Murray cod are a lot smarter than most anglers think. In fact, animals are a lot smarter than most people give them credit for. For instance, you just have to peel back the surface of the countless studies and research papers into animal behaviour (before you ask, none of which include the name Scooby-Doo or Bugs Bunny). Probably the most lauded and well known is that of Pavlov and his pooch. (Stick with me here, it’s relevant to cod fishing, I promise.) Every time Ivan Pavlov gave his pooch a feed he’d ring a bell. He then started simply ringing the bell but didn’t produce any Chum for his dog to eat. Yet, through learned conditioning and association, his dog started salivating at just the dinging of the bell, with no food present. A bit like me at the pub when the buzzer goes off for my parma.
Similar studies across countless breeds and species, including fish, indicate animals can learn behaviour. It’s with this backing that it’s rational to hypothesise that a Murray cod, after being repeatedly pinned with one type or size of bait in a waterway, can develop a negative association to the bait – making them a bit gun-shy next time round. Couple this with real-world on-water experience across a lifetime chasing these mottled green wheelie bins with fins, and bait type and size become a little more important. Of course it’s not an absolute rule, as no bait gets completely blacklisted by an entire species, but the impact of ‘bait fatigue’ in a specific location is worth considering.
As we sit smack-bang in the middle of the big bait revolution it’s hard to have any cod conversation without mentioning these toaster-sized offerings. I kid you not, I had one rather amusing internet exchange with a highly excitable young chap who was hell-bent on catching a cod on his home-made metre-long wake bait. Yes, you read right, a one-metre-long surface bait. It’s like the big bait Kool-Aid had fizzed straight to his head and he was going to the absolute extreme rather than trying to lure a greenback.
With this ‘big is best’ mentality sweeping the cod community, inevitably the size of the presentations Murray cod are seeing are infinitely bigger than a decade or two ago (and perhaps even five years ago). I remember walking into a tackle shop in Mulwala back in the mid-2000s and a 75mm Oar Gee Plow was a ‘big’ cod bait at the time. Fast-forward to today and I recently saw a guy on a Trout Trolling forum include an orange Plow in his flatline set-up for his next Eucumbene trip. How times have changed.
However, there is a growing sect of cod anglers who are bucking the big bait trend and looking to go back to the future where the small to medium cod baits reigned supreme.
To set the goal posts, let’s agree that a big bait is anything 200mm and above. Or better yet, anything that needs to be flung on a dedicated swimbait set-up.
I’m talking XOS baits like the 250mm Megabass Magdraft, 200mm Jackall Gigantarel, or the 300gm+ Savage Gear Line Thru Trout. These are all gun baits that I will continue to use, but not as the sole options in my cod arsenal.
One of the chief reasons anglers should look at mixing up their approach is the age-old fishing adage of ‘matching the hatch’. While big baits can equal big fish, they can also be disregarded if a goodoo is keyed onto a certain-sized baitfish.
We had this rammed home on an autumn cod trip to a popular NSW river a few years back, when we were slinging house bricks with our swimbait sticks. It wasn’t until day two of the trip, a little despondent and with a sore shoulder, we peered into the shallows with our head torches and saw a flurry of iPhone-sized carp activity.
That light bulb moment saw us down the heavy artillery and swiftly snap on a 160mm Jackall Gantarel swimbait. Now, this is no small bait, but it sits well in the shadow of its bigger and heavier Jackall Gigantarel brethren.
Like reading from a Hollywood narrative, we proceeded to turn our fortunes around and boated a number of quality cod. We were employing the same edge casting strategy, yet we had now better mimicked the feeding pattern of the resident cod population.
Another benefit that is often overlooked when comparing small and big baits is the ease of use. I have routinely been left exasperated as I foolishly try to use a quad-jointed surface bait out of our two-man Hobie Kayak.
Earlier this year I was waiting impatiently for the perfect angle to sidearm my cumbersome bait and avoid being gouged in the gut with my extended swimbait rod handle, while my fishing partner Hilly landed the perfect cast with his smaller Mudeye Rattle Snake.
Frustrated, I callously flung my bait from a less than ideal angle. As a result of my haste, the bait tumbled haphazardly in the air and invariably tangled on landing, wrecking my chances at the spot. With the precision of a secret service sniper, Hilly took aim and between breaths delivered the kill shot into the back eddy of the foamy pocket with his Mudeye Rattle Snake. Less than two cranks of the handle and his wakebait is walloped by a fiery underwater assailant.
With a bruised ego and tangled bait, I safely nursed 90cm of pure muscle into the net. Under a tirade of gloating, he swiftly reminded me that I had the first shot at the snag but failed to deliver the knock-out blow. Hilly is a huge fan of smaller baits, which I feel is partly due to his brown snake-sized shoulders, but his sustained success is hard to argue with. He is also fond of the ability of smaller baits to stay in the strike zone longer in flowing water.
As they have a smaller surface area they cut through the water better, as opposed to being swept out of the strike zone. This is hugely advantageous in smaller rivers where even a slight increase in flow can see a marked change in how your bait reacts in the strike zone. This is also the case with the size of your bait’s bib. Downsizing the bib from a standard deep diver to a small option can not only aid casting accuracy, but also means your diver doesn’t get swept out of the strike zone as quickly. Baits such as the snub-nosed-looking 126mm Megabass Big-M 2.0 hard-body, with its thumbnail-sized bib, are great proponents of this and a cracking choice for any fast flow environments, where big fish lurk.
One word of advice that can’t be ignored if you are looking to downsize your presentation to upsize your cod catch rate is its terminal tackle. Yes, I’m talking about the hooks and split rings (including the tow point split ring) that need to be interrogated. Always cater for the biggest cod that lurk in the particular patch of water you are fishing. Ensuring the bait can sustain ‘cod strong’ split rings and hooks is the first rule to determining whether it deserves time on your leader.
As smaller baits are more susceptible to tackle upgrades, it’s best to first swim the bait with its supplied hooks and rings.
Really take notice of how the bait tracks through the water, paying particular attention to its sink and rise rates. After retrofitting your bait with its new bling, go back and make the exact same test casts and see whether your bait reacts differently under the same retrieve. This will give you a strong indication if you have gone too thick on the gauge of the upgraded trebles or split rings.
From there you can go down a size in each until you have a bait that carries at least 80-90% of the action of the original bait out of the packet. We’ve had particular success upgrading our small and medium baits with the BKK Raptor-Z trebles. The Raptor-Zs have a curved hook point and a x3 strength rating, and work perfectly on any small to medium swimbaits and divers. For rings we lean towards the Decoy Extra Strong split ring range for retrofitting our smaller baits. With a relatively small diameter to strength ratio, it means you won’t be adding any unnecessary bait-affecting weight to your presentation.
Another often overlooked advantage of a smaller bait is its ability to better slip into the strike zone and not spook any gun-shy goodoo. While the bigger baits cause more underwater commotion and can draw fish in from a distance, they can also have the opposite effect and scare fish away. This is amplified in smaller waterways when using big surface baits. Not only do big multi-piece surface paddlers and wakebaits struggle to land as well as smaller baits, they also hit the drink with the finesse of an ill-timed bomb in the backyard swimming pool. Smaller presentations are also effective in heavily fished water, especially a smaller spinnerbait such as a Bassman Carl’s Compact. They can be just the tonic to revive a slow day’s fishing.
I recall one kayak mission where we didn’t realise until the first night we were fishing behind a group of anglers traversing the same run. As we emptied the bottle of camp medicine on the first night around a crackling fire, we decided to switch up our tactics for the morning and go small. While the remainder of the trip was less than ground-breaking, we did manage to quadruple our tally from the day before, including a handful of feisty yellowbelly that more than broke up the monotony of a tough trip on the drift.
Go Small before you Go Home
I know, big baits are cool. They make great photos and chicks dig them. But you know, what’s even cooler than being cool is catching cod. So, if the resident cod are feeding on smaller baits or they have received a recent big bait bashing, it might be time to downsize your offering and upsize your cod catch rate.