BANKING ON COD
Glen “Stewie” Stewart
Glen Stewart, or “Stewie” as he is better known in freshwater fishing circles, is a dedicated recreational fisher with an equally dedicated band of followers who appreciate his unassuming, subtle influence and his sharing of insights and innovations, often well before they become “a thing”.
A regular contributor to NSW Fishing Monthly Magazine for over 15 years, Glen also contributes written and visual content for a number of leading fishing and hunting social media titles, nationwide.
He spends countless hours — and travels even more kilometres — in the pursuit of our beloved freshwater fish. An enquiring mind and a dogged pursuit of greater understanding are his driving forces — and his desire to encourage, inspire and challenge others to be thinking anglers is his gift to the Australian fishing community.
Our resident Murray cod guru lets the cat out of the bag concerning one of the best-kept secrets shared by a small band of consistently successful greenfish specialists. Lower the “cone of silence” and prepare to be amazed!
Yep, it’s time for me to ’fess up… to clear my conscience and reveal a little secret…
These findings have been years in the making and Stewie admits to being rather hesitant about passing them on to others. The fact that he’s been willing to here represents one of the benefits of being a subscriber to Fishotopia!
If I was to tell you that the big, shiny alloy or fiberglass amplifier you float around in while chasing XOS Murray cod in the impoundments during winter is costing you fish, would you believe me?
Of course, as is usually the case in fishing, this is a bit of a loaded question, with lots of “buts” and “what ifs”. However, I’ve seen enough across the past five or six winters to be convinced beyond doubt that leaving your boat at home — or at least pulling up and getting out to walk and cast from the bank — can actually improve your chances of success on many, many occasions.
The seeds of these bank bashing missions were first sown not on cod, but on golden perch (yellowbelly) in Windamere Dam. Back in the day, a boat was merely a token piece of motorised floating furniture that got you from one likely stretch of bank to the next. All the serious fishing was all done from terra firma.
Selling his larger aluminum boat and modifying a smaller plastic one has been a revelation for Stewie. After two full winter seasons he’s recorded many more takes at or near the boat. The noise footprint underwater must be so much smaller than that of a full-sized vessel.
Look for edges, barriers and choke points — both hard and soft — that predatory fish use to corral, herd and push their quarry into a position where they are much easier to catch.
Times have certainly changed in that regard, and the modern masses at Windamere have moved on, but I still get out of my boat and take a walk down memory lane from time to time. Lessons learnt back then have resonated with me to this very day. Over the years, those small seeds sown on golden perch have morphed into an entirely different beast.
There are many variations between the make-up and character of a golden perch and a Murray cod, but they’re both predatory fish that react to and use the elements of nature as tools to round up and attack their prey. Those elements include the water’s surface, the point where it meets the bank, any weed bed edges, drop-offs, narrowing bays and the like… These are all edges, barriers and choke points — both hard and soft — that predatory fish use to corral, herd and push the things they eat into a position where they are much easier to catch.
Big Murray cod in our impoundments have, in my opinion, taken all this to another level. It’s partly to do with the size of the bait they’re commonly eating: things like “Crucian” carp or feral goldfish, common or European carp, bony bream, bobby cod (spangled perch), redfin, roach, silver perch and so on. These prey items are far faster, more mobile and generally elusive than, say, the fire-tailed gudgeons, shrimps or yabbies that the average golden perch will typically concentrate on.
Seeing concentrations of bait in shallow water is a major alarm bell for Stewie when chasing impoundment Murray cod in winter. Straight away, he starts scanning for areas of topography above and below the water that may help the cod push or herd bait prior to attack. That’s a feeding zone.
When you combine two or three of these barriers or edges with a concentration of baitfish, you have what some of us would call a “feeding zone”.
It’s no coincidence that the bank itself is one major player (if not THE most important factor) in this picture. This is where a direct comparison between boat-based and shore-based activities in the same feeding zone gets really interesting…
There are many subtle variances at play here, but a few of the major ones hit me like a brick while chasing barramundi in Awoonga Dam many moons ago.
We had just passed a small inlet or gutter about the size of a house. The prevailing breeze was pushing directly into this gutter. Two barra had followed lures from it out to the boat, but turned lazily behind and faded away (how many times has this happened?)
We turned on a postage stamp and fired a dozen or so more casts into that gutter for one half-hearted bump, then nothing. My mate Dale was convinced we’d blown our chances and wanted to move on. I wasn’t so sure and suggested we move down the bank a little, pull up and walk back. He was like: “What? Fish it from the bank?”
What panned out over the next short period is something I will never forget. We caught more barramundi in 20 minutes than we had done for the previous three day… From the bank.
That night Dale quizzed me about my decision to get out and walk the bank on that spot. It was, of course, all based on similar scenarios and circumstance’s that had played out more than 1,500 kilometres away, at Windamere Dam.
Identifying shallow feeding zones and then fishing them from the bank when bait is present has many advantages. First and foremost, you’re casting into a zone feeding that cod are using to corral their food. Think about it…
Over the years since then, I’ve increasingly adapted this approach to Murray cod. It’s no coincidence, of course, that we’re talking here about two top-of-the-food-chain predators (cod and barra) well adapted at working together to great advantage.
”Hang on a minute!” I hear you say… am I suggesting that large Murray cod school up together to hunt bait? Well, not quite… Loose individuals drawn to the same feeding zone by habitual happenings is possibly a better way to put it. But aggregations definitely occur.
The drawbacks to fishing in this shallow feeding zone hard up against the shore from that shiny, floating amplifier I mentioned earlier are many. Noise, for one. Even the most anal of sound-avoidance approaches while casting a big swimbait — especially in pressured, hard-fished waters — will create enough subtly bumps and thumps to limit opportunities or potentially totally shut down a prime feeding zone. I’ve seen it happen too many times for it to be a coincidence. But there are other factors beyond noise.
When retrieving a lure back to the boat and out into relatively open water there are quite literally acres of water surrounding you, with very little apart from the surface and your boat to act as potential barriers. Sometimes this is enough, and it goes part way towards explaining why quite a few hookups occur so close to the boat.
Low light, the coldest time in the 24 hour temperature cycle, well-insulated predators hunting hapless, cold-affected baitfish pushed into a shallow feeding zone… It’s the perfect storm. If you’re fishing the same water from a boat you’re much more likely to miss out.
By contrast, a lure retrieved back towards the shore is being further restricted and more obviously “corralled” with every turn of the reel’s handle. The narrowing of natural elements forces a reaction from both prey and predator. A sweep of a long swimbait rod to the left or right — with two or three metres of line outside the tip — is something I do at the completion of almost every retrieve. It’s a totally natural reaction from a baitfish that’s being pursued, and a definite trigger for any following hunter. Watching a metre-plus cod eat a swimbait literally at your feet while doing this is not uncommon… but always totally unforgettable!
By having your clod-hoppers firmly planted on mother earth, you’re eradicating those unnatural noises generated by a boat while also presenting a lure that looks increasingly trapped throughout the retrieve, rather than escaping into open water. It’s an obvious win-win.
Multiple opportunities on big cod sometimes arise within a few casts of each other during these land-based sessions. Just recently, my nephew and I experienced one such memorable alignment of the planets, with four cod landed (three of them well over the metre mark and the other in the high 90s), all within a 50 metre stretch of bank. It doesn’t get much better! I’d damn near put my house on the possibility of that happening while floating in a boat through the same feeding zone as near zero… We may have ended up with one fish, at best.
Sweep a long swimbait rod to the left or right — with two or three metres of line outside the tip — at the completion of your retrieve. It mimics a totally natural reaction from a baitfish that’s being pursued, and is a definite trigger for any following hunter.
Walking the banks has its limitations, especially when you’re on your own. Photography for one: It’s near impossible to lift a fish of this size and also operate a camera!
IT’S NOT ALL BEER AND SKITTLES
I need to add that targeting Murray cod off the bank also has its limitations, restrictions and downfalls. For one thing, bait concentrations can be very mobile. But this is not such a concern if you have a boat handy. Just jump back in and move to another bank with bait on it!
By contrast, it’s quite distressing if you’ve walked some distance to (hopefully) find them where you caught them the morning before, only to discover no bait and no cod.
Lure losses can be expensive off the bank, too. Sure, if a boat is handy it’s often possible to retrieve your precious hardware (albeit at the price of shutting that spot down). But more than once, with no boat handy, I’ve had to console a mate while crying in the foetal position at yet another major lure loss (maybe that was me?). On one occasion, I actually made a return road trip of 200 kilometres with lure retrieving pole in hand just to get back a prototype lure that was then totally unavailable to the buying public. Ouch!
Landing the fish of a lifetime is way more challenging off the bank, too. Pulling a big fish towards structure rather than away from it is clearly fraught with danger! Gosh, it gives me the jitters just thinking about it!
Windows of opportunity can also be very limited in terms of time when confined to the shore. Once again, having a boat handy is gold. It’s a no brainer to just jump in and move, either to another spot or to change up the tactics as the cod adjust to light levels, wind direction or bait dispersal.
Bankside missions on big cod can be fraught with danger. Quite often you’re pulling them towards structure rather than away from it. This one had Stewie buried in a weed bed and it took quite a bit of convincing to get it out!
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Specific tools for the task at hand are definitely best kept in the “KISS” category when banking on cod: in other words, “keep it simple, stupid”.
I have a small carry bag handy in the boat and ready to go at all times. It contains just the basics: leader material, pliers and so on. What goes into the lure box in that bag is where things get a little more specific… and personal. Some lures are just way more suited to retrieving back towards the bank than others.
Subtle differences — even between brands of the same styles — can make a huge difference. Some chatterbaits, for example have a tendency to ride or plane upwards as soon as you start a retrieve, making them brilliant for casting from the bank while less than ideal from the boat. Similarly, some swimbaits and hard-bodied diving lures have built in points to attach or detach chin weights quickly and effectively. This allows you to adjust their swimming depths and therefore your retrieve speeds to suit the slope of the bank in front of you. The same could be said for the ability on some lures to quickly change the diving bib.
From all of this you can probably start to see that mobility and the ability to adjust with just a few lures is key. All that said, grabbing a couple of favourites and simply hanging them off my hat is something I’ve done from time to time.
A small backpack or shoulder bag holding only the bare essentials is all that’s needed when targeting cod from the bank. The “KISS principle” (keep it simple, stupid) is absolute gospel!
AWARENESS IS KEY
Being aware and prepared for changing situations is the key. Situational awareness when it comes to what’s happenings in nature can be very subtle, especially when most of it occurs under water and out of plain sight.
There’s always a reason why fish behave the way they do. You can shrug your shoulders and move onto so-called greener pastures, or instead — like that day on Awoonga so many moons ago — ask questions of yourself, draw on previous experiences, join some dots, fill in some gaps, make a few educated guesses and potentially discover something a little left of centre… and that discovery just might involve climbing out of the comfort of your boat from time to time. In fact, you can almost bank on it!