It was touch and go whether to attempt fishing a swollen Murrumbidgee – but the trip brought some trophy cod and a flood of ideas. Should we go or should we stay? Does the risk outweigh the reward? They’re the key cod conundrums we have deliberated most in recent times.
With fluctuating river levels, we have had to cancel trips with less than half-a-day’s notice, erring on the right side of caution. But with each delayed trip our desire to tempt a titan only grows – much like the rivers we wanted to fish. But, on closer interrogation, the one thing we hadn’t ascertained was how high was too high to wet a line? We had only an arbitrary river height in our heads that, when reached, made the river unfishable.
Maybe it was time to test this artificial ‘no fishing’ height we had concocted over 15 years ago when we nearly capsized our ill-equipped kayak. We were far less experienced kayakers, let alone fishermen, back then.
With that, Hilly and I decided to add another player to our plan and bring goodoo gun Will Curtain into the fold for this high-water adventure.
I must stress we are talking about fishing a new section of the Murrumbidgee River only 50cm above the highest level we have fished it in the past, rather than a raging, uncontrollable torrent that had burst its banks and was thundering downriver in an uncontrollable rage. That is clearly dangerous and unsafe and something no angler should ever contemplate wading into.
As we lowered our double and single kayaks into the mud-stained water we checked all loose items were snugly stuffed in pockets or leashed to the tub. Additionally, like all trips, we also stored a back-up set of long-nose pliers, scissors and lip grips under each kayak as added insurance. Nervously rounding the first bend we noticed that while the water was turbid, our baits still managed to cut through the discolouration and show half-a-foot to a foot of visibility. That was a huge relief.
Our next challenge was the much faster flow than we were accustomed to. After about an hour we all agreed we were rushing casts and fishing ineffectively high in the water column. “Slow it down, fellas,” was the much-maligned mantra from the angelic Aaron Hill, delivered like a sermon after we pulled up for an arvo bite on the bank. “No shit, Sherlock,” was our short retort, delivered in unison.
Heeding the holy one’s wise words, we soon drove the hooks into our first fish of the trip, a spritely 85cm Murray cod that followed Hilly’s slowly worked swimbait all the way to the yak before snaffling it just under the surface. This brought with it a tirade of gloating from the instant ‘river oracle’, as he swiftly anointed himself. He was soon brought back to reality with a thud, as he came within inches of capsizing our two-man craft. The incident occurred when he hit a barely submerged rock with way too much gusto and wind in our proverbial sails. With our nerves dancing, it was a timely reminder to, again, slow things down.
As the afternoon dragged on, we patiently made our way around a bend into a tight corridor. This spot, like many others, just screamed fish. It had everything, from midwater boulders that act as ambush points, to a serrated rocky edge and swirling side eddies. But what was most apparent was the strong, pulsing current. This particular section of river became really constricted and funnelled the flow at a very decent walking pace; well, a pace very close to those Olympic walkers who look like they need a pit stop.
After pulling up for an afternoon recharge of some instant noodles, we quickly thrust our attention to the baits we were going to throw in this pulsating torrent. I stuck strong with a swimbait, while Hilly opted for a 1oz spinnerbait and Will tied on a soft plastic paddle tail. As usual, we pointed the nose of the kayak into the current and began pumping the foot propulsion system to move us upriver. I instantly felt like one of those Olympic walkers as sweat soaked my brow – it was bloody hard work.
Not only was this strenuous on the legs, but trying to keep the nose pointing forward and not darting from side to side consumed much of our time. By ‘our time’, I mean Hilly specifically, as he sat in the back of the two-man kayak. Blissfully ignorant, I continued to bomb long probing casts to either side of the midwater boulders that dotted most of this stretch of river. Fatigue was really starting to set in as Hilly eventually docked his rod in the rear rod-holder. With a sub three-hour marathon to his name, he continued doggedly to thrust the pedals and keep us in position. With less stamina than my cod compatriot I called last cast as I drove my swimbait up into some shallow, fast water.
In less than two cranks of the handle my bait was violently whacked by an angry underwater assailant. “Hold on,” I yelled as the fish tore past the kayak and headed off downstream. With my 6ft Venom crankbait rod bent like an overcooked strand of fettuccini, it felt like we were riding one of those mechanical bulls. After calling on the brakes of my Curado we soon wrestled back power and had the beast at the bank and under control. After a few quick snaps we released her back into the pulse and bubble of the mighty Murrumbidgee River.
As we sat sprawled out on the beach catching our breath, it looked like a scene from a post-marathon warm-down area. Or so Hilly told us. “Bugger doing that again, I’m cooked,” Will said. After reaching a pretty quick consensus to keep exploring, Hilly had second thoughts and rolled out the most-used cliché in fishing. “Don’t leave fish to find fish.”
While he was right, it was too tough staying in position in the fast flow and having all fishermen angling to their best ability. After a quick beer to lube the grey matter, it didn’t take long before we grabbed our swords of graphite and headed off on foot to fish the stretch of river. This took the fatigue out of the equation and allowed us to interrogate all the midwater boulders with multiple, accurate casts. While we had a vessel, it wasn’t the best method to fish this stretch, in this situation. We did keep it close by for one of Aaron’s customary wayward casts that ultimately result in a snagged bait and the need for the ’yak to help pry it free.
With our bums not touching the kayak for the entire evening, we had an absolute ball on the cod landing multiple fish in a frenetic session. Most of the fish, both cod and yellowbelly, came when our baits were wafting around one of the midwater boulders. We also found that casting at least a 45-degree angle upstream gave you enough time to work your bait all the way back to the bank. If you cast across the current, your bait would soon be thrust downstream.
This left you in the unenviable position of having to retrieve your bait back up into the current, which made controlling its depth and action near impossible – just ask Will. After camping on the beach that night, we got up, enthused, and peppered the surface with top-water baits all morning. Hilly landed two nice fish on the Jackall Pompadour, while Will and I both missed fish, unbelievably, with our very first casts of the morning. After a carb-fuelled brekky we packed the yak and continued our exploratory mission. It’s important whenever you are fishing out of a ’yak – not only in flood-like conditions – to make sure everything that doesn’t float is tied or to the vessel, or secured with carabiners.
We learned this lesson the hard way a few seasons back in rural NSW, near Wagga Wagga, with close to $5,000 worth of water damage from one ill-timed tumble. You’ve been warned. With the carabiner check done, we put in about two hours of downstream drifting and flicking before we stumbled upon a sweeping river bend with a dirty big swirling back eddy. With the outside of the bend curling around the rivers contours like an F1 track, the inside road and its drawing back eddy was more akin to a Sunday driver’s pace.
Ripping against the main river flow, we noticed both kayaks being drawn back upriver, literally against the directional flow of Mother Nature. This took a few casts to get used to, as the current in the eddy was the reverse of the main flow. Hilly and Will had the ingenious idea to try something they read in Hooked Up about fishing slow-drawing eddies. That was to tie on a diving hard-body and get it to depth before slowly working it back against the gentle flow of the eddy.
This allowed them to keep the lure in the strike zone for an excruciatingly long period of time per cast. They would then leave the bait in the water when their FG knot would enter their top guide. Almost like musky fishermen and how they ‘figure of eight’ their baits at the boat, the gents would then leave them in the water for up to 10 seconds before yanking them out of the drink. They had relatively small bibbed hard-bodies in their tackle boxes and both tied on medium-diving Megabass Big-M hard-body baits. I was a lot more scant when it came to hard-body options and decided to try a custom coloured Legohead 110mm deep diver I had in the second tier of my tackle box.
With such a big bib and pulling it into the eddy’s current, it felt like I had an untrained rottweiler on a very short leash. If I thought the fast current gave my legs a workout, this big-bibbed technique gave my arms and shoulders an even bigger torching. Wincing through a decent shoulder burn after about 15 minutes of manual labour, I worked the FG leader knot into the guide for the umpteenth time. Taking a breath, I began spinning the narrative that we should continue downriver and look for a new spot to give the pipes a bit of rest.
‘Crunch’… my animal instincts instantly kicked into gear, and I leaned back and drove the hooks into the fish that engulfed my bait as it was fighting against the eddy, directly under the kayak. I literally had the leader knot in my guides, that’s how little line was in the water. In what was a short but spirited white-knuckle bout, we again tamed another river monster under the harsh rays of the afternoon sun. With the white and orange bait glowing in its mouth like an underwater beacon, we again pulled over to the edge to land the fish before sending it on its merry way.
While both blokes claimed they uncovered the new technique, I sharply reminded them it was me who showed them how to do it. I did choose to omit the small nugget of information that I was actually resting my arms at the time of the bite, rather than taking an intentionally long pause. But, let’s just keep that between us. What started as a fifty-fifty chance of even managing a trip due to the swollen river levels ended up being one of the most memorable on recent record. To make this pipe dream a reality, we took extra care when navigating even the smallest sections of turbulent water and judged all fishable water on its merits.
While I don’t recommend blindly heading off into raging flooded rivers, I do think that rivers that are slightly higher than their norm are well worth a crack – especially if you work as a team and mix up your techniques to best cater for the faster flows.