A three-day canoe trip down an inland river leaves JIM HARNWELL with a hankering for surface feeding cod! Images by SCOTT THOMAS.
I WAS standing on a ridge of quartz that some past volcanic event had pushed up through the surrounding river rock like a giant fossilised backbone. Nearby a couple of wallabies quietly fed on a patch of stringy grass and the child-like bleating of wild goats echoed from further up the gorge. It was dusk and the smoke from our campfire settled over the river like a blanket of thin grey fog. The others were out in the canoes further down the pool. I could hear their excited voices – they must have hooked up to another fish. I cast my big old jointed Jitterbug out across the pool and worked it back across the dark water. The silhouettes of the massive boulders on the far bank wavered and then stilled as the wake of the lure spread out across the river. I cast again and again, each time hoping for the boofing strike of a surface feeding Murray cod. The light faded and night slowly settled over the river valley. Eventually I admitted defeat and wound the Jitterbug in for the last time to clamber over the logs and rocks back to our campsite midway along the pool. There I poured a generous splash of scotch into a tin mug and stretched out near the campfire, reflecting on the day’s journey down the river …
It’s easy to mythologise or romanticise the bush, especially when doing so from the comforts of the city or the relative lushness of the coast. The fact is that Australia’s inland can be harsh and intimidating. But many of us, myself included, are fascinated by it. A recent three-day canoe trip down a central-western NSW river, a major waterway which has a rich history of colonial settlement, especially during the gold rush period of the mid-1800s, provided a welcome re-introduction to what I personally regard as “the real Australia”. I spent a lot of time in this region in my early 20s and its unique landscape – steep, rugged gorges, rocky plains, thickly wooded hills and valleys – shaped and influenced my appreciation of our great land. Back then I fished out here for trout but this region is also a native stronghold with various rivers and dams boasting quality fish.
This trip was the culmination of many months of planning and organisation. Ken Smith, a well-known local angler, and his brother Warren, the head guide at the NT’s Melville Island Lodge, grew up fishing this river and in recent times both have regaled me with tales of their fishing, canoeing and camping adventures chasing the mighty Murray cod.
Before this trip I’d never caught or even seen a wild Murray cod. The opportunity to lure fish for these iconic natives was a major drawcard. But so too was the chance to spend a few days out in the bush. Better still was the fact that I’d be spending it not only with Ken and Wazza but also my 13-year-old son Harry, an outdoorsy young fella who’s always up for a bit of an adventure. Along for the ride was Fisho assistant editor Scott Thomas, a keen freshwater angler who also planned to photograph and film our trip for this article and the Fishing World website.
We launched on a sunny morning at the junction between the main river and a smaller waterway that originated in a nearby range. The river was flowing well from recent rains and the water was warm and full of life. Unfortunately, introduced carp have clouded the water in recent years – instead of running clear as it did only a couple of decades ago, the river is now a light brown from stirred up sediment. Feeding carp were evident throughout the entire 30kms of river we travelled and the couple we caught – one by accident by Harry on a Halco Hamma aimed at cod, the other, a seven kilo thumper caught by Scott on his fly rod – were humanely despatched and left to fertilise the river bank.
We travelled in pairs – Harry and I in a borrowed Australis Swagman and Ken and Waz in a Coleman Ram-X. Scott went solo in his Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120 kayak. We took two coolers filled with food, water and ice, tents, basic cooking equipment and fishing tackle.
The river featured large deep pools interspersed by small runs and rapids. Many of the rapids were very shallow and we had to portage the canoes through to the next pool. Harry and I came undone trying to shoot down one of the larger rapids. Luckily, all we lost was a pair of old pliers.
The fishing involved casting divers and spinnerbaits around snags and rocks during the day and prospecting with surface lures in the evening and early morning. The target species were Murray cod but we could expect a few decent yellowbelly as well, Ken and Waz said. I’d seen Ken’s images of cracking big cod from some of the holes we planned to fish and had debated about what gear to take. I eventually swung towards the lighter end of the scale and gave Harry a Ryobi Artica II 2000 matched to a Quantum Response 3-5kg spin stick while I used a Quantum PTS baitcaster matched to an old Redington 4kg single-handed rod. Both reels were spooled with 10lb Suffix 832 braid and sported 20lb fluorocarbon leaders. The other guys had similar gear, although Ken and Waz used heavier leaders.
Young Hazza got the first few cod and yellowbelly using red-gold Rapala Shad Raps and an orange 85mm Halco Hamma. The idea here was to mimic a juvenile carp, which we thought would be an obvious prey item. The cod were in the 50-60cm size range while the yella went mid 40s. The cod hit Harry’s lures when cast near snags but the yella came out of nowhere. The young bloke was pretty happy with his first ever native fish, especially as the old man was catching nothing! I soon put a halt to his gloating with a small cod caught while casting a Bassman spinnerbait around a big dead tree during a break for lunch. I followed up with a better fish on an orange and black Halco Rellik Doc in the afternoon. Spell Rellik Doc backwards for an indication of this lure’s cod-catching pedigree …
I was intrigued with the cod. Although I’ve published countless cod articles over the years, and selected innumerable images, I’d never previously had a close inspection of these wonderful native fish. This river is obviously healthy (apart from the damned carp) and the cod we caught and carefully released were fat and in prime condition. Their colours were amazing – the fish ranged from ones with pale olive markings and white bellies to darker fish with a more distinct mottled pattern and creamy undersides. They felt much heavier than their size belied. For relatively small fish, they whacked our lures pretty hard and fought well, especially when close to the canoes. Harry caught his biggest fish on the second day with a “Tilapia Yellow” coloured Sebile Crankster in the 65mm size. This fat-bodied medium diver features an extra loud rattle, which was probably effective in the murky water.
Both Harry and I were stoked with our first cod, and I know Ken and Waz felt pretty good about it as well. Scotty struggled to get a bite for the first day – probably because we kept him pretty busy with the camera – but came up trumps on the second morning with the fish of the trip, a cracking 67cm cod caught on an Aussie-made Viper cast near a bankside snag.
Both Ken and Waz caught quality cod and yellowbelly using a variety of lures including Rapala Rippin Raps and locally-made Bidgeewong lures. Spinnerbaits (I used various Bassman models fitted with soft plastic trailers) were productive in the deeper holes. All up we ended up with 28 fish, predominantly Murray cod with a sprinkling of sizable yellowbelly.
Like most keen anglers, I enjoy camping out, especially when it’s easy and no-frills. I don’t really see the point of camping when you drag along all manner of ancillary items. Camping, in my book, should be minimalist – a tent/swag and basic cooking gear is pretty much all you need for a few nights under the stars. We sent up a camp each night on the riverbank, pitched our tents and made a fire for cooking a few snags or a steak. Harry and I shared an Easton Hat-Trick, a compact and easy-to-erect three-man tent that proved ideal for this style of quick fishing expedition. A key feature of the Hat-Trick is that it is extremely light – packaged weight is a minuscule 2.63kg – and compact – when stuffed in its carry sack it’s just 23 x 53cm – making it ideal for use on canoe trips where space is limited. On the afternoon of our second day we had to set up camp early due to a 40-knot westerly change putting the fish off the bite – and making it almost impossible to make headway down the river. We somehow got the tent up in the howling gale and I was impressed to see that once erected it easily withstood the relentless wind. The tent features “storm resistant geometry” and the three sets of Carbon EVO high-strength composite poles doubtless contributed to its ability to handle the nasty conditions. I have used plenty of other “lightweight” tents that would have buckled in such extreme conditions. Luckily, the westerly died away at sunset, allowing us the evening to cast surface lures around the pool. If you’re on the lookout for a quality tent, check out the Easton Hat-Trick at theoutdoortype.com.au/products. The makers recommend that an optional “footprint”, a sort of hi-tech ground sheet, be used with this tent in order to maximise performance and longevity.
We all ate well. Good food and a decent night’s rest are vital when spending long days paddling and casting. Ken has a nifty homemade grill fashioned out of shelves from an old fridge which was ideal for BBQing our steaks and sausages over the open fire. I used a Jet Boil to make instant mashed potato and to boil up dehydrated peas for some really satisfying campside meals. These Jet Boil devices are fantastic for quickly and easily boiling up water for cooking or for coffee/tea. I’ve owned one for years and use it inthe boat or when camping down the coast or in the scrub. Really handy – check them out at seatosummit.com.au.
Fishing out of a decent canoe is a great way to experience these inland rivers. Slowly drifting down with the current, casting at snags and paddling through the deeper slower sections, is a very peaceful and relaxing way to fish. Canoes don’t seem to spook the local wildlife – the critters don’t seem to know what to make of this strange thing floating down the river and sit there staring at you – and so we got very close to goats, roos, lizards, deer and wallabies, which Harry enjoyed immensely. The canoes also allow a degree of stealth when approaching snags, which in some of the shallower holes probably wasn’t a bad thing.
Prior to this trip I hadn’t been in a canoe for some years and by the end of the three-day paddle my back was pretty stiff. Ken and Waz’s Coleman featured seats with backrests, which I reckon looked a pretty good idea. Scott looked very comfortable and relaxed in his Wilderness Systems kayak – if you were fishing one-up a decent ’yak like this could make a lot of sense. They are lighter and more manoeuvrable than a big Canadian style canoe and if you plan carefully a modern ’yak can hold quite a lot of gear. I had considered taking my pedal-powered Hobie Outback along but in retrospect was glad I didn’t. While it would have been perfect for fishing the pools, the MirageDrive system could have been damaged, as many sections of the river were very shallow and rocky. While removing and replacing the pedal system in the Hobie is relatively easy, the amount of rapids and shallow runs in this particular waterway would have meant you would have spent more time pulling the MirageDrive in and out than you would actually fishing.
One of the key planning aspects of this sort of river expedition is that you need someone to drop you off at your start point and then pick you up at a prearranged time at the end. In this case, Ken’s mate Col Gordon, another local with a lifetime’s experience on the river, very kindly did the honours. On the drive down to our launching point Col showed us a black jointed Jitterbug that a big cod literally destroyed in a savage surface strike the week before. That certainly psyched us all up and was probably a major reason why we all spent a lot of time casting topwater lures at dusk and dawn. Unfortunately apart from a few half-hearted bloops and splashes, we didn’t get the magic surface detonation we were after. In my books, that’s as good a reason as any to return to the river – sooner rather than later!