Cod and Comfort

Thomas Clancy enjoys the best of both worlds.

It’s earlier than I care to know as I stumble through boulder-strewn scrub with only the faintly glowing promise of sunrise lighting my way. Being mid-winter on the western slopes of the New England Tablelands, the warmth that comes with this promise is the only thing keeping me going. Well, that and the knowledge that the further I push into the granite gorge ahead, the better my chances of coming across a Murray cod. Winter fishing in the gorge country is the very definition of irony. The fish sulk in the cooler water and remain sluggish and despondent until the warming rays of the mid-morning sun kick them into gear. With the fishing an act of futility during the first few hours of the morning, early starts to the day seem frivolous. And they would be if it wasn’t for that old fishing adage of ‘do the miles, get the smiles’. The further you hike into these gorges, away from any public access points, the better the fishing will be. With winter days lacking in the light department, the unfortunate reality is that chilly, early morning starts are a necessity to get you to the right place, for the right time. At least, that’s what I thought. The Warrabah tradition For the past five years I have tried to join close friends on an annual pilgrimage to an old favourite haunt of mine from university days spent in Armidale. The location in question is the reach of the Namoi River contained within the boundaries of Warrabah National Park. It’s a decent stretch of water, some 20 kilometres, and it would take an experienced hiker the better part of two days to make it from one wild, bouldery end to the other. The reason we converge on this park from all over the country as often as we do is the uniqueness of the fishery it offers. When talking cod fishing, it’s not every day that you can sight-cast surface flies to cruising fish in shin deep, crystal clear water. It’s not every day that you can teabag your fly in front of the boulder you’re standing on and feel the deep vibrations resonate up through your body as a fish implodes on your offering underfoot. And it’s certainly not every day that you feel somewhat cheated after only landing half a dozen fish while your mate ended well into the double figures. You get the point: it’s a really cool fishery. While there are campgrounds at the entrance to Warrabah National Park, the fishing is as you’d expect at the coalface of a public access point. To get the full Warrabah experience you have to be prepared to pack light and walk far, as the fishing quality is directly linked to the distance you are prepared to travel. However, with a hiking-pack stuffed to breaking point, it’s often easier said than done. Muluerindie Having missed out on the last two trips into the gorge, I was itching to get back. After a few messages back and forth in the group chat, a week in early-July was agreed upon for our next Warrabah adventure. This time around we wanted to explore further up the gorge than we ever had before, so I took to the map on the NPWS website to do some reconnaissance. As I traced the Namoi River and its snakey gorge across the screen, a small point-of-interest icon caught my eye deep in the heart of the park. Curious as to what could be a ‘point-of-interest’ in a place as remote as this, I clicked on the map icon which returned the word ‘Muluerindie’ and a link to ‘read more’. Curious as hell, I clicked on the alluring link and was taken to the NSW National Parks accommodation website, which featured a gallery of photos showcasing a ruggedly beautiful stone hut overlooking the Namoi River. My heart skipped a beat; I had just struck gold. I spent the next little while poring over the website, learning everything I could about this startling discovery. The cabin was hand built from locally sourced granite and was open plan by design, with a nice sized fireplace at its heart. Two large queen beds and a series of smaller day beds and trundles meant that a considerable group could stay if they wished, with the well-equipped kitchen and bathroom ensuring that they would be well looked after. Large glass windows covered three of the four walls of the cabin, with the fourth instead sporting large French doors that opened onto a gigantic wooden deck overlooking the river. The pièce de résistance (at least for us fishermen) was a short staircase that led straight from the cabin’s back door down into some of the most fishy-looking water I’d seen in the gorge to date. If there ever existed the perfect base camp for Murray cod fishing, Muluerindie seemed to be it. Breaking Tradition It didn’t take much for Hugh and Brandan to abandon our camping/hiking tradition in favour of the alternative that now presented itself. Painting a picture involving hot showers, comfy beds and cold beers brought them onside almost too easily. The fishing in the park is always worth the chilly winter camping expeditions, but when the opportunity presents itself to complement the fishing with a few creature comforts, it is an opportunity not to be wasted. Trumping the comfort factor though was the location of the cabin; perched atop a bluff at the very end of the Namoi River gorge meant we would be privy to some amazing fishing. With the decision a unanimous one, I clicked the big blue ‘book now’ button and locked in our dates. Although the weeks leading up to the trip felt more like years, eventually the morning came when I could load the fly tubes into the truck and set my sights five hours north. After meeting the boys in the quaint town of Uralla for lunch, our convoy left the New England Highway and headed west towards the park. The sealed bitumen road soon gave way to gravel, and the gravel to dirt. With each gradation change we knew we were getting closer to our destination. First Impressions After a little over an hour of driving through some quintessential outback country, we arrived at Muluerindie. First impressions of our home for the next few nights were communicated between us through appreciative grunts and impressed whistles. Actual words of awe weren’t spoken until we rounded the corner and locked eyes with the seemingly endless deck and panoramic views of the gorge below. Talk about impressive! It took the river view to remind us why we were there in the first place, which prompted a world record unpacking of the utes and rigging of gear. Even with our haste, the sun still led the race. The lengthening shadows on the ground told us we didn’t have much time left, so we agreed to fish the few pools immediately in front of the cabin to see the afternoon out. We descended the 52 stairs between the cabin’s backdoor and the gorge and walked downstream looking for some fishy water. The cabin was still in sight when we came across an inky black pool roughly half the size of a football field. One side was bordered by large prismatic blocks that finned upwards into an impressive cliff face while the other side supported lush weed beds growing atop clean white sand. Brandan and I spread out along the sandy bank while Hugh climbed his way over to a blocky granite platform that terminated cleanly at the water’s edge. Two casts were all it took for my olive and black Donnie Brasco to get swiped by an unseen assailant. Almost simultaneously, Brandan experienced the same, although his culprit didn’t get away. After a spirited fight in the sandy shallows, Brandan carefully beached a chubby sub-50-centimetre Murray cod onto the soft clean sand. A high five from me and echoed words of praise from Hugh across the gorge marked our first fish for the trip. Not long after, I managed to land a similar sized fish, and with that we made our way back to the cabin to beat the setting sun. Managing to get back with a few minutes of light to spare, Hugh tied on a popper and cast it out into the pool adjacent to the cabin’s staircase. After a series of long pauses, the water underneath Hugh’s fly gave way to a gaping bucket mouth and an ensuing adrenalin-fuelled tussle. Within the first hour of our trip we were all on the board. Uncharted territory The night ahead was spent in comfort: plush leather chairs, a toasty fire and ice-cold beers sure were a nice change from the tins of tuna and cold granite we’d come to expect at this time of night camping in the park. The morning followed suit with a hot shower before bacon-and-egg muffins and coffee savoured on the deck at a very leisurely pace. With kilometres of untouched water literally at our feet, the need to be out the door before sunrise was laughable. With a hearty breakfast and very good night’s sleep under our belts, we decided to head upstream of the cabin for our first full day of exploring. By mid-morning it was apparent that our success the evening past was a fair indication of the days ahead. Despite the long walk between fishable pools thanks to the ongoing drought, the more open stretches of water all held fish that were enthusiastic for a slowly retrieved fly. The clear winter water meant sight fishing to cruising fish was commonplace, and almost all the strikes, sight fished or not, were visible. Hugh even threw around the popper throughout the day for some great action, sans hook-ups. It was a great day with double figures landed between us. Curious about a turtle I’d seen earlier in the day, when we arrived back at Muluerindie that evening I made a beeline for the cabin’s small library of fauna ID books. Rather remarkably, the curious creature was an endangered Bell’s turtle, a species endemic to the high-altitude rivers and creeks of northern NSW. It saddened me to read that one of the contributing factors to its demise was culling at the hands of disgruntled fishermen after accidental capture. This made me even more grateful for the opportunity to observe this rare creature in its natural environment, and it was reassuring to read that National Parks are working on initiatives to sustain the turtle population in the park. We can do our part, too, by treating the animal with respect should we ever come across one. The following two days spent at Muluerindie followed in similar fashion, albeit we opted to explore the downstream reaches of the gorge both days. Here, the gorge widened, and larger boulders dominated the landscape more than anywhere else we’d explored in the park. In parts, the boulders separated the river into a series of freshwater rockpools of various sizes and depths. Even the smallest of rockpools was worthy of a tea bag or bow-and-arrow cast as they almost always were home to a cod or two. This style of fishing is reminiscent of mangrove jack fishing in the salt. Casually plopping your fly into a bathtub sized pool and having a 50–60 cm cod charge out from underneath the most unassuming ledge to engulf your fly is a heart attack in its own right. Seeing your adversary then hightail it straight back into its home with lightning speed and plumes of white water is as heart-in-the-mouth fishing as you could ever get in the fresh. Leaders of 30 lb plus were a necessity to stop bust-offs from fish that took our flies deep into rocky caves and under ledges. In some cases, the fly line never left the reel, and the fight was as close to hand-to-hand combat as you can get while holding a fly rod. Whether you landed the fish or ended up with a frayed leader was determined within seconds of the hook-up. Final thoughts Whether Murray cod are still on your bucket list or you’re a Goodoo veteran, staying at Muluerindie is a must do. While we fished in winter, the park fishes well in all seasons, especially summer. This fishery has been close to my heart for many years now, and it’s a place I feel everyone should experience at least once. National Parks promotes catch and release while fishing within the park borders, and it is something I wholeheartedly agree with. Properly managing a special resource like this is a must if we are all to enjoy it. So, if sight fishing in some of the most beautiful gorge country the east coast has to offer for one our most iconic freshwater fish appeals to you, you can find everything you need to know about Muluerindie and Warrabah National Park (including detailed maps of the region) at nswparks.info/muluerindie. But get your booking in fast, because I’m already planning my next trip.

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