Old Cod – New Tricks

Thomas Clancy tests articulated flies on New England cod

If only. A phrase I’ve often found myself repeating throughout my fishing life. I’ve been fortunate to have lived all over Australia and have been exposed to some damn good fishing as a result. And while I take advantage of the fishing to the best of my abilities at the time, I always seem to find a new technique that would take my fishing to the next level, after I’ve moved away. Typical, really. If only I knew about the incredible black bream fishing in Tasmania when I lived there. If only I had discovered fly fishing while I lived in Darwin, with a lake full of tarpon, barramundi and saratoga literally at my front door. The list goes on. I have this down to a fine art, confident that within a few weeks of moving, a revolutionary fishing technique will surface, making me sit back and mutter those words yet again. My recent move from the Northern Tablelands of NSW to Sydney was followed by yet another if only moment. This time it was the popularisation of American swimbaits on the cod scene. Swimbait might be a foreign word to fly fishing purists, but to lure fishermen (so I’m told…) it’s a word synonymous with apex predators and heart-in-mouth fishing. A swimbait is a style of hard-bodied lure that draws its action from a segmented body rather than a plastic bib. This articulated body gives the plug an extremely lifelike action. Couple this with the size of these offerings, generally around 4–8 inches, and you have a pretty deadly weapon against big natives like Murray cod and barramundi. I watched on through social media as these lures claimed cod after cod, with some quality fish in the mix. Murray cod are one of my favourite fish to chase on fly, so while the swimbait revolution didn’t hurt me as much as previous ‘if only’ moments, it did get me thinking about the way I tie, and fish, my cod flies. I really wanted to replicate the explosion of swimbait success on the fly rod, which is really what started my interest in articulated flies. THE ARTICULATION SITUATION Articulated flies are not a new concept, even on the cod scene. Many of these flies are sparsely tied, and designed to be slowly twitched in the strike zone to elicit a strike. Very effective, but not relevant to what I wanted to achieve. Swimbait lures work best when they are retrieved at a medium pace, which really gets the in-built action going, and I wanted a fly that could do the same. I found inspiration in the form of the Game Changer — a big predator fly designed by Blane Chocklett. This fly may look like a Weasel Ball cat toy (minus the ball) but it has an incredible snaky action, very much like a swimbait. After watching a few YouTube videos on how to tie a Game Changer, and visiting fly fishing forums for advice about materials, I started to form a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to tie, and how I would go about doing it. The most intriguing material in an articulated fly recipe is what is known as a ‘shank’. This is essentially the shank of a hook without the bend and hook point. It has open eyes at both ends, allowing you to add as many shanks, and therefore segments, to a fly as you wish. Naturally, with cod in mind, I wanted a big fly, so I opted for four 28-mm Big Game Shanks from the Flymen Fishing Company. These were daisy chained behind a 6/0 Gamakatsu SL12 and finished off with a smaller size 1 SL12 stinger. I was careful not to use too big a stinger hook for fear of weighing down the tail and dampening its action. Each shank eye was meticulously tied closed and epoxied for good measure. I know from experience that cod love a good death roll when bankside, and I could think of nothing worse than having a trophy fish bust open a shank and win its freedom during one of these tantrums. I opted to leave the fly unweighted; figuring the weight of the fly’s ‘skeleton’ would be more than enough for the shallow headwaters I fish. For the body of the fly, I used Chocklett’s Body Wrap, which is a chenille-like brush that is popular for tying larger Game Changers. I finished the fly off with a healthy dose of marabou on the stinger hook; after all, this is a cod fly. Once the tie was complete, I set about the time-consuming task of trimming the fly into a baitfish profile, before adding colour and pattern with waterproof permanent markers. To give the fly maximum movement, I flattened the front of the head slightly with UV epoxy and zapped it into place once I was happy with the angle. Sharing a similar blueprint to Chocklett’s Game Changer, but with a few cod-specific modifications, I dubbed my version the Goodoo Game Changer (GGC). While not an overly difficult fly to tie, a GGC takes time, especially when trimming the body wrap; it is not a fly for the impatient tier. FIELD TESTING No sooner had I slid the point of my final GGC into the firm foam of my cod box than I had the overwhelming urge to take it back out — I really wanted to test these things! I had initially planned on giving the flies a solid run on a trip earmarked for later in the year, but now, looking down at my creations, that seemed like an eternity away. It didn’t take long for me to crack, and a quick look over my work schedule for the coming week showed an opening towards the weekend. Perfect. I cashed in some time in lieu with the boss and some brownie points with the girlfriend, and started packing. I was finally able to act on one of my if only moments, and let me tell you, it was a liberating feeling! I left the city Friday morning with a box full of Goodoo Game Changers and my 9-weight. In between listening to fishing podcasts, the lengthy roadtrip gave me time to put together a plan for the weekend. I decided to fish a few of my old favourite haunts, so I could better gauge how effective these flies were compared to the single hook offerings I previously threw at those same fish. By the time I reached my destination for the night, I had a handful of spots in the mountains picked out, as well as a few in the west in case the high-country water was too cold. The next morning, with a beanie on my head and a piping hot coffee in my hand, I jumped in the car and headed north. As my trip fell in late winter, the New England rivers were understandably cold. When the temperature is down in these parts, the cod tend to be a little harder to coerce on fly, so I braced myself for some tough fishing. After pulling onto a Trade Stock Route, I started making my way downstream with the intention of putting some distance between the road and me, but I only made it a few hundred metres before spying a nice-looking rock ledge which screamed cod. I slid my rod ferrules together with shaky hands — I tried to blame it on the cold but I knew it was anticipation. After threading the fly line through the final guide, I tied some 20 lb tippet to my leader, and chose a fly I had coloured to resemble a redfin perch (green and gold, with black bars). A few false casts later and the fly sailed towards the ledge. Wanting to produce that same sexy body roll that swimbaits are famous for, I tucked the rod under my left arm and started a medium-paced two hand retrieve. Wow, talk about a killer action. I know it’s not possible, but the fly looked more like a fish than an actual fish! My admiration was abruptly cut short, however, as a good-sized cod brutally slammed it as it swam past the ledge. After an enjoyable battle the fish was soon resting in my hand. At 67 cm, it wasn’t a bad way to christen my new fly. The rest of the day progressed in much the same way, except in the size department. As I’ve said before, I fish these New England rivers for so many reasons other than size. The clear, shallow water affords a very visual style of fishing: every hook-up, missed strike and follow unfolds in front of your eyes. I even sight cast to a handful of fish on the day, free swimming along rock ledges and weed beds. These headwaters are magic places to wave a fly rod. CONVERTED I couldn’t have picked a better location or time of year to test my flies. The cold water had made the fish sulky as expected, and while I didn’t absolutely blitz the cod that day, I still had greater success with my articulated flies than previously with conventional cod patterns. The clear, shallow water really allowed me to fine tune my retrieve, revealing when a fish was tailing my fly without committing. For these fish, I found that occasional pauses in the retrieve, with a few short jabs, converted the lookers to takers. The next day, I headed west. My weather app was showing temperatures a good 6–7 degrees warmer than yesterday’s location, which I hoped would make the cod a little livelier. As I drove over the river, I slowed down for a quick look. The dry winter had taken its toll on the system, with the river probably the lowest I had ever seen it. What I once knew as deep, slow-moving pools now looked more like shallow trout riffles. Thankfully, the shallow water didn’t seem to bother the fish too much, and the warmer conditions did result in more activity. It took a few spooked cod in under a foot of gin-clear, fast flowing water before I realised the fish were right up in the shallows. This unconventional behaviour gave me some of the most enjoyable cod fishing I’ve ever experienced. It was like a weird mix of trout and pelagic fishing: I would present my fly upstream in the fast water and retrieve it even faster downstream with two hands. It was exhilarating to retrieve at such a fast pace and have cod seemingly appear from nowhere to smash the fly, often breaking the surface of the shallow water. The fish weren’t record breakers by any means, which was to be expected in water that barely covered their backs, but tremendous fun none-the-less. The day reached its peak when a fish in the 70–80 cm range darted out from under a small waterfall adjacent to a riffle and cartwheeled out of the water with my fly in its mouth. The fish went berserk in the shallows before swimming towards me down-current and burrowing its head under a ledge. I don’t know what hurt more: losing the fish or losing the fly, knowing how long it took me to tie. THE VERDICT I can’t rate fishing with these articulated flies highly enough — they are too much fun! If you think a cod hits hard on a standard twitch-pause retrieve, you need to experience it while two-handing a swimbait fly at pace. It’s a heart stopper. The flies are incredibly lifelike and super versatile, either being retrieved slow and steady, twitched and paused, or burnt across the surface. Additionally, the hook-up rate was fantastic, thanks to the two-hook design. I’ve always struggled with short takes when fishing larger streamers in the past, and the stinger hook on this fly really helped put a stop to it. The fly isn’t perfect though, and after its debut on the river I have a few tweaks and adjustments I’ll incorporate into my next batch. But that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? Taking something and making it work for you. It’s a great feeling to set yourself a goal and succeed, and it’s one of the reasons I love fly fishing so much.

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