Goulburn Cod on Fly

Harrison explores cod options on a river better known for trout. 

Usually, when someone mentions flyfishing the Goulburn River, they’re likely talking about the great trout fishing on offer. However, many flyfishers would be surprised to learn that if you travel downriver far enough, you begin getting into Murray cod country. The shallow riffles and bubble lines become fewer and fewer, and the Goulburn becomes a deep, slow-moving river lined with old river redgums and fallen timber.

Moving from familiar Goulburn trout fishing to cod is a steep learning curve. It takes time before you can head to the river with some confidence. I have by no means completed the puzzle, but the pieces are coming together. This is what I have learnt so far.

A nice cod from the Goulburn.

River Zones

It’s important to remember that the Goulburn has its flow highly regulated; primarily by Lake Eildon, but also by the Goulburn Weir, which forms Lake Nagambie. The Goulburn flow patterns are increasingly complex as environmental water comes into the mix, but unnaturally high irrigation flows through summer remain the dominant feature. Water backed up above Goulburn Weir also inflates the upstream river level. This has created a complex fishing situation with more water for fish to hide, as well as the permanent flooding of low-lying areas. The increased level also drowned the surrounding gums, creating fantastic habitat for our snag-happy native species such as Murray cod and golden perch.

These days, reliable cod populations start to appear around Seymour and continue all the way down to where the Goulburn joins the mighty Murray. That’s over 150km of river, although not all of it is ideal for fly.

In order to narrow things down and to best get to know a section of river, the majority of my efforts have been focused on a 30km stretch around Nagambie. This stretch can in turn be broken down into three different sections: above Lake Nagambie, below Lake Nagambie to Goulburn Weir, and the lake itself. Each section has its own characteristics and requires slightly different approaches.

Above Lake Nagambie

Above the lake, the river is usually quite clear, with a mostly slow current. This section snakes around with high banks and deep water on the outer edges of the bends. Where the river is straight, it’s lined with old drowned gums, newly fallen trees and willows. On calm days, the gentle current allows boats to quietly drift along these straight sections without the need for an electric motor. The clarity of this section makes it more attractive to fly anglers. Casting surface flies amongst the snags around sunset is an amazing experience as the sky and river light up under an orange glow. It’s times like this when catching a cod is simply a bonus.

A beautiful evening on the Seymour to Lake Nagambie section.

There are several kilometres of river set aside as a water-skiing zone in this section: best avoided most of the day during warmer weather. Recreational boat numbers increase from the ski zone as you move downstream towards the lake, creating frustrating fishing at times.

The Lake

Lake Nagambie is a backwater created by the backing up of the river at Goulburn Weir. For the most part, the lake isn’t overly deep with most sections around 1-2 metres. This area is very popular with water skiers, wakeboards and jet skiers over the warmer months. The lake is quite large and open, with little protection from wind regardless of direction, creating difficulties for fly anglers. The wind not only makes for frustrating casting; it can also dirty up the water dramatically as small waves eat away at the clay/mud banks. This is a major reason why the lake fishes best on calm mornings and afternoons, and after periods of little to no wind generally. Always pay special attention to the snags near the old riverbed.

River channel below the lake

Below Lake Nagambie, the effect on the flow in the river channel of the blocking weir downstream is apparent, with little visible current. The river is also wider here than above the lake and is surrounded by smaller backwaters and lagoons. Though extensive and appealing to look at, these sections often hold relatively few cod.

A boat’s eye view on the Lake Nagambie to the weir section.

The river channel itself has noticeably poorer visibility here, as it carries more silt than the section above the lake. Dirty water coming out of the lake and backwaters mixes with the clearer water coming from upstream, creating a colour line before blending. In this section, time is best spent along the main channel, focusing on deeper bends and holes which contain willows or fallen trees. First light is the preference here, as generally the wind backs off overnight meaning clearer water coming out of the lake compared to afternoon.

Boat vs shore-based

While the trout fishing section of the Goulburn below Lake Eildon has plenty of quality shore-based access, this steadily declines as the river approaches Nagambie. There are some good bank fishing sections accessible from the bridges along the river, as well as some access around Lake Nagambie. Elsewhere, although much of the riverbank is Goulburn Murray Water or Crown Land, where you are free to fish, reaching these frontages often means crossing private farmland, which requires landowner permission. You must be willing to ask one of the friendly landowners for access, which is generally given.

While a boat of some kind is an advantage on the Goulburn, shore-based does work.

There’s no doubt that having some form of watercraft, be that a kayak or small boat, opens up access to every laydown, stump and drop-off. This makes it much easier for a flyfisher. Casts are no longer impeded by bushes, and you can focus on the best snags in the river, rather than being confined to those along a chosen shoreline. Such a large river is not an easy place for flyfishers and there can be many casts between fish, so it’s best to make them count! The more time the fly spends in the likely places, the better chance you have of action.

Likely spots

On the Goulburn, I prefer casting flies close to structure, and in areas where deep water is nearby. Cod seems to move between the deep and shallow water during the peak bite periods. Ideal snags are medium to large laydowns, where the whole tree (usually a gum) has fallen into the river. Larger trees will fall further into the river and into deeper water. They also tend to have a well-developed branch structure, providing good habitat for cod. The closer these snags are to deeper water, the better.

An interesting shore above Nagambie.

Another place worth prospecting is under willow trees, as the vast root network extending into the river provides a home for yabbies, freshwater shrimp and baitfish, which in turn attracts hungry cod.

Drop-offs are another prime location, even if snags aren’t visible. It is not uncommon to have cod eating off the surface along these drop-offs in the early morning.

Time of day

Although fishing subsurface flies is an effective way to target cod, the preference of many anglers is to cast surface flies. Not only is it very visual fishing, but the loud cracking sound a cod makes when it takes something off the surface leaves a lasting impression! On the Goulburn, this method is most successful in the early morning and again in the evening, just as the sun begins to disappear.

It pays to get up early, fish the surface, then switch to subsurface for a few hours before retiring for a long lunch. Begin with subsurface mid-afternoon, before switching back to surface presentations an hour or so before sunset. Fish beyond dusk and into the night if possible.

An early morning cod from below Nagambie.

Other Notes

Trout anglers know the quality of fishing on mid Goulburn is greatly affected by water releases from Lake Eildon. Cod fishing is also impacted by these water releases, although in this case, big cold-water releases from the bottom of the lake can shut down the cod. It might seem strange that an angler searching for cod around late spring and summer, with air temperatures in the 30s and cicadas chirping, should have to worry about cold water from a lake over 100 kilometres upstream! However even in the heat of midsummer, large irrigation releases can see the river temperate fall dramatically – best avoided. This can make late summer into autumn a better cod proposition; ideally you’ll find diminishing demand for irrigation water coupled with continued warm air temperatures. Ultimately this can provide the mild, stable water temperatures which go a long way towards putting cod in the mood to feed.

Overall then, it makes sense to consider recent water releases from Eildon before heading up to fish for cod in this part of the Goulburn. You can get daily updates by ringing the recorded information service on (03) 5774 3928.

A discoloured backwater below Nagambie – dirtier than ideal for the fly.

Overall, the Seymour to Goulburn Weir section of the Goulburn is a large river, perhaps not best suited to those starting out on cod on fly. However, more experienced flyfishers will enjoy the scale and variety of water that’s available – and easy striking distance from several major population centres.

FlyStream Facts – Gear and Flies

My preference is for a fast action 8 weight rod matched with a lightweight reel, and a flyline with an aggressive, short, weight-forward taper. The flyline is the most important of the three components as it must turn over and deliver the often-bulky fly to the desired target. Coming from a tropical saltwater background, most of my lines have tropical coatings which are great when fishing way up north. However, on the Goulburn where the water is relatively cool, tropical lines go very stiff, resulting in difficult casting. So, if the line on your 8 weight is made for bonefish or barramundi, it really pays to switch to something more suitable. Recently, I moved to a SA Amplitude Titan Long, which has made my casting substantially more efficient. This means the fly is spending less time in the air and more time amongst the snags.

If you are going to have only one line for Goulburn cod fishing, make it a floater. However, also it pays to have a full intermediate line on hand to allow flies to be fished down into the snags.

Leader setups are pretty simple with around 3-4ft of 50lb down to 4ft of 30lb. If you want to invest in some fluorocarbon line, it provides a little more abrasion resistance than mono, as well as tending to be stiffer, aiding fly turnover.

For flies, my favoured approach is selecting something that creates a decent amount of disturbance to get the cod’s attention. All cod flies on the Goulburn should also have a snag or weed guard tied in, allowing the fly to be easily fished amongst the snags. Flies should have plenty of movement, with healthy helpings of marabou and rabbit strips being a great place to start.

This articulated Gurgler works well on the Goulburn.

Second to fly style is colour: anything with black is good, regardless of whether it’s a topwater fly or a subsurface fly. Combinations of black/red, black/purple, black/chartreuse and black/black all work. Flies tied on 4/0 hooks such as Gamakatsu SL12s or Partridge CS86s will go a long way to covering all bases. Subsurface flies work best on the Goulburn when tied with lead eyes, both to get the fly into the zone, and also to impart a diving action. Think variants of the ‘Thing’ series of flies, and maybe add a rabbit strip off the back.

As for surface flies, it’s hard to go past the humble Gurgler. Tie with a rabbit strip and a marabou tail, then some nice thick foam with legs or more marabou tied in under the body. If more ‘bloop’ is required, tie some foam underneath the head to force it upwards.