The Incredible Murray Cod

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As previously published in Fly Fusion magazine.  Photos by Josh Hutchins.

When I decided to move my winters to Australia, part of me knew that I was sacrificing my love for one of the most special fisheries in the world.  British Columbia’s winter steelhead migration was more than just recreation for me — it was a way of life.  For as long as I could remember, I’d planned my work, free time, living arrangements, conservation efforts, even my relationships, around when and where the fish would be.  It seemed unfathomable to miss a week of the season, let alone all of it.

I found comfort knowing that I still had summer steelhead available to me for the other six months of the year, but for so long I had defined myself by the persistence and patience it took to pursue their cold-weather counterparts, that fishing for summer-fish almost seemed like cheating; no suffering in snow-drenched gloves, no sink-tip loop-to-looping, no purple lips waiting to be thawed by a steaming dark roast.  But I knew it was either sacrifice or divorce, so winter steelhead took a backseat to my vows, with the compromise that I would visit them every second Christmas.

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The first three years of the trade-off ran smoothly.  A passionate saltwater angler, I was content chasing Australia’s indigenous marlin, permit, kingfish, giant trevally, and others on a long list of respectable species.  The ocean’s mystery and vastness fed my soul with the humility and adventure I desired in all my fishing excursions, but something was still amiss.  I craved the overwhelming presence of the North American west-coast’s looming mountains and the veiny rivers that surged through them – rivers throbbing with pulsating waterfalls and promising back-eddies.  So I fed and somewhat satisfied that craving with time on New Zealand’s and Australia’s trout waters.

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But non-native fish didn’t excite me enough, even those that had been introduced generations ago, and regularly stocked fisheries interested me even less.  So I did my best to compromise by deciding that as long as a species was introduced over one hundred years ago, I would try to turn a blind eye to how it got there. The southern hemisphere’s breathtaking rivers and unique ecosystems hushed my prejudice and helped me focus on the experience as a whole, rather than on the just the fisheries themselves.  Lush greenery lined the riverbanks, and steep cliffs held wild birds, kangaroos, wombats and other fascinating animals.  As though composed of words from a fairytale, the freestone streams ran endlessly over red rock and green foliage, their pools such a deep sapphire-blue it seemed almost sacrilege that no wild trout or steelhead had ever naturally found their way there. As perfect as the browns and rainbows were, I still longed for the connection with a species that was indigenous to the waters I had such profound respect for.

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As I began to accept the fact that my options were limited, I heard tales of an indigenous freshwater monster that lurked in the depths of several Australian waterways.  It was at a presentation I made to fly club near Melbourne that my passion for indigenous species must have revealed itself through my photographs.  A bearded man with tattooed arms pulled me aside to see if he might interest me in Australia’s prized freshwater fishery: the cod.

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His iPhone screen quickly displayed many photos of Murray cod that had fallen for flies.  As other members of the club walked past us the lure of our whispers and the look on my face gathered a small crowd, but there was mainly disinterest from the trout enthusiasts.  I smiled to myself at how widespread this attitude is, that trout and only trout are the world’s best fly-rod fish.  It pained me to admit that I am likely just as biased towards steelhead.  But they are, after all, an anadromous rainbow trout.

The Murray cod, rumoured to live up to 70 years, is able to reach 250 pounds in weight and almost five feet in length.  It received its Australian name by way of a distant relative of the grouper/groper/cod family.

The Murray cod is a large, carnivorous, predatory fish found only in Australia.  More specifically, it’s found in the Murray-Darling basin, a river system that drains three states in southeastern Australia.  In Australia it’s the largest fish to spend its entire life in fresh water, and it has played a role in the mythology of Aboriginal tribes.  Though the cod’s diet is primarily other fish, they are also known to eat birds, reptiles, crustaceans, and rodents.  Already excessively territorial, Murray cod show increased aggression when protecting their eggs, which is a main reason the angling season is closed during their spawning period.

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These fish may travel a substantial distance to spawn, but often return to the exact spot from which they left.  Even more unusual, the female lays her eggs and departs, leaving the male to guard and oxygenate the eggs for several weeks during her absence.  Murray cod are the only freshwater fish known to establish and defend a territory, then migrate upstream to establish and defend another territory specifically for spawning purposes.

The conversation at the fly club toyed with my head for a year.  Big fish in small, beautiful rivers, serenity disturbed by thrashing gills and topwater frenzies?  I put the word out that I was looking for someone reputable to go cod fishing with and was promptly put in touch with Cam McGregor.  Cam and his fiance, Katie Doyle, own River Escapes, a guiding operation based in northern Victoria.  They met in the field while studying Murray cod, and it seemed fitting that two biologists would fall in love while Katie was working on the thesis for her PhD, the focal point of which was the diet of the Murray cod.  Spending time with not only one, but two experts had me giddy.

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I promptly arranged to podcast the couple about the biology of the fish (visit www.aprilvokey.com/podcast to catch the conversation), and scheduled several days of fishing with Cam.  I stayed with them at their home in northern Victoria, a beautiful property surrounded by pink sunsets and rural farmland, with a small stream trickling through it.  As Cam walked me through the meadow he described what I might expect during our time fishing together: sore arms from casting huge flies, but shots at a fish that would make every second of the torture worth the effort.

We were to spend one day fishing from a raft on a nearby river, one day on foot on a smaller river system, and one day boating in a large lake with many deadheads.  Cam is a fly-tier extraordinaire and I marveled at his feathery creations.  His topwater patterns sliced through the air with ease, their “plooping” frequently the only sound as we cast in the low light.  Cod hold tight to logs and other structure, making casting entertaining, strategic and, of course tricky.  As the sun set, activity picked up and the sound of crashing cod echoed through the hollow night.  Without daylight, knowing when to set the hook became difficult, and I missed more fish than I care to admit by setting the hook at the wrong time.

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The entire experience was surreal.  There were no other anglers on the river, leaving us to concentrate on every isolated bend of river. We held our breaths so as not to disturb the silence; our anticipation occasionally broken by the loud boof of a feeding cod.

The angling is similar to the bass fishing I’ve done over the years.  The flies were cast towards structure near the bank.  Topwater patterns had to make plenty of noise, but be left still on the surface long enough between retrieve-strips to allow the fish to engulf them.  Wet flies needed a few seconds to sink to submerged logs and structure.   Cam rowed slowly to allow me a fair shot at each section of habitat and I concentrated on keeping the fly from lodging itself in my body.

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On our day on the stream we were the only anglers in evidence. On the day of our stillwater fishing we spotted a handful of spin-fishermen targeting cod for harvest.  Cam explained that the majority of anglers in the area (including his guiding clientele) are trout fishermen seeking dry-fly action.  I wondered if the less-than-overwhelming number of cod anglers about signified a shortage of people willing to fight for the species’ survival.

The question encouraged me to look further into cod conservation efforts.  Cod populations have declined severely over the last couple of hundred years, a result of overfishing, habitat degradation, pollution, and mining.  I thought of all the effort that could be poured into the species if only more people were passionate about the uniqueness of the fishery.  I searched high and low for a support organization and, apart from government management, found next to nothing.

Cam’s face said it all as we toured through one of Victoria’s heritage towns on our way to the stream.  “Holy hell,” he said.  “Australia really is the only place you can find these fish isn’t it?  It just hit me now that there is nowhere else on earth they can be found.”

His eyes sparkled a little brighter, the creases around them scrunching in thought as he realized what losing these fish would mean.  He held his breath as though it might interfere with his thinking.  I knew what this look meant. There was a fire kindling inside of him.

That night as I sat with Cam and Katie for the podcast, Katie shared the studies from her thesis.  Much of it was about the cod’s diet –  one of the missing links to establishing a conservation plan. I decided to throw gas on the fire, “We could always start a cod-specific foundation,” I said.  Her eyes sparkled, she looked at Cam and back at me.

We sat until the early hours of the morning, strategizing on how to put the pieces together.  Strangely and suddenly I felt at home, fighting again for something I believed in, for something that belonged and deserved to be where it was, for something that needed us as much as we needed it.  I felt the familiar spark of a connection to an indigenous species, and it didn’t even have to be a steelhead to make it feel right.

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Thank you Josh for the incredible photos!  http://aussieflyfisher.com

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Cam’s Recipe:
Thread: Danville’s flat waxed nylon 210 Denier, black.
Hooks: Rear 3/0 Gamakatsu spinnerbait hook, Front 4/0 Gamakatsu spinnerbait hook
Tail: Zonker strip, white barred
Tail wing: Olive select marabou plumes
Body: UV polar chenille olive/brown, topped with three strands of pearl crystal flash, fluoro olive.
Front wing: White and Olive marebou plumes
Hook join 80lb nylon coated 7 strand wire, two red round rigging beads, bound to hook and covered with super glue.
Tail: Olive and white marebou plumes
Body: UV polar chenille olive/brown.
Lateral line: Two matching peacock hearls tied in either side
Legs: Spinnerbait skirt, two white and two olive either side.
Top wing: Olive craft fur
Front Head: Under body chenille, over wrapped with 2 inch camo coloured streamer brush.
Eyes: 7/32 stick on eyes, gold.
Vertical barring, black sharpie, Gill slash, red sharpie
Front half of head coated with Loon UV clear fly finish thick, final coat sally Hansen’s hard as nails.
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