Murray cod in North-east Victoria

Josh explains a new dimension to north-east Victoria flyfishing.

I’ve always had fond memories of a little town named Bright in north-east Victoria. Since I was five years old, my family travelled to Bright every school holidays. My brothers and I would ride our bikes from the caravan park to the river, fish for trout all day and barely make it home before sunset. It was also the first place I ever laid eyes on a fly rod.

I mightn’t be a kid anymore, but my trout fishing in this area has continued. My wife and I have followed tradition and now take our one-year-old to Bright for holidays. I’ve loved returning to my favourite trouty haunts: the Ovens, Buckland, King, Kiewa and Buffalo rivers.

It turns out the streams in the Ovens catchment aren't just about trout.

It turns out the streams in the Ovens catchment aren’t just about trout.

Despite my familiarity with the area, I recently came to realise I’d been overlooking a major feature of wider Bright region. Two and a half years ago, I got in touch with local guide Cameron McGregor from River Escapes, and we began to plan some fishing for my next holiday. He suggested we chase some local Murray cod.

I’d been fishing for Murray cod back home in central west New South Wales, but it hadn’t occurred to me to pursue cod around Bright. After Cameron put the idea in my head, I couldn’t get it to go away.

The Seasons and Areas to Fish
In my mind, the Ovens River had always equalled trout. But it’s also home to a healthy number of Murray cod, all the way up to the Porepunkah weir, including the tributaries downstream. Cod have been caught in the lower sections of the Buckland, Buffalo, King and the Ovens rivers. In some areas, you’ll even find quite an overlap of trout and Murray cod. All the information suggests natives like cod are coming back; surely a good thing.

My initial session with Cameron began, appropriately, in the Ovens catchment. We launched a kayak and a small drift boat just before sunset, and it wasn’t long before I was cradling my first Victorian Murray cod. We were fishing surface flies that evening, and the eat was not only felt, but audible. “Cam, I’m on!” I yelled. “I know, I heard!” came the reply from downstream. No-one could have missed that hit.

Fishing after dark with surface flies, the takes are usually heard more than felt!

Fishing after dark with surface flies, the takes are usually heard more than felt!

Hyped up from our cod mission that evening, Cam and I decided to head out again the following night. This time, for something different, we jumped in the car and drove an hour to Lake Mulwala; meeting up with Cameron’s mate, Kyle Dalrymple. Our fishing kicked off right on sunset, and we fished into the night, landing eight Murray cod in the one session – a record I still haven’t broken.

Although the cod season runs from December to August, I’ve found the best times to fish are around the start of the season – December to early January; and again when the cold weather first kicks in – late April to May. In the latter case, maybe cod sense the hard times of winter are coming and start feeding hard in anticipation. I’ve found the Victorian cod fisheries react well to this late change.

Lake Mulwala - cod heaven!

Lake Mulwala – cod heaven!

Murray Cod Behaviour
Whenever I guide anglers for Murray cod back home in New South Wales, I set the expectations low. “Don’t take it personally,” I advise, “Murray cod hate everyone.” While some days cod eat like crazy, others can be very tough. They are almost impossible to predict: one day they’ll eat in certain bite windows, other days it’s more consistent. Everyone has theories, but it’s hard to be sure.

Over the past five years flyfishing for cod, a few of factors I’ve noted include:

– The moon seems to have some effect, but it’s not everything. I know anglers who only go out when they deem the moon phase to be perfect. If I look back through my trips, most of my bigger fish were caught on all sorts of moon phases; there was no clear pattern. For what it’s worth though, many cod anglers like the last few days before a full or new moon. It’s also important to note the bite window between moon set and moon rise.

– Ask any seasoned cod fisher and they will talk about the barometer. This is a funny one at times, and the old saying goes, “1020, cod are plenty.” Yet from my experience, while a higher barometer is preferable (generally speaking) I also like it to be moving. On my last trip with River Escapes, the first day chasing Murray cod brought with it the most action. However it rained most of the day, the barometer was falling, and the temperature was low. For some reason though, that day moved the most fish of the whole week. I’m now convinced that any movement in the barometer in any direction, is a good thing. Once it bottoms out however, that can be a different story. It may be better to go chase some trout!

– Murray cod are quite susceptible to light. I personally don’t even like fishing evenings with a full moon, and often find more action on a dark night. If you want the best chance of that surface strike cod are so famous for, you are best to fish surface flies for the first few hours of the day and the last few and into the night. Early season can have great surface action during the day, and of course anything is possible. But in general as the sun is turned to full dial, the fish are less likely to come up to the top, and it’s time to fish a subsurface fly. In saying this, overcast conditions can provide great surface action all day; and so can deep, shadowed banks.

– Murray cod like structure. This is one of the first things I was told when I started chasing cod on fly. On evening, or in areas without much angler pressure, I’ve seen fish happily swimming around the centre of a hole. However during daylight at least, cod live close to structure, or under it, or completely surrounded by it! So, to have the best chance, make as many casts as close to structure as possible. If you are not regularly getting snagged you’re not getting close enough. Within reason, try to get some flies with good weed guards to avoid this.

Cod are most active when the light is low.

Cod are most active when the light is low.

Over the past few years, it has been very interesting to observe cod behaviour. They are so aggressive at times, yet so inactive on other days, you’d swear there wasn’t a cod in the river or lake. At times, cod will roam far from their snag to find food, to the point where we’ve been able to sight fish for them in shallow water. Yet on other days, they’re simply invisible. They will live in the slow flowing water, yet they will quite often move into flowing water to feed as well. A hotspot for cod to hold in ambush, is downstream of any structure in flowing water.

Murray cod, like any species, often vary their behaviour. They are known for their aggressive takes but I’ve also seen cod rush up to inspect the fly first. I find myself yelling internally at these fish to smash the fly from the surface, only to watch in disbelief they silently suck it from the top.

When starting out, a simple approach is to fish surface flies when the sun is off the water, and sub-surface flies when it’s on. Cast as close to you can to any visual structure or near steeper banks. Quite often, a cod will come and inspect the fly the moment it lands, so resist the urge to pull the fly away from cover too quickly. And make your first strip a short one to keep it close to the strike zone. The retrieves can be varied with surface and subsurface flies, but it is important to allow plenty of pauses, as quite often this is when a cod will actually eat the fly. Overall they are a lazy fish, so there’s no need to retrieve too quickly.

In brighter daytime conditionds, expect cod to favour subsurface flies.

In brighter daytime conditions, expect cod to favour subsurface flies.

I often hear anglers say things like, “I was casting at the same log all morning, then a cod ate the fly on the 100th cast!” In general though, I prefer to cover more ground. I make a few good casts into a likely area and then move on.

If you have a fish hit your fly, or even just rush out to swirl behind it, it’s a good idea to try another fly: bigger, smaller or a different colour. Plenty of times, a change of fly has enticed another hit. This is especially effective if you have a surface hit, then follow up with a sub-surface fly. Keep your eye on the fly and your environment. Some days you will be surprised at the activity you see.

Pound for pound, Murray cod are not known as the world’s hardest fighters. But they can very easily bulldoze you back into a submerged log in the first moments of the fight if you aren’t ready or have the wrong gear.

We tend to use a 9-10 weight rods for most of our Murray cod fishing. An 8 weight is okay at times, but the size of the flies you throw for cod tend to make it much more enjoyable with a heavier weight rod (and line).

An aggressive head taper style fly line helps load the rod quickly and throw large flies with minimal effort. Most of our cod fishing is done with a RIO Outbound Short, and typically the tropical version – especially if you plan to fish for them in summer. If I were to have only one line, the F/I (Floating running line, Intermediate Sink Tip) would be it. It sinks slowly enough that you can still effectively fish surface poppers, and it’s perfect for the subsurface flies too.

Leader size depends on the size of the cod you expect to catch and the environment you are going to be throwing flies into. In the Ovens, we tend to use 25-30 pound breaking strain, as even in a small river, you never quite know when ‘big mumma’ might show up. In Lake Mulwala, there is so much submerged timber and the chance of a very large fish, that we tend to fish 40 pound minimum. A short leader of 5 to 7½ feet is fine.

A reasonable reel is fine – the fight will usually be a battle by hand so it’s not a huge requirement to have a top-end reel.

A selection of successful north-east Vic cod flies.

A selection of successful north-east Vic cod flies.

Fly preferences vary among successful cod anglers. I tend to fish larger-than-average flies of 12-20cm. My theory is that big cod want a big meal. Others go for numbers and fish slightly smaller patterns. Overall though, I recommend you fish a decent-sized fly. Cod eat full-grown ducks at times, so in my mind the fly can never be too big. A wide range of colours work well. I am personally confident in red/black, purple/black, chartreuse/black and pink/black, but so many colours and combos can pull a fish on the right day. Make a choice and fish it with confidence. Foam popper head flies are popular, and anything that makes a bit of noise is a great start. Subsurface patterns with lots of movement from long hackle feathers or rabbit strips can be hard for a cod to resist. There are really no rules here, so be creative.

Murray cod are one of those fish that can become addictive. The more you chase them, the more they can excite and simultaneously frustrate. And yet every fish, whether large or small, is beautifully marked and a great reward. And the best part is, around north-east Victoria, they live right next door to some of Victoria’s best trout fishing.

Cod add a whole new dimension to north-east Victoria flyfishing.

Cod add a whole new dimension to north-east Victoria flyfishing.

FlyStream Facts – River Escapes
If you want some added confidence when it comes to cod, give Cameron McGregor a call from River Escapes.
Whether drifting the Ovens River or cruising Lake Mulwala in style, Cameron knows north-east Victoria cod.

FlyStream Facts – Cod Regulations
The Victorian closed season for Murray cod fishing is from 1 September to 30 November inclusive, except for Lake Eildon where the cod fishery is open all year. The daily river bag limit is one fish between 55-75cm (i.e. bigger or smaller fish must be released.) Always check the latest cod regulations here.