A canny old cod hunter reminisces about golden days on the mighty Murray and rejoices at the resurgence of cod fishing, sport of champions.
Growing up on the Goulburn and Murray rivers, it was inevitable that Murray cod, VB beer and sunburn would be a big part of my life. Most weekends, Dad disappeared with my older brother, eventually returning with a hessian bag stuffed with food, feathers and scales – a mixture of cod, Murray River cray and wild ducks.
By the time it was my turn, the cod culture was well and truly engrained. My memories are filled with shotguns, campfires, flat-bottom punts and green rivers strewn with dead timber. Before jacked-up 4X4s hit the dirt roads, the vehicle of choice was the one you could fit a car-topper on – HQ Holdens stood out. Boats were simple and clothing was even simpler. A flannelette shirt was the norm and, depending on the season, it was accompanied by a blue trucker singlet or an old woollen VFL footy jumper.
Bait of choice was the bardi grub, found under river red gums on sand hills in the Barmah Forest. We collected them using a modified speedo cable – a skill in itself and part of the cod fishing ritual. Most cod were caught on setlines using live carp or a big yabby as bait.
It was a very rare occasion for a cod to be released. Putting food on the table was the priority. Most cod fisherman had one eye on the river and one eye on the riverbank in case Fisheries appeared out of the bush. Rightly or wrongly, this was the cod culture of the day – the catch was shared with family and mates and the stories were shared in the local pub. Sadly, fishery conservation wasn’t a topic of pub conversation. It wasn’t a deliberate decision to exploit – we were just ignorant.
One trip sticks in my mind. I was 15. We shot a bag limit of quail on a Sunday morning before footy. Then I kicked five goals off the half-forward flank before landing a nice cod on sunset. Once I got my own wheels I was rarely home. It was an HQ ute with a boat rack and spotlight, naturally. I’d head north to Billabong Creek, Darling, Edwards and Murrumbidgee. Mum was always worried sick when I’d disappear for days with my brothers, Dad and sometimes my Uncle Don, aka “The Poacher”. Things changed with adulthood. I discovered girls and moved to Melbourne. No-one in the city shared my affection for cod. Nor my shotguns and flash ute. I traded in the HQ for a sensible sedan.
20 YEARS ON
Since those early cod days, I’ve travelled the world, discovered saltwater fishing and lure casting – and loved it. When lure casting eventually found its way into the cod fisheries, this old bushy decided to make a pilgrimage back to his old haunts with a selection of cod lures. The last time I’d been cod fishing, the internet didn’t exist.
Other things had changed, especially fishery management. Setlines were now illegal and set limits had been introduced to protect the mature breeding fish. Victoria led the way, releasing almost three million fish in the past four years. Things had changed on the water as well. Cod fishermen were everywhere, in kayaks, tinnies and bass boats with garish stickers. The duck punts were gone, along with the country boys in flannies. Every cod fisho was wearing a fishing hat and colourful tournament shirt. And plenty of them came from the big smoke.
Cheese has become a trendy bait and trolling deep divers is far more popular than it used to be. Surface casting to predatory fish, even with fly, is also popular, dispelling the myth that cod just sit under a log at the bottom of a river and wait for food to pass by. Wakebaits, swimbaits and surface walkers now sit alongside traditional spinnerbaits and bibbed divers. A fair dinkum cod fisherman wouldn’t think twice at spending a couple of hundred dollars on lures. What would “The Poacher” think?
BACK IN THE GAME
In recent years I’ve chased cod from boats, kayaks and the banks using every cod lure imaginable on Lake Mulwala and the Murray, Goulburn and Ovens rivers. The most exciting sessions have been in places I’d never targeted before: Copeton Dam (near the Queensland border) and even Victoria’s Lake Eildon, the place I used to fish for trout and redfin. I’ve changed tactics a lot, but the old cod hasn’t changed one bit. They’re still cantankerous, moody beasts that don’t give themselves up easily. Some days they’re like ghosts! Another thing that hasn’t changed is my loathing of wake boats. These bourbon-fuelled bogans are the nemesis of cod anglers. Why they insist on flying by cod boats with a chorus of “Yee hah!” is a mystery. Ditto jet skis.
WHERE IT’S AT
Wakeboarding may be cool to some, but cod are cool to me. Watching a cod boof a surface lure would make a barra blush. Thankfully, cod are now more respected. Once considered food and destined for the bandsaw, compliance with regulations is now strong. A new generation of fisho has emerged – blokes in bass boats who love the same things about the river that we did, but are happy to take a photo and release the trophy fish in good shape for the next guy. That’s the new cod culture. Thank cod, too.