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Drifting The Murray

Words & Images: Colby Lesko The start of the cool weather in southern Australia means it’s big Murray cod time. After spending two weeks drifting the Murray River fishing for cod last season and having a magic time, it was back on the agenda for me in 2022. May usually marks the first month of cool weather turning the big fish on, while not being brutally cold at night for camping. May 15 also marks the end of irrigation season in many of the rivers, meaning slower, more consistent flows and clearer water. Therefore, it made sense for me to get the planning under way and start to pull the strings to get 14 days free in May. Luckily, plans worked out and before I knew it, I was again drifting the mighty Murray for two weeks casting for giant cod.

A Starting Point

The whole Murray River is a magical spot to fish for large cod. Every section holds big fish and there is no bad place to start looking. I chose to start my 14-day drift at Yarrawonga, below Lake Mulwala, and finish roughly 250km downstream somewhere near Barmah or Echuca. This section of water is famous for shallow, fast-flowing water and big fish; it’s also the closest section of the Murray to home for me. Other amazing sections of the Murray to drift are around the towns of Tintaldra, Howlong, Swan Hill and Mildura – literally the whole Murray!

A two-week drift on the river requires some appropriate planning as you’re at the mercy of the flow of the river. Luckily there are towns along the river and patches of reception as you drift along, so supplies or help is never too far away, but proper planning can see you do the fortnight without issue. Water, food and battery power are the three main items I do not want to run out of! I carry four 110mah lithium batteries and two deep-cycle 100mah AGM batteries to get me through the 14 days. Food and water is easier and less expensive, as I take enough food plus some canned and dry food in case I under-estimate. I then get a mate to drop me and the boat in the water, who I can then call at the end of the drift to come and pick me up from wherever I have drifted too. I very rarely use my outboard motor when drifting down the river as there is always somewhere to cast as you drift down. In saying this, I make sure my petrol tank is full, as if something were to happen, I can quickly run on the outboard to the next town or to a patch of reception.

My two weeks on the water this year started off tough with the first metre-plus cod not coming until day five! Luckily, persistence prevailed in the end with six metre-plus fish being landed for the trip, with five of those on surface paddlers and one on a spinnerbait. The fish caught ranged from 50cm to 121cm in length. All up, the two weeks on the water saw around 30 Murray cod, one trout cod and one yellowbelly landed.  Most of the action was early morning on surface paddlers with spinnerbaits producing most of the daytime bites. Crash divers also accounted for a few fish during the day. The metre-plus fish were caught around the prime times of dusk and dawn with the big surface paddlers. The best numbers of fish were caught on spinnerbaits during the day but were mostly small fish in the 50cm to 80cm range. The cooler weather and water does shut the smaller cod down a little, however, and seems to turn the bigger fish on. So if you were doing this drift over the warmer months you could expect more smaller fish but I’d be expecting fewer metre-plus fish.

Fish the Snags

Fishing the Murray River is very snag-orientated. The fish will venture out from their snags during early morning and late evening to feed but spend most of their time hanging off snags. By casting your lures at the many big snags in the river you put yourself in with the best chance of finding Murray cod. Most of your bites will come as your lure swims over or into the many sunken trees found in the river. The cod love holding tight to this structure in the river, even when they are feeding. Slow, consistent flow usually brings the best fishing so check the Murray-Darling Basin Authority website for flow data before leaving home.

My main goal was to catch some really big cod on big surface lures – my most effective technique on the Murray. Sometimes I can go several days without a single bite on a big surface lure but when one finally does decide to grab it, it’s generally a good one. While this is great for big fish, the big surface lures don’t catch as many smaller fish as small surface lures or sub-surface lures, so if you’re after numbers of fish it pays to mix it up. But if you’re after that one big fish, it’s worth persisting with a big surface paddler as you’re only fishing for one bite!

Drifting down the river is all about the adventure and the fishing is just a bonus. Camping on the river’s edge every night and sitting by the fire having a can after a long day of casting is very enjoyable. You get to see some amazing scenery and wildlife as you drift down the river quietly. Cooking on the fire and sleeping under the stars for a few nights is great for the soul. Taking a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life is great and drifting the river seems to slow things back down to normal – it’s very relaxing. If you’re into the camping and outdoors lifestyle, I really suggest one of these drift trips as they tick all the boxes for me. The Murray has some amazing public land surrounding it and, thankfully, camping on much of the Victorian side of the river is permitted. However, there are some sections of the river that are bordered by private land so do some research on the stretch you are looking at before you drift it.

The river is home to some truly massive cod so I’m always geared up in case a big fish bites. I use a light swim-baiting combo to throw my surface lures, which is a 7ft 6in, 1-5oz cast weight baitcast rod. This is for my bigger lures and large surface paddlers. I then use a lighter 30-80g cast weight rod of around 7ft for my spinnerbaits and smaller sub-surface lures. I match these rods with a 300-sized bait caster spooled with 50lb braid and 80lb leader. This is slight overkill on the 60cm fish but makes all the difference when a big fish does bite in the fast-flowing water. I also upgrade all my hooks to 3x or stronger trebles so I know my hooks can take some pressure if I need to crank the drag. The big fish will head straight back home for their big snags but with heavy set-ups like above you should be able to pull them clear with ease.

The Drift

Drifting all day without the need to drive back up or down on the outboard really maximises fishing time on the river. This allows you to cast your lure from sunrise to sunset and puts you at a great advantage when cod fishing – because you can bet your bottom dollar that the 30 minutes you spend running back upstream in the boat to the car is the only 30 minutes they bite for the day. The drift also locks you into fishing the water you have in front of you at the time, and stops you from wasting time driving around deciding where to fish.

After an amazing two weeks on the water drifting the mighty Murray we ticked all the boxes with big cod. Big surface-feeding specimens, and I even got to watch my mate Gage land his first metre-plus fish, a 121cm giant he caught on a spinnerbait he had made himself. We slept under the stars every night and cooked bacon and eggs on the fire most days. The camping was first-class and we got to see some amazing things. The fishing was again a bonus as the adventure of the drift takes over. I highly recommend a drift trip like this for anyone with an interest in cod fishing and a sense of adventure – it’s a bloody good time.

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