Breaking a Rule

Every Murray cod I’ve caught, barring one stubby-sized tacker I picked up while fishing for catfish from the bank one night as a kid, has been caught while standing barefoot on a big old red gum snag. The Feet on Log Rule has been a constant.

Christmas day 2005. I knew that the particular snag, consisting of a massive root system hanging out into a fast flowing section of the Macquarie River, held fish as my mate Forester had caught one there before. Plus, I had had a big mouth yank a yabby off a handline while I was snoozing on the snag the week before.

The current made it too difficult to fish from the canoe, so I had clambered out onto the snag and started casting my stump jumper upcurrent and working it back and under the roots. A couple of casts later I felt a subtle tap on the lure. The next cast connected and up came my first beautiful marbled green fish. The excitement I felt then comes back every time I catch a glimpse of a cod.

Not that it happens often. Living on the coast for the past seven years hasn’t helped, and the odd times that I get back out west generally have found me looking at a river either too murky, too cold, too low or too high. The river doesn’t make things easy.

Anyway, without getting caught up in details, every cod caught had been hooked while standing barefoot on a snag. And that rule was holding true two days ago.

23 December 2013

A 4:30am start had me heading out to my favourite stretch of the river to get a cast in during the early hours of the day. Giving my trusty canoe a rest, I borrowed a big Hobie kayak (purely for the double paddle to get up the runs, I swear). By the time I was in the water the grey pre-dawn light was just starting to give way and cockatoos and corellas began wheeling overhead amongst towering trees.

I started out using a wobbler lure, hoping to be lucky enough to get even a glimpse of a fish having a go on the surface. After a little while as the sun crept over the bank, however, my confidence began to wane and I decided to switch to something that would knock on front doors. A big purple and black chatterbait would do that nicely.

A working rhythm was easy to find between the vibration transmitted through line and rod. I ran the lure with a simple sink then lift-drop retrieve. Bass fishing has made its mark and casts in amongst the rough stuff were coming as second nature, and I watched the swirling tails of massive carp as they cruised along the banks. Small flocks of Pacific black ducks rocketed back and forth along the river, high up and splendid.

My first yellowbelly from the Macquarie River - a fish to be very happy with
My first yellowbelly from the Macquarie River – a fish to be very happy with

Gliding into range of a big gum that had toppled off the steep bank to create a pocket of still water, I lobbed the chatterbait in under the trunk and let it sink before starting my retrieve. A couple of winds in something took up the slack and made a dash to the left as I set the hook. I wasn’t expecting the beautiful golden perch that surfaced soon after. My first river yellowbelly on a lure made my morning straight away, and as tasty as it looked I was stoked to watch it return to the murk after a quick photo.

Minimise the time a fish is kept out of the water during handling to maximise the likelihood of survival
Minimise the time a fish is kept out of the water during handling to maximise the likelihood of survival

A couple of stops later I came upon another massive red gum snag laying full length out into the river. Getting caught up in the upper branches had me out of the kayak and going for a swim to find the lure.

While standing on the snag drying off I started working the lure along the length of the main trunk, getting it down deep and into the strike zone. Seven or eight casts in there was a jerk on the line and I connected to something with some weight to it. The fish hung low for as long as it could but soon enough a nice cod of about 8 pounds came to the net for a photo. What a morning!

A beautiful Murray cod from the Macquarie
A beautiful Murray cod from the Macquarie

24 December 2013

With my success from the day before still fresh in my mind, I couldn’t resist making the trip back out to meet the dawn and hopefully another fish. Having paddled upstream already, I decided to check out the downstream run. On the very first bend below where I put in, a big snag had created a back eddy that put brakes on the water flow and gently brought it back into the sheer outside bend bank. Logs were scattered here and there and the wait for the chatterbait to hit bottom told me that there was plenty of water for a fish to hide out in.

Positioning myself in the slack water downstream of the snag I put a couple of casts in against it and worked the lure back through the deep water. It was only the fourth or fifth cast when something grabbed the chatterbait and my rod curved over. An initial surge from the fish peeled drag from the reel before it turned and veered my way to lurk under the kayak. A bit of rod work started to bring it up as line circled through the water.

Knowing that I had a good fish, there was still no helping a cheer when a head nearly the size of mine came into view below me. By far the biggest cod that I had seen was making repeated lunges back to the depths, and after a sufficient amount of trouble the fish allowed me to guide it into the net. The full weight became apparent when I tried to lift it out of the water for a photo.

Focus - the curse of the 'selfie' while trying to minimally handle a fish
Focus – the curse of the ‘selfie’ while trying to minimally handle a fish

With that done I returned it to the net and admired in silence. This fish would take some beating. Taking it by the lip I held it for a few seconds and the fish started trying to turn away from my grip. Ready to go, I let it free and it turned and cruised back to its hole with one beat of its tail. If I was going to break the Feet on Log Rule, this was the fish to break it with.

The day didn’t get any worse either. Paddling down to a snag that I had caught a fish on years ago, I put the chatterbait tight in on a bank held together by a red gum root system. Bringing the lure back along the bank I felt a tap. The chatterbait came up with its skirt pulled down. A fish had done that. The next cast followed the same path and sure enough, a fish munched it. Darting back and forth, a feisty yellowbelly came to the net to round off another top notch morning.

A second yellowbelly to top off a second morning
A second yellowbelly to top off a second morning

The Macquarie River is a pretty good, if not temperamental, fishery for some of our iconic western natives. Conservation efforts and stocking programs have led to decent populations of the Murray cod and golden perch (yellowbelly) throughout the river. The Macquarie is also home to the only population of the Endangered Trout cod outside of the Murray River, and that is something to be proud of for those who have made the efforts to conserve this species. Healthy populations of the eel-tailed catfish, another threatened species, are also to be found.

The Macquarie River - a great place to explore
The Macquarie River – a great place to explore

When I lived in Dubbo, yellowbelly were unheard of at that end of the Macquarie, but they seem to be making a comeback which is great to see. Another good thing to see now is the general absence of drop lines. I used to see them fairly often but haven’t seen one for a few years – hopefully an indication of changing attitudes. So I’m taking the fish caught over the last couple of days as a good sign.

And I still have every faith in bare feet on red gum logs.

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