback – just to remind us that this was, after all, fishing. Nothing should be too easy! With some guidance from mate Andrew Briggs, whose job with the local CMA includes making better places for cod, trout and other fish to live, we located further likely stretches of the Ovens and then the King River.
Gradually, we learned that cod are well and truly catchable by day, even if they – like trout – really fire up on evening. I also quickly discovered that for the first however many seconds of the fight (I was always too gobsmacked to time it!) they pull harder, pound for pound, than anything I’ve ever hooked except perhaps a mangrove jack. In fact I ended up changing to 20 kilo tippet in case I encountered a 70 or 80cm cod.
Best of all, in the north-east at least, cod live alongside – or very close to – trout. I think the trip highlight for me was Friday on the King, just as the rain began to ease. Peter and I had located a couple of promisingly deep and structure-rich cod pools. I was fishing away intently, when 5 metres upstream at the head of the pool, a good brown trout started rising. With the car just up the track, I ran back for my trout rod, covered the steadily rising fish with a Royal Wulff, and caught it second cast. In the run above, the same thing happened. All this while Peter kept working hand-sized flies for cod downstream.
It would be a perfect end to the story if we caught a cod and a trout side by side. Well, almost. A few kilometres downstream and less than an hour later, I landed a 50 cm cod in a run that would have been ideal for a trout, only a tree had fallen right down the middle of it. Then, with the fishing clock running down to the last few minutes before our 2pm departure, I cast to a giant old willow stump on the other side of the river, let the fly settle… and had the 8 weight virtually wrenched from my grasp. For a moment or two I wondered if I’d hooked something scary big, then I glimpsed a shape that was about 60cm long. No monster by cod standards but for this trouty, plenty big enough and a fitting way to end an extraordinary trip.