High Country Cod

Thomas Clancy hunts Murray cod in New England

Google Maps will get me fired. That’s a statement I’m sure many readers can relate to. Sitting at my desk on Monday morning, not 24 hours after last waving the ‘long wand’, a satellite image is on my screen as I begin planning my next trip. One of these days I’m going to have to come up with some good excuses for spending so much time swooning over maps at work. That said, I’m sure if my bosses knew how fantastic the fishing can be in these parts, they’d approve. Armidale is a quaint little town atop the Northern Tablelands in the New England region, midway between Sydney and Brisbane. While not a red-hot fishing locale itself, under an hour’s drive in almost any direction will see opportunities abound for the fly fisher. As expected in the high country, most streams in the area are home to healthy populations of rainbows and brown trout. While I love my trout fishing, in my opinion the real star of the region for the feather-and-fluff enthusiast is the mighty Murray cod. Murray cod, or ‘goodoo’ (an indigenous name), are a great fish to pursue with fly tackle. They hit with gusto, reach impressive sizes, can be frustratingly challenging at times, and look damn good in a photo. While it’s not uncommon for the species to reach over a metre and weigh in excess of 30 kg, any fish over 75 cm in the New England district is an impressive catch. I’ve been fly fishing in the region for over three years and can count the number of fish over that length on one hand. NEW WATER I started the working week the same way I always do: coffee in hand and Google Maps on screen. Before too long I came across what looked like a promising gorge, some way downstream from an often-visited stretch of river. What caught my eye was its remoteness. The nearest road looked to be a good 5 km from the riverbank, with some further bank-bashing to reach the gorge itself. I had a gut feeling that this section of the river would have seen very little fishing pressure. The week had barely begun and already the weekend’s plans were made. Joining me for the adventure would be my longtime fishing buddy Brandan Willmann. Brandan shares my passion for chasing cod on fly and there was no hesitation when I contacted him with the proposal — even though it meant driving five hours south from Brisbane! Brandan arrived in Armidale late Friday night and after a few beers and a catch-up, the following day’s itinerary was finalised. An early night was the plan, but the anticipation that this kind of fishing brings, ensured neither of us got enough sleep. The early rise and New England autumn chill were softened by hot coffee and hash browns from the Golden Arches. An hour’s drive from home saw us leave the asphalt, and after a further 30 minutes crawling along an old dirt track in the Navara, we started our hike down to the water. By mid-morning we had intercepted the river and made our way down the boulder-lined banks to the gorge and its first fishable pool. This part of the country had received little rain, and as a result the river could best be described as a series of large rock-pools. Nonetheless, weed-lined banks and inky black, crystal-clear water interspersed with granite boulders and fallen trees gave us hope. It was hard to tell whether our panting and puffing was from the ridiculous trek we had just completed or from our sheer excitement at reaching this amazing looking water. FIRST CAST Within minutes I had spotted the unmistakable white fringes of a Murray cod’s tail. Once our eyes adjusted to the water, the fish was clearly visible as it slowly patrolled the head of the pool. To see a cod like this, free swimming, un-spooked in such clear water, is something we won’t be forgetting anytime soon. We could have watched that cod all day, but we had come to fish, and Brandan, being the guest, had the honour of the first cast. Brandan smacked his fly down with an audible plop, some ten feet from the fish. Cod are aggressive, and inquisitive, and in stark contrast to gently laying down a dry for a spooky brown, these fish are excited by a showy presentation. His cast was on the money, his fly’s marabou and zonker body barely given a chance to absorb water, before it was brutally attacked in what can only be likened to a Great White launching skyward with a seal. Chaos ensued as the cod tried to rid itself of Brandan, using every rock- ledge and tree branch in the vicinity. His 7-weight outfit was a little under-gunned for such a dirty fight, but thankfully the 20 lb tippet held strong and the fish was soon gripped by its captor’s vice-like thumb. A 65-cm, free-swimming cod, first cast. It was the perfect reward for our efforts and a phenomenal start to the trip. While no ‘kicker’ fish were landed that day, the numbers more than made up for it. In country like this though, the size of the fish is really the last thing on your mind. Almost every take was visual, with cod seemingly appearing out of thin air to engulf our flies. Every weed bed, rock ledge, granite boulder and fallen tree was peppered. Down in this remote gorge, a hook-up was almost expected when casting to this sort of structure. Throwing surface flies was my favourite tactic for the day. The buzz of casting a 6/0-sized Gurgler or popper into the middle of a pool and having two, sometimes three fish magically appear from all directions and fight over the offering was just unbelievable. It was almost more fun raising the fish than actually landing them. It was difficult coming to terms with the afternoon’s fading light — next-bend syndrome had set in hard! Eventually we called it, and begrudgingly headed back upstream to the car. Still high from the day’s events, we started planning a return trip to the gorge. Perhaps, we mused, we would set up camp where we had called it a day, and continue fishing the unexplored reaches further downstream. Would it be worth it? Would the gorge continue to provide pool after pool of fly-fishing heaven? There was only one way to find out. RETURN TO THE GORGE Over the following few weeks Brandan and I toyed with our idea of camping down in the gorge. It didn’t take long before our musings gained momentum and Brandan was back down in Armidale, hiking-pack in tow. We spent three days down in that gorge country, immersed in complete wilderness. There is something thoroughly surreal about sharing morning rituals (coffee is a necessity no matter where you are) with a pair of platypus going about their business, just metres away as the mist lifts over clear, black water. Three days spent amongst gargantuan rock sculptures and misty pine forests almost makes catching fish irrelevant – almost! I would love to say the fishing was as hot as on our previous venture, but recent rain and cooler temperatures made the fish somewhat lethargic. This was especially evident in the larger fish, which were reluctant to fully commit to a take. We watched as respectable-sized cod would nudge or simply follow behind the fly, seemingly not interested. The most successful fishing this time around came from the smaller pools of the system. It seemed these shallower water-bodies heated up with the available sun, more so than their deeper counterparts. In one pool, no bigger than an inflatable swimming pool, we managed to pull close to a dozen cod out from under one granite boulder. The action reached its crescendo when a fish of more than 70 cm slid out from under the rock and casually inhaled Brandan’s fly, only to have the leader wear through moments into the fight. Devastating! It didn’t matter. This style of fishing is in a league of its own, with rewards far beyond numbers and sizes. FINDING COD New England is a very accessible region. Travelling along the highway between Tamworth and Tenterfield will see you cross many rivers and creeks that hold a surprising amount of fish. In fact, I have landed my two biggest cod to date (just shy of the magic metre mark), within earshot of the highway. Trade Stock Routes (TSRs) are prevalent along these waterways and are easily accessible from the road. These parcels of land are open to the public and can provide some great fishing. In my experience, the go-to systems include Tenterfield Creek and Deepwater River to the north, the Severn River and Beardy Waters closer to the region’s heart, and the Macdonald, Namoi, Macintyre and Gwydir rivers to the south. These run through private property, so always seek permission to fish when this is the case. Most folk around these parts are friendly, and a polite approach with the assurance of catch-and-release will generally receive a positive response. Cod Outfits Given the average size of the fish in the region, I use a 7-weight outfit. This provides me with a light hand and enjoyable, challenging fight. The downside is the reduced casting efficiency it brings with bulky cod flies, especially over distance. I generally throw something within the 5/0 to 6/0 range, loaded with plenty of natural, water-logging materials. To be blunt, these can be a nightmare to cast with a 7-weight if distance is needed or the wind picks up. I can personally justify compromising my casting on occasion if it means a better fight, but if you can’t, I’d suggest looking at an outfit in the #9 or #10 weight range. A weight-forward floating or intermediate line will help turn over the larger flies and a 20 to 30 lb tippet will go a long way with the Murray cod’s sandpaper-like jaws. A heavier outfit adds a little extra security if that fish of a lifetime decides to make an appearance. Cod Flies I’m fortunate to live in a part of the country that sees comparatively little fly fishing pressure. That said, I’ve still found that certain patterns, colours and sizes perform better than others, depending on the time of year and the clarity of the water. In the clear running waters of the New England district, I’ve found that bright colours – especially pinks, purples and yellows – outperform the natural, subtler shades. The water I fish is generally quite shallow, sometimes less than a foot. Using bright, visible flies makes for an extremely visual style of fishing. Being able to track a fly through the water not only helps you to manipulate your retrieve through underwater structure (slowing down around submerged boulders, speeding up over shallow weed beds), but almost every take is visual, which makes for some heart-stopping action. The visibility of the fly helps the cod to locate it as well. It’s not uncommon to have fish swim tens of metres out from their lair to slam a brightly-coloured fly in clear water. Fly size is definitely an important consideration when chasing cod: I tie most of my flies on Gamakatsu SL12S hooks in the 5/0 and 6/0 size. These are razor sharp and have a nice wide gape, which is important when you’re tying a bulky fly. The point on these hooks tends not to turn over too easily, which is a godsend when fishing in granite country where the fly frequently makes contact with boulders. To achieve bulk and movement in my flies, I use a lot of marabou and zonker. These materials impart lifelike movement on the retrieve and offer action, even with the smallest of twitches and tweaks. My current go-to fly won’t win any awards, but it does a really good job. It’s tied with a bulky pink marabou tail and a substantial body/collar of palmered chenille in either olive or tan. The synthetic body provides an easier cast (given the lack of water retention) and gives the fly presence in the water. The marabou ensures plenty of movement. The fly is then finished off with a small epoxy head and big holographic eyes. Other flies I often use are variations of the Gusto, Deceiver, Pink Thing and Fat Boy. For topwater ventures I stick with a 4/0 to 6/0 Gurgler or Crease Fly, depending on whether I want a subtle or aggressive retrieve. So what are you waiting for? Tie up some flies, grab your rod and come give the New England cod a go — you will not be disappointed.

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.