As a youngster with an early addiction to lure fishing for natives, growing up in the Riverina meant I had to learn to cope with the fluctuating water levels of the Murrumbidgee. So variable was the level through Darlington Point that the river could rise and fall more than two metres in less than 24 hours.
These yo-yo water levels ensured that as a kid I always packed a variety of lure types every time we rolled out the swags along the red gum-lined banks of the ’Bidgee. Cutting my teeth in these variable flows meant I got an early education into how best to tackle conditions most anglers would bypass.
Having limited choices, being in such a remote rural area, meant you either adapted your fishing to suit the conditions or honed your damper-making skills back at camp. As I was never much of a cook, I invested all my energy bankside, refining my fast-water techniques.
I still remember the first time it really clicked. I was fishing a tight constriction at the tailrace of a short pool. I had caught fish on shrimp there in the past but the flow was too quick to keep my bait in place. As a result, I dived deep into my vintage two-tone Plano tackle box and pulled out a copper Wonder Wobbler that I would use on trout during our sojourn to Lake Eucumbene each January.
Its slender profile and relatively heavy weight for its size meant it cut though the water and produced a tantalisingly reflective shimmy as it rocked back to the rod tip. It took only a handful of casts before an aggressive 5lb golden perch crunched my wobbling lure hard, which for the river around there is a stud of a specimen.
While I was in a euphoric state from landing such a thumping perch on a lure, I promised myself not to forget the lesson I learned that summer morning living life in the fast lane.
When looking at lures to target natives in the fast lane, I like to break them into two very distinct categories – surface and sub-surface. As a general rule of thumb I opt for the surface lures when fishing under the guise of darkness or heavily overcast conditions, primarily targeting Murray cod or wild river bass.
Conversely, I tap into my smorgasbord of sub-surface lollies during the daylight hours, when the natives tend to be a little more hesitant to stray too far from their underwater lairs.
Surveying the surface
Without question, surface lures are currently experiencing a boom in Australia. Ask any tackle shop owner and they’ll tell you that the rise in surface lures for bass and especially Murray cod has been exponential.
Gone are the days when the only surface lures fishing shops would carry were imported Arbogast Jitterbugs, covered in dust and nestled in a back alcove of the shop away from buying eyes.
Fast-forward to today and they are front and centre in any tackle shop worth its salt. Tackle pegs bulge under the weight of row upon row of surface lures rigged and ready to wreak top-water torment.
The two distinct types you will see on Australian shelves are either a paddler-style lure, with a wide cupping bib, or a wakebait with its small blunt bib jutting down from the chin of the lure.
The walker or paddler-style surface lures were the first to really take residence in Australian tackle boxes. Popular models included the US-imported Arbogast Jitterbug for bass and the Kingfisher Mantis range for Murray cod. As their popularity grew, so did the options available for inquisitive native anglers looking to tame a top-water titan.
However, due to the make-up of the paddler lures, with their huge cupping bibs used to catch maximum water as they wobble from side to side, they aren’t the best lure to use in a fast flow. The added friction caused by the speedy river means it’s hard to effectively work a paddler at its optimal speed, as the lure’s butterflied bib catches too much water.
A wakebait, on the other hand, with its short, stunted bib poking down just in front of the front treble, is much more forgiving in the faster flows. Due to the smaller surface area of the bib they don’t catch as much water, putting the emphasis back on the angler to get the lure dancing.
As a result they can be used in much faster water, like the narrow head or tail flows of a quick-paced pool. You can control the pace of the lure by casting upstream and using a combination of the river’s flow and your retrieve speed to track it back to the rod tip.
I like to cast at a 45-degree angle upstream to the other side of the river and bring the lure back to the rod tip in a Z pattern so you fish both shoulders of the main flow. Also, keeping an eye out for back eddies that build up behind large snags, both above and below the water, is important, as they are dynamite to plop and paddle a surface lure.
When you first assess the best sub-surface lures to use in the fast water you may start with them all (spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, hard-bodies, lipless crankbaits, vibes and swimbaits) then distil down to the lures best-suited to the specific situation.
When refining your options the basic variable that will dictate above all others is a lure’s ability to be ‘worked’ in a turbid and fast-flowing environment. Just as a paddler is rendered impractical because of its cumbersome bib, so are the wide, flat, water-catching bibs on a deep-diving hard-body, ruling them out of the race.
But not all hard-bodies are impractical, with the slender bibbed models, such as the Jackall Ponytail, able to be worked in a fast current. With a slender bib they don’t catch as much water, and dart through the water erratically like a fleeing baitfish.
Spinnerbait and chatterbait-style lures, in a 1oz headweight, with their quick sink rate are also dynamite in fast flows. When fishing spinnerbaits, opt for a willow blade, which acts like the slender hard-body bib as it catches less water and rides deeper in the water column.
Big lipless crankbaits and swimbaits are also great, as they plunge through the water quickly with little friction. The only variable you will have to monitor is their weight, as there are several models on the market. Opt for the heaviest or fast-sink variety if they’re available.
I have also experienced some encouraging results in rapid flows throwing hybrid lures, such as the Beaver’s Baits Baby Beaver, imported by Swimbait Specialist Down Under. This lure is like nothing else on the Australian market and is best described as a fly on steroids, with a moulded metal head, two trebles, tufts of segmented deer hair and a patent-pending beaver plastic tail – sounds crazy, right?
With the ability to also screw in various chin weights, this lure falls surprisingly quickly through the fast flow and at more than 30cm is the perfect main meal for any hungry Murray cod.
Like surface lures, I’ve had the best result casting sinking lures upstream and bringing them back down with the current. Inquisitive cod will sit behind underwater snags, conserving energy, poised to ambush anything that flows downstream into its strike zone.
Tools of the trade
When looking to target Australia’s apex freshwater predator you need the right gear, as these mean green machines will quickly exploit any chink in your armour. You wouldn’t go to a gunfight with a knife, would you? So why chase these fish, which can eclipse the eye-popping 100lb mark, with inferior tackle?
What amplifies this necessity is a wily cod’s ability to use the flowing current to its advantage. I have sheepishly called ‘metre cod, METRE COD’ many times when fishing the fast water, only to be left with a dented ego as 80cm of goodoo comes cruising to the surface.
With this in mind I like to slightly up the ante when it comes to leader and main line material when flicking in the fast flows. I will opt for a 50lb braid – currently I’m using Daiwa J-Braid in multi colour for my main line and a 60lb mono leader.
I’m a big fan of using bright braid that changes colour every 10 metres. It allows you to monitor how long you have left in your retrieve as you whisk the lure back to the rod tip. The brightness is also easier to track as it drifts through the flow, allowing you to detect any subtle bumps that may otherwise be muffled by the slack line that can occur when fishing in fast currents.
I also like to increase the stiffness of my rod, moving from a 4-6kg model to a 6-8kg. I’m currently running one of the new Venom 8kg 7ft Baitcaster rods from Wilson and have been stoked with the strength in the rod’s backbone.
Having this core strength in the lower and middle half of your fast-water stick allows you to bully the fish when it makes a beeline for the cover of a downstream snag. These fish are hard enough to stop at the best of times, let alone going full-speed down nature’s own Wet ’n’ Wild slide.
To finish off my fast-water combo I clip on a solid low-profile baitcaster reel with an upsized drag. There is no point having the right rod if line is going to spew uncontrollably off your reel as a pent-up cod screams downstream.
Going with the flow
Murray cod are well known for being lazy fish that traditionally prefer the deep, slow weir pool water. These ensure, as they wallow, no unnecessary energy is expelled.
The flip side is these environments are not conducive to a consistent stream of food, like home-delivered pizza, wafting past their noses. This inevitably leads them to other, faster areas of the river where they can hunt and pick up a takeaway meal.
So, the next time you rock up to a river targeting the mighty Murray cod, make sure you spend some time in the fast lane. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Aaron Hill, who has more quick-water cod to his name than anyone I know, shares his top five tips and tricks for luring a native in the fast flow.
1 Slim Shady
When it comes to lure choice, slimmer options are always at the top of my list. Big bib or bladed lures have a tendency to get caught up in the flow and quickly rush out of the strike zone. This rule applies for both surface and sub-surface lures.
2 Shallow Hal
Too often anglers neglect the fast water because it’s ‘too shallow’. I am continually surprised by how little water our freshwater natives are happy to sit in. This is where I opt for a slower sinking lure, such as a Jackall Gantarel, or a surface lure.
3 Lock it in, Eddie
Look for eddies (slack water behind midwater obstacles) in the fast lane and bring your lure through these areas from as many angles as possible. Remember, these zones are for when the sun goes down.
4 Respect the hook-up
Don’t be too quick to call your fish as a tiddler until you see it. The fast water has a habit of making small fish use the flow to their advantage; they pull like freight trains, and monsters feel like a fouled-up crankbait. Keep your wits about you until you’re sure of what you’re up against and play the fight accordingly.
5 Returning to the scene of the crime
Just because you caught one fish in the fast water doesn’t mean it’s time to move on. Native fish tend to use these areas as feeding zones, with new fish regularly making their way to prominent points for a quick feed. We always make a habit of returning to the spot before the end of the session and quite often come up trumps.
As a general rule, sub-surface lures, such as spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, hard-bodies and swimbaits, shine during the day, while under the guise of night, surface paddlers and wakebaits are better suited.
If you are looking to crack a fast-water cod in the new season, look no further than this band of fast-flowing favourites. While the locations and speed of flow will differ from month to month, these systems all hold healthy populations of monster Murray cod.
• Upper Murray River
• Murrumbidgee River
• Severn River
• Peel River
• Macquarie River
• Mitta Mitta River
• King River
• Goulburn River