Lake Mulwala in the predawn murk is an eerie place: dark blue, black and grey with little to see but an endless silhouette of dead trees as Cameron puts the boat - a flat-decked six-metre plate alloy monster - into the water. It's cool and already a bit breezy. The weather forecast would suggest a tough day for cod, but given all the rain and bad weather through the Victorian season, and the number of times we've had to cancel our two day trip, things could be worse..." from FlyLife #86 p.33
Like many anglers, my earliest fly fishing memories were based on chasing trout. For me, this meant convincing my parents to take me on trips to my now home waters of North East Victoria. School holidays were often spent in the hills at my grandparent’s farm, which was made even better as I discovered the joys of small stream trout fishing in nearby waters. I grew up on the outskirts of the township of Corowa and the Murray River was my childhood playground. Murray cod were my primary angling target. I was already tying trout patterns and it was inevitable that as my obsession with fly fishing and fly tying grew, that I would begin to target Murray cod locally. Looking back, I was fortunate to be trusted with my father’s fishing boat from a young age as it allowed me to fully explore the river and even do extended runs downstream to Lake Mulwala. Side channels and backwaters out of the force of the main current were my preferred locations as I didn’t have a (now essential) electric motor at my disposal. Early results chasing Murray cod with the fly rod were hard won and it would have been much easier to just accept defeat and go back to lures or bait. Thankfully I didn’t and I continued to refine my techniques and fly patterns, something which continues to this day.
Time spent fishing for Murray cod taught me about fish holding locations and their behaviour. I remember learning the hard way that a quality heavy gauged hook is perhaps the most essential component to a successful Murray cod pattern, when a standard streamer hook was easily opened up by a fish who only showed me it’s paddle- like tail. Lure fishing fuelled early creativity in my cod fly tying. Initially replicating proven colour combinations , I progressed to adding natural movement by choosing suitable materials. The addition of weighted eyes would add depth, improve snag resistance and add a jigged action to a retrieved fly. Around six years ago large articulated flies became a feature of my fly tying, after initial inspiration from patterns coming out of the United States for trout and muskie. I was already adding stinger hooks to many of my patterns in an attempt to convert more hits to hook ups. I was to discover though, that perhaps the best feature of tying this style was the incredible action you can achieve on a retrieved fly, be it a streamer or surface pattern.
The following flies are some of my most proven creations and have all evolved somewhat from their initial design.
The Snag Swinger has undergone more modifications than any other fly I tie. It was originally tied on a single hook, with a head constructed of stacked craft fur coated with epoxy then later UV resin. The single hook was often retrofitted with a stinger hook to improve hook up rates. I was noticing though, that the side to side action on the retrieve was being limited by the fixed hook off the rear of the fly. By adopting the articulated style of tying I achieved an even greater side to side swimming action. The craft fur head of the original provided the shape needed to achieve the swimming action but it retained a lot of water making the pattern tiresome to cast during long sessions. The latest and greatest version I have now settled with and used for the last few years uses a head constructed of streamer brush wound over a chenille underbody with UV resin applied on the front half of the head. If anything, the fly now has an even greater swimming action. A strong strip has it darting to the left and right. An even stronger strip can see it turn 180 degrees on its tail, hopefully to look a following Murray cod in the eye and dare it to eat it! All this combined with a mix of highly mobile natural materials of zonker strip and marabou, complimented by synthetics to provide the right mix of a perceived bulky prey item. The omission in this pattern is a weed guard for increased snag resistance. I have tried all types of weed guards and they have all had an adverse effect on the action of the fly when retrieved. For its size, 180mm, this fly is surprisingly light weight, sheds water well and best fished on sink-tip or full sink lines.
Murray cod will belt a fly for two reasons; they are hungry and it looks enough like food, the other reason is a territorial response where the fly has invaded a fish’s territory and it needs to be forcibly removed. Sometimes these territorial hits are subtle bumps, others are violent and you can be left wondering how that hook never found its mark! The Yowie started life tied on a single hook, it became articulated originally because of frustration of fish hitting the fly but missing the hook. By adding the extra hook, fly size was increased to a length of 140mm. It is tied with weighted eyes that gives it a great up and down action on the retrieve and is perfect for vertical drop presentations into timber. With this style of fishing many hits are possible on the drop as the fly is sinking, so the angler needs to be prepared and maintain tension on the line as the fly sinks. A weed guard has been added to the front hook on this pattern to improve snag resistance. Flies will still get hung up occasionally, but there is no point being where the fish are not. The main materials for this one are natural; a combination of marabou and palmered rabbit zonker strip, with a front collar of Artic fox. It is important not to over dress a pattern like this as it affects the performance of the materials underwater and its ability to shed water to make casting less stressful. It has a life of its own underwater, especially as it falls after the cast and during pauses in between strips on the retrieve.
You can see strange things on the water at night, especially on Lake Mulwala. I have seen a fully grown brush-tailed possum swimming across the middle of the lake, I felt for its sanity and wished it all the best. To go on and see it again had me thinking these things are just crazy! I have no doubt a big cod would have a crack at a meal this large as I have seen prey of similar size consumed by fish before, including cormorants, ducks and turtles. Large surface lures that produce a notable wake are gaining a lot of popularity amongst Murray cod anglers. Talking with, and seeing, lure maker’s products working first hand, I wanted to produce something similar that could be cast on a 10 weight fly rod during extended sessions. At a total length of 170mm it casts well with aggressive head taper lines. It must be lifted off the water with a short amount of line out the tip of the rod, otherwise the bib catches and makes casting very difficult. I was already a big fan of foam as a tying material for smaller profile surface flies and wanted to construct something as lightweight as possible to counteract the air resistance of the bib profile. The bib shape is adopted from surface lures, but utilises specific cuts of foam tied in to hold its shape and maintain its integrity. A constant strip has the critter swimming side to side, wagging its zonker strip tail and kicking its legs. The rear hook sits well below the surface and definitely improves hook up rates when a cod blows up on the surface. Fished on an intermediate sink tip, the fly sits lower and produces more of a wake on the retrieve. Using a floating line the fly sits a little higher and makes more of a commotion on the surface.
I chose these three flies as they highlight the creative processes that have gone into my own Murray cod patterns. It is not always about larger flies as these three patterns can also be tied on smaller hooks. I still tie many flies on single hooks for cod, especially when in areas where smaller prey items are on the menu, but as always quality hooks cannot be overstated as even smaller cod have the ability to make a mess of a standard hook on the strike. Creativity is one of the best elements in today’s fly fishing community and as we start to pursue other species it will only grow. Murray cod are an Australian icon and deserve the attention of fly anglers.