Mickey chooses Canberra as his base when chasing his favourite natives species.
The Canberra region is central to some of the best freshwater fishing in south-eastern Australia. But while everyone knows about the trout of the Snowy/ Monaro, fewer flyfishers are aware that you can catch three native freshwater icons near the capitol: bass, golden perch and Murray cod. The city lies close to several major drainages, has many impoundments and river options, and more public holidays than any other state or territory; meaning more free fishing days per year!
The three species I’ve mentioned are all readily available. Some are close enough to target during a city worker’s lunchbreak, while others are a short hop away in one of many national parks, impoundments or farmland areas. The fact I choose Canberra as my base when guiding or fishing for native species, says it all.
It might surprise some readers that Australian bass are on my Canberra list. However, the middle reaches of one of south-eastern Australia’s major bass rivers is only 90 minutes away – close enough for a day trip. Another smaller drainage is less than an hour’s drive and also holds excellent populations of these bronze brawlers. Add to the list several stocked impoundments in the region, and you have plenty of local opportunities to target a fish which I regard as, pound for pound, the hardest fighter we have in southern freshwater.
Golden perch are next on my list. No other native fish is as readily available to Canberra flyfishers as goldens. They inhabit almost every permanent body of water in and around the ACT, and provide awesome sport year-round. They are the ever-reliable fallback as well as a great fish for honing your native skills, before moving onto to the king of the capital…
No other fish better represents Australian waterways than that beautifully-adapted predator, the Murray cod or goodoo. Most kids from my generation had ‘The Monster that Ate Canberra’ read to them, and these days I tend to think of that monster as a giant Murray cod rather than the pink bunyip author Michael Salmon imagined. Only in Canberra could there be the urban legend of a Lake Burley Griffin cod that regurgitated a human hand when it was caught. Cod have an excellent presence throughout the region, with healthy wild and stocked populations. Locally, I’ve witnessed a marked increase in the numbers and quality of these fish since I first started targeting them fifteen years ago, a trend I hope continues.
In my mind, the Canberra region is loosely defined as anywhere within a two hour drive of the city centre; about the maximum distance for a reasonable day trip. That roughly translates as being from the western side of the Great Dividing Range around Gundagai on the Murrumbidgee river drainage, to the eastern estuarine mouth of the Clyde River at Batemans Bay.
While the two hour drive rule defines my idea of the Canberra region, the majority of the fishing is actually closer, a mere hour or so from town. The major river systems accessible for an easy day trip are the Murrumbidgee, the Clyde and the Shoalhaven. In fact, the Murrumbidgee runs south to north along the length of the ACT and some very fishable areas are within a 20-minute drive of the CBD. The ‘Bidgee, as locals call it, is definitely the highlight for flyfishing for natives in the ACT, providing plenty of options.
Then there are the lakes and dams in the Canberra region; one distinction being whether they are urban or rural. Almost all these stillwaters are well-stocked with goldens and cod. The urban lakes have huge numbers of golden perch and the occasional trophy cod literally swimming in sight of Canberra’s major landmarks. They all have easy access and provide that lunchtime or after-work fishing window for anyone in the city.
The lakes which supply drinking water or power to Canberra and its surrounds are further out, however they offer natives in even better numbers and size than their urban counterparts. The main differences are better water quality, a lack of carp, more difficult access, plus natural as opposed to urban settings.
While a car-topper kayak, drift raft or similar watercraft provides massive opportunities around Canberra, the bank options for flyfishing are many. Some decent hiking boots and a willingness to get wet will provided you with top-draw native fishing. Here’s a snapshot of three very different days chasing natives out of Canberra.
If I get a full day off, have enough diesel in my car and its mid-summer, I’m most likely going to head towards the coast to target bass. I love these freshwater warriors and although I don’t get to target them as much as I’d like (their season crosses over with my peak trout and cod guiding season) they’ll always have a special place for me as the first Australian native I caught on fly.
The upper reaches of the Clyde River, and a few other little spots, are only an hour and a half from my base in Canberra. I’ll have the trip timed so the bakery along the way has just opened pre-dawn. I can get a coffee and pie and still make it to the river for the morning surface bite.
Surface fishing for bass in a healthy river system is some of the most fun you can have with a fly rod. I’m usually not looking for big fish (although they are there); the real appeal is multiple 20 to 35cm fish on the surface in one session. I generally take my kayak and depending on the time of year or river flow, fish my way upstream with surface flies for as long as the bass will eat off the top. Sometimes, this is a short pre-dawn window which only lasts until the first proper sunlight hits the water. However, at the right time in summer, cicadas can draw the surface bite out all day.
Typically though, by the time the sun is well up, I’ve covered plenty of water heading upstream, fishing on top and nailing a few bass. I then turn around and drift back downstream fishing subsurface. Bass populations in the rivers around Canberra are very healthy and if you find them on top and get a couple – especially in a smaller size class – you can usually count on more to come from the same places subsurface later. I had one session during last summer when I had up to five bass competing for my Vampire fly each cast. I needed to pull the fly away from the smaller ones and let it drop beneath them to have a chance at the better fish.
On many of these bass day trips around Canberra, I’m off the water by lunchtime (unless there’s an all-day surface bite!) and home in time for a nap. The launch sites are easy and accessible. You don’t need a 4×4 or a big boat, just some paddling arms and a kayak. Even a stand-up paddle board (SUP) would be a fun option for these spots.
Goldens in spring
When it comes to accessibility and variety of spots in the Canberra region, golden perch are a long way ahead. Some of the best fishing takes place in our impoundments in the early spring, when goldens coming up from the depths to feed hard all day long on the weed edges and around structure .
Googong Dam is only about half an hour from the CBD and is Queanbeyan’s water supply. It’s largely free of carp, has large numbers of huge goldens, and some massive cod too. It was in the clear water of Googong last season that I had one of my most memorable fishing days with mate Will.
We set out on a clear mid-spring day in Will’s electric-powered tinny (petrol motors aren’t allowed on Googong). We planned to either sight cast to cruising goldens, or search likely-looking weed or rock edges. Almost immediately I hooked and landed a 4kg golden. It was pretty awesome to wake up, go for a short drive, hop on my mates’ boat and within fifteen minutes watch a huge golden slab inhale the fly in shallow water. Will caught another almost immediately afterwards, and from that point we went fish for fish the entire day. The weather was perfect and the fish were massive, my biggest being a 6kg slab. We were getting so many, we often had two in the net at once; double hook-ups are common in spring once a patch of fish is found.
This is the type of fishing people travel hours for and it’s on the doorstep for any Canberran. A small kayak is another great option for this type of fishing, and even if you are limited to walking, Googong has a foot track right around the lake. At this time of year, the fish are in close, so you have a decent chance of getting one on fly along the edges. There are also lots of big redfin that will keep you entertained as by-catch, and there’s always the chance of a monster goodoo lurking somewhere nearby…
Murray cod or goodoo are the main target for many Canberra native fishers. They inhabit almost every system on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, but the Murrumbidgee River is the most consistent, accessible and reliable fishery we have. I fish and guide on this river a lot, and one day this past season stands out from the rest. It’s a fantastic feeling catching a your first Murray cod on fly; it’s even more satisfying guiding others for their first shot at our top freshwater predator.
Two of my clients this season, Steve and Matt, came down from Sydney to try and land a cod on fly. It was early December – a prime time – and we’d had consistent river levels and just the right amount of rain to create perfect conditions.
We started before sunrise (a prerequisite on most goodoo days) and not far out of the Canberra CBD. In fact, I do most of my Canberra cod days within the ACT borders. We launched a drift raft pre-dawn and although light rain was falling, it was quite warm. The barometer was steadily rising and the light through the broken cloud was good. Although we didn’t find any surface action in the first few pools, I knew at some point the switch would flip and the fish would come on.
By about halfway down our drift, we’d changed to fishing sub-surface when Steve got absolutely whacked by a cod of about 60cm – which promptly spat the hook and swam back under its rock. Its aggression suggested that wouldn’t be our only shot for the day, and sure enough, from then on, every few casts produced swipes or swirls. Sticking a cod with a big single hook and a powerful strip strike can take some getting used to, and it took a while to get a decent connection.
Eventually Matt did hook up solidly and the cod fought hard. One of my favourite moments of the whole season was watching Matt’s face when that fish pulled back against his strike. He yelled out, “I didn’t think these fish fought!” After a decent tussle he brought a beautiful mid-70cm fish to hand and sent it back home again. We watched it swim away through the clear water of the ‘Bidgee.
Steve was next to make a solid connection. As he stripped his fly back through the top of a log jam, we all watched as a cod crawled all over the timber, then engulfed his Deceiver pattern. This was another mid-70s fish and it went equally hard.
The bite died off under a full afternoon sun and we returned to the car. The boys were safely back in Sydney by 8pm, while I was enjoying dinner and a beer at one of Canberra’s breweries. A perfect Canberra cod day.
Using surface flies for natives is addictive and around Canberra, both bass and goodoo will regularly crunch surface flies, while goldens will occasionally oblige too. Start early and fish tight to structure. Both of my best goodoo sessions this season have come from continually putting surface flies way back into the snags. Be honest: if you think you’ve missed the spot, you probably have!
As the day brightens up, subsurface flies become a productive option. This doesn’t mean the end of sight fishing though. There is some very clear water around Canberra and I’ve watched cod eat flies down deep; sticking their heads out from structure then turning and burning back into the snag with the fly in their mouth! It may not be surface fishing, but it can be just as visual and exciting. Bass and goldens can be equally visible subsurface.
When fishing structure, break it up into sections from top to bottom and fish it efficiently. I never move on from good structure until I feel I’ve covered every angle of attack.
Gear and Flies
When it comes to flies, you shouldn’t need more than three patterns each for these three species, and some flies cross over. For on top, grab some smaller surface poppers for bass and some bigger ones for cod. For subsurface, try Vampires for bass and goldens, and big Deceivers or Bunny flies in different weights for cod, goldens and big bass. Tie or buy them weedless as well – you want your fly deep in structure for as long as possible, so the more snag resistant, the better.
Don’t worry too much about the finer points with gear to start off with. A 6 or 7 weight is great for bass and goldens, while I tend to use 9 or 10 weights for cod. Floating lines are fine, but an intermediate sink tip is probably the best all-rounder for cod. A slow sink tip will let you get deeper if you need to, and big poppers don’t sink with a tip like this, they just get pulled under on the strip and make more noise on the retrieve.
Overall, keep flies and gear as simple as possible to start with. Focus on persistence and spending as much time on the water as you can while covering as much likely water as you can access. And with the Canberra area having so many options to explore, don’t just go back to the same easy access point at noon every day for a month and expect results. Just because the Canberra fishing can be great, doesn’t mean you don’t have to put in time on the water.
Canberra is basically like a big country town with just the right amount of city sprinkled in. It’s home to a tight-knit fishing community (everyone in Canberra knows everyone) with a dedicated and respectful attitude to our native fish. Protection of these fish and their environment is at the forefront of Canberra anglers’ minds. That’s one reason our wild fisheries do so well, despite being so close to a big population centre.
It also helps that our urban stocked fisheries take some pressure off the wild fisheries, as well as providing a quick and easy alternative for the time-poor angler.
Finally, there are some significant projects on the go in the Canberra region to benefit native fish stocks, and if you already fish in the area, I’d encourage you to look up what you can do to help out. And if you’re thinking of just visiting Canberra and fishing for natives while in the area, you’ve probably already worked out that it’s more than worth the trip.
FlyStream Facts – Seasons
The season for natives in the Canberra area starts with goldens and bass in spring, then moves to cod in early summer. Bass action peaks in mid-summer and then cod come on the chew once again as it begins to cool off a bit into autumn. However as with most freshwater fishing destinations, rainfall and weather vary every year. For each species, you can never be quite sure when you might happen upon the best day of the season – assuming you’re out there on the water to take advantage of it!
Of course, bass and cod both have closed seasons (check the NSW rec. fishing guide for the latest regs.) and during those periods I obviously don’t target either species. However, even if targeting only goldens, I avoid the rivers during the cod closed season, as there’s a risk of significant cod bycatch. So I stick to stillwater for goldens at this time of year.