DESTINATION: Coolmunda Dam, Queensland
COOLMUNDA Dam is an interesting body of water located close to the Cunningham Highway about 13 kilometres east of Inglewood in south west Queensland. It's a relatively small dam and in comparison to many other inland dams is quite shallow, with an average depth of around four metres. It has been stocked with golden perch, Murray cod and silver perch and has a resident population of spangled perch and catfish. I recently spent a few days there with the hope of finding a few cod and yellowbelly, and while the cod were notable by their absence, we enjoyed some interesting fishing targeting yellowbelly throughout the dam.
It's always challenging fishing new water, but in a relatively small dam it can be slightly easier to find the fish than when facing the challenge in bigger impoundments such as Monduran, Copeton Dam or Lake Awoonga. As a destination Coolmunda has a bit going for it. We stayed in a cabin in Lake Coolmunda Caravan Park that had the advantage of air conditioning and a good bed, and the boating amenities are excellent, with a good concrete ramp, easy parking and fish cleaning tables at the ramp. The dam was formed by an earth filled embankment and a gated spillway across the Macintyre Brook, a tributary of the Dumaresq River that is part of the Murray Darling system.
I learnt quite a bit on this trip. Murray cod are a very fickle fish, and when they don’t want to bite there is little you can do to change their minds. We cast big spinnerbaits around the edges of stands of sunken trees for many hours for two bites that failed to hook up. I’m pretty sure these were cod by the way the spinnerbait’s trailer was totally folded up over the hooks and blades. When you have a few days to spend in a place and the cod aren’t playing the game, you have to target something else, and when we started targeting yellowbelly by downsizing our lures and leaders, we started to have some productive sessions. The yellowbelly are the main target species for most local anglers and have quite a big following in the local community. The yellowbelly in Coolmunda are not huge fish, the biggest we caught was around 46 cm long, but they were feisty and fought quite well on light tackle. They were also surprisingly good to eat. The largest yellowbelly I saw on our trip was 51 cm long and was caught on a trolled black and white Stumpjumper lure.
While I was disappointed in the lack of cod we found, I really enjoyed trying to work out the local yellowbelly population. There were quite a few local impoundment anglers who had their game plans well worked out, and like many areas of inland Queensland, yellowbelly are a much loved species and a prized table fish. The yellowbelly we caught were quite lean and muscular, a far cry from the enormous blobs of fish full of fat found in many impoundments. They also fought really well, very similar to a bass of the same size. I’ve always thought of yellowbelly as being a slug of a fish when it comes to their fighting abilities, but the Coolmunda yellowbelly were fit, lean and pulled hard. The comparison in eating qualities of these lean strong fish was a bit like comparing a salt water barra to a freshwater one. These lean fit yellowbelly are quite nice to eat, certainly one of the best freshwater fish I’ve tasted.
There are a number of ways to catch these fish in Coolmunda Dam. Bait fishing is very popular. The dam has a big population of shrimp and yabbies that can be easily caught in shrimp traps baited with fish frames, dog food or even a cake of soap. These can be fished under a float or suspended above the bottom. The rig usually consists of a number 1 to 2/0 fine octopus hook on a dropper rig above a small ball sinker. Hook size varies according to the size of the bait. The local cod population is also susceptible to a well presented yabby. The traditional method used is to tie up to a suitable tree, set a couple of baits and wait for the fish to arrive. If nothing turns up in 15 to 30 minutes most anglers move to another tree. Yellowbelly in dams tend to be schooling fish, and these schools at times move around a fair bit. They tend to graze feed over open flats at times where on the side imaging they move like a herd of cows. These fish are generally feeding on shrimp. If you find schools of yellowbelly on the open flats a small soft vibe slowly hopped along the bottom is one of the most effective ways to catch these fish. Yellowbelly are also highly structure orientated and hold up around submerged trees and rocks. Coolmunda Dam lacks any significant rocky features so we concentrated our efforts working timber. While vertical timber produces a few fish, the best spots tend to be where trees or large branches have fallen and create cover close to the bottom that provides more cover for the fish and also tends to attract smaller baitfish and shrimps. These “lie downs” are pretty easy to find using side imaging on your sounder, and on a good image you can see the fish positioned close to the branches. It was pretty clear on our visit that the locals all have their favourite trees and would head to the same spots day after day. The best structures seem to have a lot of fixed branches and are found in around three to four metres of water.
Trolling is another productive method to catch yellowbelly in Coolmunda Dam. The most popular lure I saw used was a medium sized number 2 Stumpjumper in either black and white or purple. Stumpjumpers have been around for decades and have stood the test of time in just about every inland impoundment where anglers chase yellowbelly and cod. The most popular places to troll in Coolmunda Dam were along the edges of the tree lines working close to the timber, or working the old creek bed in the middle of the dam in 4 to 5 metres of water. This was a very popular method and each day we were there quite a few boats were trolling their own very specific troll lines and catching plenty of fish most sessions. It is important to troll quite slowly, with best results coming at 2.7 to 3 kilometres per hour. Some of the local tinnies towed a bucket behind them to slow them down. In the time we were there in December, I didn’t meet anyone who had caught a cod in recent days, although in September and October quite a few cod to 90cm were caught both trolling and casting. We spent quite a bit of time trolling using quite large lures and I was quite surprised how big a lure the local yellowbelly population would take on. Most of these fish were males and they were surprisingly aggressive.
Once we got over the idea that Murray cod were now not the target species, we downsized our leader and lure sizes and had some quite productive fishing. I love using small spinnerbaits from a light bait caster outfit. Over the years this was my favourite way to catch bass. The exact same techniques, with a few refinements, worked very well on the yellowbelly in Coolmunda. While we did get the odd bite from a yellowbelly on the big one ounce cod spinnerbaits, it was hard to get a hook up as yellowbelly have a relatively small mouth. When we down sized to a ¼ or 3/8 ounce spinnerbait with a number 2 stinger hook, and changed the leader down to 8 kilo fluorocarbon, the catch rate improved quite markedly. While I tend to use Colorado blades for Murray cod, on the smaller spinnerbaits targeting yellowbelly and bass, I find small Willow blades to be more effective. While yellowbelly also are suckers for small soft vibes, a spinnerbait is much easier to use as they are relatively snag free lures. Soft vibes can drive you crazy in thick timber! A snag every second cast doesn’t make for easy fishing.
Our standard method began with long controlled drifts under electric power casting to sunken trees. This produced a few fish but they seemed random and scattered with no distinct pattern. Sometimes the trees just seemed too prolific and gave the fish too many options where to stay! What I couldn’t initially work out was whether the fish were moving through in schools and we were only occasionally making contact, or whether there were actually a widely spaced scattered number of fish holding station throughout the whole system. It was also pretty clear that, as with cod, there were distinct “bite windows” where you would get quite a few bites over a 15 to 30 minute period and then nothing for half an hour or so. It was yet another example of the old problem, “are they here and not biting, or have they left the area”. I think the answer was somewhere in between. Some fish, possibly not feeding, will hold in cover as a rest station, and other fish will move and feed. When we found patches of hungry fish we caught quite a few in short bursts, but when the wind picked up and blew hard the bite tended to slow down or stop all together.
The best retrieve for yellowbelly when using small spinnerbaits was a slow wind. Once you get the feel through the line of the blades turning the lure is at the right speed. I usually let the lure sink to the bottom and slowly start the retrieve. The fish tend to be quite inquisitive, and will often follow the lure right to the boat, and quite a lot of the strikes come in the last few metres of the retrieve. To regain depth, I found letting the lure sink back to the bottom half way through the retrieve to be a useful tactic. Small spinnerbaits are remarkably snag free lures and can be worked through quite dense sunken timber if you are careful. If you retrieve with soft hands you can generally pull a small spinner bait through a maze of sunken branches.
At Coolmunda Dam there is a long rock wall close to the boat ramp that is a very productive spot to troll and cast. This man made earthen wall holds a lot of shrimp and yabbies and at times is the most popular spot to fish in the dam, and when the fish are on there may be a dozen boats or more working the wall. The biomass of life in this dam is quite amazing. It supports a huge population of water birds. There are cormorants in thousands, pelicans, grebes, terns and ducks. There is no shortage of food in the dam for both fish and predatory birds.
Coolmunda Dam is located roughly 300 kilometres from Brisbane, and it is a viable weekend fishing trip option for many in south east Queensland. The caravan park is excellent, well run and very tidy and the whole place has a distinct rural Queensland feel to it. There is a very active local fish stocking group, and most locals who fish the dam keep and eat the yellowbelly they catch, making it very much a ‘put and take’ fishery. It isn’t the type of place you find big bass boats in charging around carrying sponsors stickers. It is a dam of small tinnies and wide brimmed hats, making it a very comfortable and relaxed place to fish. Yellowbelly are an iconic Australian native fish, and Coolmunda Dam is a great place to learn how to fish for them. While we didn’t catch a cod, when we down sized and changed our target to yellowbelly we changed a potentially unproductive trip into quite a good one.