Murray cod are an iconic Australian fish. Just like the barramundi of the north, much folklore and dreamtime stories centre around Murray cod, or “Goodoo”, as Indigenous Australians call them.
Cod are the largest freshwater fish in Australia. The biggest ever recorded was 113kg and 1.8m long. It was reportedly caught in 1902 in the Barwon River in western NSW. According to records, the monster fish was landed using fence wire, a large hook and kangaroo for bait! These days, sadly, we rarely see fish of that scale. Early settlers would commercially fish Murray cod from the inland rivers. Historic photos show dozens of dead cod strung up to be sold for food. It was excessive and had dire consequences for the species. In the ensuing years, cod became scarce and were declared critically endangered.
Thankfully times have changed and Murray cod have returned. These days, there is no commercial harvest of wild cod, although they do successfully farm Murray cod for food. Meanwhile, anglers are more conscious of the cod’s vulnerability and choose to release most of the cod and adhere to strict bag limits and seasonal closures. We’re also seeing more work done on habitat restoration.
Murray cod, as the name suggests, are found throughout the Murray-Darling catchment. The Murray-Darling is enormous and stretches from Queensland, throughout western NSW, bordering Victoria, and finally emptying into the ocean in South Australia. Murray cod are distributed throughout much of this catchment and share the rivers, lakes and wetlands with several other species. Many of these species are native, such as the golden perch, silver perch and Macquarie perch, but others are introduced. These include trout, carp and redfin. European carp have been disastrous for the Murray-Darling… but that’s another story.
Cod typically inhabit warmer waters. This usually excludes them from alpine streams. It’s also worth noting, any stream that empties into the ocean along the East Coast does not hold Murray cod. You will need to be on the western side of the Great Dividing Range to find cod. That said, there is an anomaly or two. The Clarence catchment in Northern NSW holds eastern cod. These cod only inhabit this catchment and are fully protected. That means it’s illegal to target or keep them. If you do catch them as by-catch, while chasing bass, they must be carefully released. I’ve caught a few eastern cod in the Nymboida River. They’re a beautiful, hard-fighting fish, and they deserve the protection given their limited range and small population. The same goes for the Mary River cod, a similar species found in Queensland.
Another related species is the trout cod. Again, they are fully protected. Trout cod, unlike the Mary and eastern cod varieties are found in the Murray-Darling and can be caught in the same water as Murray cod. They do prefer more of the upriver, cooler water areas, however. The past few years have seen restocking efforts from Fisheries departments and local fishing clubs to reintroduce trout cod to NSW inland waterways. From what I gather, results have been mixed and they haven’t returned in the same quantity we see Murray cod and other native species.
With the exception of high country streams and lakes, cod are usually found in the lower altitude areas throughout the entire catchment. For a newcomer to Murray cod fishing, locations are often a mystery. They’re surprisingly more widespread than you think. Many of those small creeks and muddy rivers you cross while driving in western NSW hold cod. Most inland lakes also contain cod and they’re a great place to start. They’re easy to access and can be fished in a boat or sometimes from the shore. Another area to try is the rivers or creeks that flow into and out of lakes. If you know that Murray cod are found in a certain lake, there’s a good chance the rivers surrounding that lake will also hold them. They do move up and down rivers and creeks depending on water flows and seasons. It’s important to choose a creek or river with enough consistent water and somewhere for the cod to live. This brings me to an important point. Once you’ve found a location to fish, where do you start?
Typically Murray cod are a structure orientated fish. You and I are much the same. Just like cod, we need shelter and food. Where does a cod find shelter? Underneath logs, undercut banks, rocks bars etc. Combine that cover/structure with easy access to food and you have a very likely spot to catch a cod. Food for cod is varied. They will eat yabbies, smaller fish, insects, worms and even small birds off the surface. Not much is off limits for a cod. They have a big mouth and an even bigger appetite. I’ve personally seen big cod attack hooked redfin and trout and there are viral videos of them attacking ducks and various waterbirds off the surface.
You have probably gathered by now that Murray cod are a bigger-than-average fish. Even a small one is bigger than the average Australian bass or bream. They’re solid, powerful and you don’t know if the next fish is 40cm or over a metre long! That’s all part of the fun. And for that reason, you best be prepared for a bigger fish to grab your lure. For throwing lures I prefer a baitcaster. Baitcaster outfits are fun to use and it’s easy to control the line during casting. They’re typically more accurate when casting, too. A 200 or 300 size and matching medium to heavy (or 4-8kg) rod is ideal.
Many anglers are using swimbaits and extra big surface-style lures on cod and they require an even heavier outfit. Rods are typically longer and designed for casting and retrieving these unique lures. It’s worth visiting your local tackle shop and asking for advice. Spin outfits are also perfectly fine. They’re still quite accurate and very simple to use. Fly gear is also becoming quite popular. Choose a 9 or 10 weight and floating line and be prepared to cast some big wind resistant flies!
When it comes to choosing lures, cod fishos have never had it better. Not only do we have the usual mass-produced varieties, there are literally hundreds of Aussie-made lures designed specifically for cod. Some aren’t cheap! In fact, some are collector’s items straight off the shelf.
I suggest choosing a selection of large hardbody lures, some spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, swimbaits and surface lures. Again, ask your local tackle shop for advice on choosing the best lure selection. I always like to visit a local tackle shop in the area you intend to fish. They usually sell locally made lures and some of these are very effective. I suggest using braided line and attaching a couple of metres of fluorocarbon leader. Try to use at least 30lb. If the water is dirty you could afford to go up to 40 or 50lb if you’re expecting a big fish. Attach your lure with a loop knot for the best action. The exception is a spinnerbait which should be tied with a standard knot.
Time of day is your first consideration. Interestingly, Murray cod can be caught all day long, although I still prefer to fish mornings and afternoons. Cod love cover, as described above. So even if they will eat a lure during the day, sometimes it’s difficult to coax them from the safety of the shelter.
Try casting your lures to the shady edges of the water. The cod will feel safer in the shade and typically the most structure is found along the shoreline. That said, you will find deeper water structure and it’s definitely worth dropping your lure onto this if you find some on the fish finder.
Most freshwater fish, including cod, prefer sub-surface lures during the day and surface lures in the late afternoons, night and early mornings. Of course, rules are meant to be broken and the first cod caught on a surface lure during the day won’t be the last. As a general guide, however, I prefer to leave the surface lures until low light.
I’ve also found spinnerbaits work best during high sunlight and hardbodies when there’s some shade on the water. Maybe it’s the fact that spinnerbaits have shiny spinner blades and having some sunlight on the water makes them more effective.
If you’re fishing lakes, slow trolling works well and is a great way of finding fish. If trolling isn’t your preferred method, focus on the edges with structure, the points of bays and rocky outcrops. It takes some trial and error before you work out a pattern. Every lake and river is different.
Retrieve the lures slowly and hang on. Cod don’t make screaming runs or take much line, but they do hit with plenty of power! Having one hit a surface lure at your rod tip is heartstopping action! Once you land a fish, most people prefer to release them and it’s worth understanding how to handle cod properly. It’s best to use a large net. Something like an Environet is perfect. These don’t damage the scales or tangle lures. Once in the net, lift the fish onboard for a quick photo and keep them wet. If you’re holding the fish, wet your hands first. Make it as quick as possible and return the cod to the water straight away. If possible, don’t even lift the fish onboard. Some of the best fish photos are nice and close to the water.
Murray cod have bounced back after years of mismanagement. Thankfully we understand the mistakes of the past and are now looking after the cod with strict bag and size limits. There’s also a closed season for three months each year (Aug to Nov) to protect spawning fish. Another good news story is the habitat
restoration. Groups such as OzFish have done a great job of highlighting the issues and putting volunteers to work on habitat restoration projects. They have made a big difference. I fished a section of river close to Dubbo in western NSW which had been “re-snagged” to create homes for resident cod. The adjacent shoreline (the riparian zone), was also left intact to encourage food for the fish and stop erosion and silting up of the rivers.
The wrap up
I believe everyone should catch a Murray cod at least once in their life. They’re an iconic Australian fish and there’s always the chance of catching a giant specimen. I never get bored of catching them at any size. As a bonus, you’ll find yourself fishing some of the most beautiful inland country in Australia. Murray cod will take you to rivers and lakes seldom seen by the average person. The wildlife and scenery is unique and spectacular. The Murray cod are just a bonus.
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