Words & Images: Dean Norbiato. 1/12/21
Mike Tyson was famously quoted as saying, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Well, the annual springtime sojourn to Windamere in the central west of NSW well and truly punched us in the mouth. Yes, this is a cod article but this yella appetiser is relevant, so please stay with me.
As usual, we rocked up to Windy with a solid plan. A tried and test plan that yielded some of our best results on record.
With a tackle box filled to the brim with a mortgage worth of sinking soft vibes, headlined by the ever-reliable 20g Jackall Transam 95 and Zerek Fish Trap, we would shake and shimmy them along the bottom. This scurrying sensation perfectly mimics the action of a fleeing crustacean.
At its peak, this deadly tactic yielded a football score of yellas in one spring session back in 2019.
But the golden perch weren’t reading from the same script and after a day and a half with only one yella in the tub, we had to wipe the blood from our face and find a new plan.
The main reason our plan wasn’t bearing fruit was the thick layer of green sludge on every tree and the suffocating slime that covered the first 3m-10m of every bank. We were going mad picking the slime off the tiny assist hooks after nearly every cast.
Luckily, however, my old man Denis had a back-up plan and started to slow-roll a lipless crankbait as soon as it hit the water. What this did was keep the bait above the weed and his trebles free from the action-deadening slime. Simple, yet absolutely deadly, this was the very technique that scored the best haul of Windy yellowbelly way back in 2011.
The final piece of the perch puzzle was more luck than good management, as we ran out of fuel from traversing all over the dam looking for fish and had to use the Minn Kota electric motor to get us back to the boat ramp.
That meant we fished an uncustomary shallow bank around the corner from the boat ramp, which happened to be thick with shallow-dwelling yellas.
The final day of the trip, with our mid-water shimmering lipless crankbaits, was like the Windy of old, with countless perch hitting the deck – including two that were sight-cast in the shallows. Bloody awesome!
Now, for many native anglers, yellowbelly are very much the entrée to the Murray cod main course – figuratively speaking – but this trip was a timely reminder that no matter what the native freshwater species, always pack a Plan B or risk wearing an uppercut in the chops.
Fast forward to 1 December and the ceremonious opening of the Murray cod season rings a loud cod bell that only the attuned anglers can hear. Like a wolf howling at the moon, cod anglers break from their three-month slumber en masse and move like zombies to their nearest aquatic hunting ground.
They are all looking to scratch their collective Murray cod itch that’s become inflamed and irritated over the past few months. Left untreated it can cause irreversible damage, with the chief cure being soothing freshwater.
But for some, just the mere presence of freshwater isn’t a potent enough cure. One must topically apply the slime of a wild Murray cod.
However, like the lesson-laden yellowbelly trip to Windamere, a Plan B will never be more important than in December 2021 – the reason being the confluence of factors that are stacking up against us mere Murray cod mortals.
For one, previous cod seasons have seen most dams and rivers across the eastern seaboard well below capacity, with some even dipping into the single digits of capacity.
With less water in a dam, for instance, the wily and adaptable cod will inhabit different haunts and feed on different prey. Likewise, a low river with limited flow points will ensure a goodoo has to seek out their food, rather than have it waft past their lair like an Uber Eats meal.
After the recent deluge, however, courtesy of La Nina, these low and clear waterways will be a distant memory for most cod anglers hitting the drink come December 1.
Expect high dams, with most dirty and over capacity, while rivers will be angry and charging relentlessly above previous heights.
So, it’s pretty easy to see why going into the 2021-22 cod season with a locked-in plan that worked over the past couple of low and slow seasons is ill-advised.
To break this down in layman’s terms let’s look at the humble spinnerbait, where you can see the systemic shift of fishing a shallow, slow-flowing river, to a fast and turbulent charger.
For one, the shallow river will see deep-cupped Colorado blades and head weights of 5/8oz and under reign supreme, while the fast flow will necessitate 1oz-plus head weights, with long slender willow blades a better option to counter the faster flow. Not every spinnerbait is made the same.
Yes, you smashed them to pieces on the purple 5/8oz Bassman Codman spinnerbait on the Lachlan River last season, but that will be nothing more than a box-filler come December 1, due to the raging river’s height and fast flow. A better option would be to pack a few heavy Bassman spinnerbaits with a single, slender blade configuration that catches less water and achieves depth far quicker.
While the high and dirty rivers will still see a few cod anglers brave the less-than-ideal conditions come open season, the majority will head to our swollen dams and lakes. These waterways are a little more forgiving to the angler who is looking to get their cod fix.
But, while they may look alike to the naked eye, the increase in water will see cod hunt in different areas of the dam. This will be even more pronounced as a lot of dams have hovered around the same height for a few years, enabling fish haunts such as weed beds and submerged timber to become familiar to both angler and cod alike.
That favourite bank that has produced a cricket score of cod over the past two seasons at dams such as Burrinjuck and Wyangala in NSW will now be under more water than Sydney Harbour. Even the heaviest swimbaits will make it impossible to reach.
Even more annoying will be the fact that even if you use a house brick as a chin weight on your swimbait and reach that submerged snag from last season, there’s every chance its resident goodoo will be long gone.
One area that you should monitor for the upcoming season is a dam’s recently flooded margins. Areas that have been dry for a decade will be flooded, as water levels hit and breach 100 per cent.
These will be prime targets, as the smaller baitfish infest these areas to gorge on smaller prey such as worms, bugs and crustaceans. Those bait fish will in turn attract larger fish to the area and it won’t be long before the king of the underwater jungle, the Murray cod, will twig this is a shallow water food fest.
Having played the cod game for over two decades, I can say another phenomenon worth considering is how a Murray cod will home in on a certain size of bait during a new feeding frenzy. This mutually exclusive fascination will mean previous angling wisdom, like the bigger bait the better, will not necessarily ring true.
Time and time again we’ve seen Murray cod shy away from bigger baits and flare up and attack a smaller offering with frightening aggression. This was rammed home on one occasion when I hooked a metre of Murray cod that regurgitated a bevy of small baitfish that perfectly matched the small shad-like swimbaits we were tossing.
All while the stubborn ‘gun angler’ on the river exclusively tossed larger swimbaits for the entire trip, which – funnily enough – attracted less attention than the Elephant Man at a nightclub.
These recently flooded areas can also be tricky to fish, with fresh branches and bushy shrubs calling for a slight tweak to your fishing strategy. One left-field solution that we’ve been flirting with – with surprising success – in these flooded margins, we unashamedly stole straight from the first chapter of the barramundi play book.
Yes, I’m talking about suspending minnows – the traditional domain of the barra anglers who frequent dams such as Proserpine, Awoonga and Monduran and jerk their way to trophy fish each year.
Following the angling principles from north of the border, we pitched our suspending jerkbaits close to the bank and cranked them to depth. We then carefully navigated them, interspersed with pauses to let the bait sit stationary in the water column, through the strangle of sticks and shallow bushes back to the boat.
We also found that twitching them when they were stationary triggered and goaded the goodoo into having a swipe at the bait. It’s almost like their ego took offence to a little bait fish stopping right in the middle of their playground and they had to flex their mottled muscles.
If you don’t have any suspending minnows in your box, there are ways to make floating minnows neutrally buoyant. Heavier-gauge hooks, weighted strips and dots can all be retrofitted to existing floating baits to make them hover and hang in the strike zone.
Another factor to consider if you’re turning your attention to the shallower margins of a dam is the weight of your leader. Generally speaking, you’ll be fishing in shallow, clearer water.
As a result, the whipper snipper-thick Murray cod leader, anywhere between 60lb-100lb, can be left in the garden shed. Try monofilament or fluorocarbon weights closer to 25lb-30lb, as you delicately dance your baits through the shallow water snags.
The annual Windy yellowbelly trip was a good reminder for the upcoming cod season that having a freshwater natives plan is fine, but always pack a plan B, or even C, in case you unexpectedly get smacked in the chops.
Words & Images: Dean Norbiato