WINTER IMPOUNDMENT MURRAY 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.
In relative terms, actively targeting big winter impoundment Murray cod on lures — specifically swimbaits/wake baits/surface lures — is something quite new, especially anywhere beyond the shores of Lake Copeton.
Copeton Dam, near Inverell in northern NSW is the current cod Mecca, and quiet rightly so. Its reputation for producing numbers of quality fish during the winter period is unsurpassed (so far).
What a lot of people don’t know is the quality of fishing for Murray cod that exists over winter in other impoundments, from as far south as Eldion Dam in Victoria up to Glenlyon Dam in Queensland.
Every single stocked Murray cod impoundment between these two has massive untapped potential. How do I know this? Well, I’ve spent the last four winter seasons fishing quite a few of them.
I said publicly quite some time ago “the waves created by swimbaits being cast at Copeton will have far reaching effects”. I knew back then that Copeton was not alone. This was the catalyst for my winter efforts on other waters.
I was not alone in my assumptions. A small band of dedicated souls began to put pieces of the puzzle together, working away quietly on waters that quiet literally had nobody else on them, a far cry from the busy waters of Copeton.
For the most part we worked alone but occasionally we would cross paths, mostly on the socials: a message here, a message there… a real underground thread of intelligence sharing.
I’m fairly active on social media and share most (not all) of my pursuits, but I can tell you a lot of the developments and discoveries from most of these dedicated souls will never see the light of day. Each to their own.
I have a vested interest in the fishing space and enjoy sharing most of what I may have learned — but again, not all — at least not straight away and this is a big reason why I have chosen the Inner Circle of Fishotopia to lay bare what I have learned these last four winter seasons chasing Murray cod away from the shores of Copeton Dam.
Fishotopia has a small but growing footprint of dedicated people with a thirst for knowledge, I’ve been a member from the start and have enjoyed the format immensely.
Have a predetermined plan — based on observations made in the hours spent on recon’ missions — before you even make a cast.
A LONELY ROAD
What follows is pretty full on. In a way, it’s a microcosm of me. I’m pretty intense when it comes to the thought processes involved in working out a fishing challenge that intrigues me. Fishing in this way is not a form of relaxation. It’s bloody hard work, both physically and mentally. After most of these efforts, I actually enjoy going to work on Monday to get my mind off developments.
Most of this time has been by my lonesome (apart from my trusty dog, Toby). There are reasons for this, but they are not selfish ones. I realised pretty early on that the dedication required would be way beyond most people in my circle of fishing friends.
Enduring night and morning temperatures as cold as minus 12 is not for the faint-hearted and hour upon hour of constantly casting big heavy swimbaits is very physical. More than once I’ve stepped off the boat after a weekend’s effort on very little sleep and questioned my sanity.
I’m not putting myself on a pedestal here, but the last thing you want when swimbait fishing for winter impoundment Murray cod is somebody in the boat who wants to go home. Chances are you will know your fishing buddy well enough, even by their mannerisms, to understand that this is the case. Once that happens, you’re both done…
The flip-side to this is that if you DO find a fishing buddy in this game who’s just as dedicated (crazy!) as you are, it will be like speed learning on steroids. Tackle and tactics can be discussed with an open mind. Nothing is off limits. But I can tell you straight up, these people are rare. Treat them like gold!
THROW OUT THE COD MANUAL
Yep that’s right… grab most of what you know, think you know, or have read about catching big impoundment Murray cod — specifically over the winter months in waters other than Copeton — and throw it all out the window… Oh wait, what’s been written?
I must make a confession here, I very rarely read fishing magazines any more. Most (not all) articles I have read on the subject have been very light on in detail, either by design or, figuratively speaking, just a broad-brush painting based on short lived experiences and one or two fish caught.
Social media is no better. In fact, in my opinion, its worse. And yes, I’ll stick my hand up here as guilty. Posts based on efforts can be misleading, as we never really tell the whole story, just the good bits. The short format of the socials just doesn’t lend itself to back stories, good or bad.
Having said that, the ledger can well and truly go in the other direction. Again, I’m guilty as charged… Spoon feeding is not the answer. I’ve seen first-hand the damage that can be done when spoon fed anglers scavenging on the efforts of others have misguided, fast-tracked success, without ever realising or acknowledging the absolute grind it took for the said person (me, in this case) to get there. The balance is a fine one.
I hope the following creates enough interest to generate a thought process: one whereby so many unanswered questions on the winter impoundment Murray cod scene are answered by committed souls with a shit load of gnarly, calloused skin invested in the game.
“Why” has always been the definitive question for me in this game. It’s usually triggered by happenings, in this case Copeton.
What are these fish doing in 10 feet (3 m) of water or less, actively feeding in the winter months, at the coldest possible time in the 24 hour cycle? And can it be replicated elsewhere? I’ve answered both questions in the last four winter seasons.
I have no scientific background, just an enquiring mind, with a keen eye for seeing the unseen, small details… or so I’ve been told.
There are many reasons why big, mature Murray cod place themselves in this depth of water to feed at this time of year. But the biggest single reason is that’s where the bait is.
The old adage of “find the bait and you find the fish” could never be more true.
Impoundment Murray cod are a lot more “pelagic” in nature than we have been led to believe. They use this time of year and day to actively hunt their prey: moving freely across flats, into and out of gullies and feeders, patrolling points backwards and forwards on regular beats.
Their use of differing pieces of topography to set up and pin baitfish is a subject on its own. It’s a curly one with fury edges that I think differs greatly depending on learned experiences from individual fish, but I can tell you they do use the lay of the land underwater to their advantage.
Sometimes, more than one big fish will be operating in the same area, and they wreak havoc on baitfish — so much so that I’ve seen baitfish jump onto the bank in panic to avoid getting eaten! I’ve also seen ducks that would normally only land on water (I’m a passionate duck shooter and I know ducks) going out of their way to avoid that water. To watch them clumsily try to land on the grass is comical. They just know that during low light conditions on some waters, it’s not worth the risk.
Genetically, these big fish have adapted over millennia to take the best possible advantage of this time to feed. Their bulk and fat layers insulate them against the cold. In relative terms, most of the prey they eat has nowhere near the bulk or fat insulation to assist their escape at this coldest time in the 24 hour cycle. It’s obviously miniscule the advantage that is gained, but in nature, small things matter.
Replication was the tricky bit. Not all impoundments are created equal. Cod per acre of water are a little thinner outside Copeton (with the exception of Mulwala, but more on that later). The differences in topography between impoundments is also a factor, not to mention baitfish numbers and prey species available.
You start to see a very complex set of circumstances developing, with adjustments needed for each and every impoundment. Some are yet to be worked out with any sort of consistency… bite patterns and possibilities await discovery and that is actually very exciting!
For example, cod love eating redfin. They are one species that go deep in winter: 50 to 60 feet (15 – 20 m) in some cases. I’ve heard quiet a few accounts of hooked redfin being monstered as anglers bring them up from the depths on ultralight gear. Other accounts tell of anglers hooking unstoppable behemoths on ice jigs and blades at these same depths. It’s interesting, and needs way more dedicated time put into it.
Do your research and buy the best warm clothing you can afford. Layering is important. Tracksuit pants, a footy jumper and a beanie are never going to cut the mustard.
IN TECHNOLOGY WE TRUST
Sounder technology has definitely played a part and will continue to play a massive role in my discoveries, as it will yours. Sounders are by far my most invaluable, non-direct piece of fishing equipment on board… period. In fact, I can see a time in the not too distant future whereby a cast will not be made until a positive ID on a big cod is made via your sounder.
That said, situational awareness (big picture stuff) outside the borders of your sounder screen should never be forgotten. For example, the movements of birds of prey — pelicans, large black cormorants, white breasted sea eagles — they should all be watched like a hawk (pardon the pun!), and I don’t mean just a casual glance. Take the time to sit and watch them. They feed on the same baitfish as the majority of cod. A large pelican can easily devour a kilo-plus carp, redfin, golden perch… or juvenile cod.
More than once, birds have directed me to areas where cod are feeding. It’s a convenient coexistence, whereby both parties mostly benefit. I say “mostly” because I have first-hand accounts of cormorants diving for baitfish and never coming back up, and others of regurgitated shags spat out by big cod at the time of capture.
THE ART OF STEALTH
The art of stealth should not be understated, in fact apart from spending the time (sometimes up to half a day) finding concentrations of baitfish, it’s by far the single biggest adjustment I’ve made in catching larger impoundment cod. So much so that I’m considering moving to another, quieter boat.
I hunt on a regular basis — deer mostly — and the parallels are amazing. I’m in no way saying you need to be a hunter to be successful, but I can tell you that taking onboard the ways and means of a stalking hunter well get you much closer to your quarry: in this case, big cod.
Remember, these big fish have been around for quiet some time. They are feeding in a regular place at a regular time — in quiet, shallow water, in some cases. They know the lay of the land. Their situational awareness is amazing, anything — and I mean anything — out of the ordinary and it’s game over.
Your boat is just a massive amplifier to a watery world underneath. Water as a medium transfers sounds like nothing else. I have watched and seen first hand bites that were shut down by the actions of boats and the people in them from 50 metres and more away.
On the flip-side, if you’re quiet, if you are aware and if you are in tune, you will hear feeding fish under and around your boat. Noise transfer goes both ways. More than once I’ve heard the dull thump of a hapless baitfish disappearing into the cavernous mouth of a mighty Murray cod, and on one occasion I even caught that same fish a cast or so later.
Some of the stealthy steps I take were first learnt chasing Barra in Awonga and Monduran many years ago (no coincidence that we are looking at a pelagic species of fish chasing baitfish in shallow water). My first is get out of your boat. Some pieces of topography — such as skinny inlets and narrow, shallow bays that the cod use to herd and push baitfish — just cannot be fished quietly enough from your boat.
Once back in your boat and in more open waters, anchoring and swinging on a long, soft rope attached to a homemade anchor consisting of an old Holden hub cap filled with lead might sound agricultural, but I know but damn well it works. It’s dynamite. You need an onshore breeze for this tactic, gently easing the hub cap into the water is done a long way out, then just drift back into a predetermined position, you can actually quarter on the breeze if you wish, by tying off midships on either side to get yourself closer to one side of the bay or the other. You can also obviously drop back or move forward depending on the situation, and its all done in absolute stealth.
Depending on depth and knowledge of the topography, my sounders are often turned off. In fact, you can nearly bet if I’m in 6 metres of water or less and know the area, they will never be on…
Drifting on the breeze is another great tactic. Bow mount electric motor use and movements should be kept to an absolute minimum. Your casts should be made downwind, covering great distances. This is a good tactic when the cod are a little more scattered, or have set up on pieces of structure after the bite window has shut down.
You can spot lock or drop anchor depending on depth and let the boat swing so as you can target a predetermined piece of topography or timber for multiple casts from the back of the boat.
Camping in your boat on location saves a long run up the lake before dawn and negates the real possibility of being fogged out or hitting something en route.
Being organised before you get on the water also helps with minimised movements onboard the boat, have what you need on you, pliers, cutters, lure scent, leader spool, etc. Have a predetermined small box of lures handy, within arm’s reach, up front with you. If you do need to get something out of a hatch do it quietly.
Lose the boots, too. Clod-hopping (is that even a word?) around in a boat is one sure way of sending big cod in shallow water packing. Ugg boots, soft soled gum boots, or just a heavy pair of socks is the go. Movement at any time should calculated and done slowly.
While on the subject of what you wear, clothing is a massive part of the equation. It’s right up there with baitfish concentrations and stealth. Do your research and buy the best you can afford. Layering is important. Tracksuit pants, a footy jumper and a beanie are never going to cut the mustard. In fact, they could put you in a hypothermic state and be detrimental to your health. I can tell you from experience, once you’re cold, you’re done.
Being organised should also include having a net, glove, lip gripper and camera set up ready to go. By doing this you are limiting the time the fish has to be out of the water.
This is a relatively new spin on things for me. The trigger was a large cod I caught in 1.5 metres of water. I know this because after I caught the fish I went over to where he hit the lure. I could actually still see the disturbance in the silt where he accelerated to inhale the lure.
It was well after the feeding window had closed. The sun was gleaming into the water. I have to be honest and say that the cast was an “f-up”. I was in auto pilot and had basically written my chances off for another encounter.
It did get me thinking though. Why? I filed it away, but have since had a handful of other encounters that where very similar.
Fish are ectothermic meaning they use outside influences to regulate their temperature, we (mammals) are endothermic, meaning we use internal mechanisms to regulate our temperature.
I can only think (and it’s just a theory) that some of these unpressured big fish are sunbaking after a cold night and morning feeding, turned side on to expose themselves to maximum sunlight for a little while before moving off to deeper water and a favourite piece of structure or topography. At first, I thought it may have been to assist in digestion, and this could still be part of the reason. It’s interesting and noteworthy and something that needs to be kept in mind.
Have what you need on you, pliers, cutters, lure scent, leader spool, etc… Being organised before you get on the water helps to minimise movement — and therefore, noise — onboard the boat.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Have a predetermined plan — based on observations made in the hours spent on recon’ missions — before you even make a cast (there’s that hunting theme again).
Have two or three key areas pegged out and a plan to be there at the opportune times. Stick to the plan. Running and gunning is no way to target big cod, in my experience. Small adjustments can be made the following session, if needed.
Camping in your boat on location is something I do most times. It saves the long run up the lake in the wee hours of the morning before dawn. It takes into account the real possibility of being fogged out or the chances of hitting something en route. It also limits or negates boat noise from your motor and hull on approach.
I usually start by walking the bank, and more than once the only fish I have caught for the morning has come this way.
Confidence — or a mental state of positivity — is another key factor in the hours, days or even weeks of no fish… Please read that again.
Drawing inspiration from others has helped me over the years. “Cleaver wouldn’t go home” is one such mental note that plays repeatedly on some nights. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Glen is referring here to fishing “freak” and fellow Fishotopian, Chris Cleaver.]
Targeting bigger cod is a mental game as much as anything else. I can be really honest here and say that most fishos — even some of the really good ones I know — don’t have the mental capacity to deal with situations and circumstances that can arise, particularly the battle within. Finding inspiration to keep casting when you can no longer feel your fingers or toes, dipping rods and reels in the water every third or fourth cast to de-ice them, missing a big fish after your third or fourth morning with nothing… It quite literally tears your guts out.
WHY DO IT?
This style of fishing won’t be for everyone. In fact, I believe it will remain a very small but slowly growing niche.
I can only say from my experience that once that big cod hits the net, you soon forget the pain and heartache it took to get there. It’s a rush — for me at least — that is like no other.
I sometimes cringe at my posts on the socials after such a big fish. I’ve stopped measuring cod and only do so if I’m certain its bigger than my PB, and I never put the length up. I do this for two reasons: one is it takes out one more process the fish has to endure before going back in the water. The other is a reflection of my opinion that way too much emphasis is put on the length and size of a big Murray cod. The journey it took to get there is way more important for mine. They are very, very special fish. The experience for me is “immeasurable”.
In a lot of ways and broadly speaking, we have really only scratched the surface so far. I’ve seen enough over the last four winter seasons on the impoundments to realise that much bigger fish exist than are being caught. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say nobody is even fishing for them yet.
I say this because the environments we have created in these impoundments are false ones that suit such a large, long-living predator.
Stocked food annually, introduced pest species that breed like rabbits, habitats that (in most cases) don’t dry up, depth and protection from a wide-open expanse of water with relatively little pressure and a long history.
It’s scary, really. These mega Cod will not be eating one kilo fish… more like three and for kilo prey or even bigger.
How we go about targeting such fish will be the test of our times I’ve got a few ideas that are well outside tackle industry development at the moment. It’s a work in progress that will develop with more time and dedication: not just from me, but other dedicated souls willing to take on the challenge.
I hope this piece has been revealing and eye-opening for you all. It’s certainly been a long road with so many more miles still to be travelled.
I hope to see you on the water soon. Until then, Fishtopians, tight lines!