Oh My Cod – James Falkenberg

Just recently my wonderful partner and I decided it was time for us to visit my family in my hometown of the Barossa Valley, South Australia.  Now before some of you start saying to yourselves “Oh that’s what’s wrong with him” and “That explains a lot!” (To which I have all heard before), the good old state of South Oz has a number of things going for it that other states could learn from.

For instance, the recycling policy which sees the return of 10cents for every bottle (plastic/glass) recycled, so the more you drink, the more money you can earn… sounds too good to be true!

Another tick for the South Aussie box is the management of their fisheries in the last decade particular the Murray Cod.  Whilst growing up in the Barossa Valley, my family and I would regularly visit the River Murray in search of a feed of fish whether it be Callop (yellowbelly) or a feed of delicious yabbies which would keep us as kids entertained for hours while the baits were left soaking.  There was always talk of the chance one of us may be lucky enough to catch a mighty Murray Cod but sadly those dreams never became a reality.

Unfortunately, due to heavy commercial and recreational fishing in the late 1800’s through to the mid 1900’s which saw techniques such as set lines, drum nets, gill nets and even explosives been used by both parties, the Murray Cod was under severe threat of extinction in South Australia. In fact, there was still a Murray Cod commercial fishery in the River Murray up until mid-2003.  With a number of other factors including the introduction of carp, habitat degradation, inadequate size/possession regulations and these regulations being unenforced or even completely ignored, it would seem that Johnny Depp would have more chance of getting his beloved pooches in the country than I would have catching a cod!

However, all was not lost as the South Australian government was now committed to saving our largest freshwater native. The cod was now listed on the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in 2003and fishing for them has been restricted since 2008.  The fishery was closed to all activity in 2009 before being reopened for a limited catch and release season each year since 2011. This season incorporates a seasonal closure between 1 August and 31 December where it is not permitted to troll for cod.  Anyway back to the fishing.

So after numerous phone calls and text messages, my cousin and I had hatched a plan to target these magnificent creatures at one of our local spots where he had caught a few Callop previously so all would not be lost if we returned home having a feed of fish, but no cod.  Much to my partner, Kassandra’s delight, it was time to purchase some new fishing gear at the local tackle shop!  Having never targeted cod in particular, I began searching the web for tried and tested lures, colours, etc.  A fair bit of research went into feeding characteristics and behavioural patterns around moon phases and stuff like that but most of all I would try to get some local knowledge.  That being said, any Murray Cod fisherman or fisherwomen will generally keep their lips tighter than last year’s NRL Grand Final, but you may get some information and that is always better than none.

Now most cod fisherman will tell you when targeting these fish persistence and patience are key.  The fish of a thousand casts some call it.  After catching a few medium size Callop in a short period of time I felt the tell tail signs that something big has latched on to my lure!  My heart immediately started to race as there is nothing else big enough in the river to pull like this!  My cousin, Clint (Ding) and I looked at each other for what seemed an eternity before I muttered the words “I think this is our Murray Cod dude!” to which he replied “Na, can’t be.”  The fish surfaced after a few minutes and we got a glimpse of the scale of fish we were dealing with and once again our heart rates took off as we tried to remain calm and made sure that this fish would remain connected.  After roughly 15-20 of the longest minutes of my life, the fish was boat side and a true scale of the fish’s size was bestowed upon us.  “OH MY GOD!!!” not only had I caught my very first cod on my very first attempt but I had caught a true fish of a lifetime!  Now PIRSA (Department of Primary Industries and regions, South Australia) does not permit the Murray cod to be extracted from the water at all so after the hook was removed from the fish, it was time to join this magnificent creature in the drink for a few happy snaps.  These fish are not permitted to be removed from the water due to the massive amount of stress and strain being extracted from a zero gravity environment can put on the fish’ internal organs.  Now even still, I am not quite sure if I was shaking because of the amount of adrenalin pulsating through my body or if it was due to the fact the water felt like it was around 10 degrees Celsius!  After a few pics and a measure it was time to release the fish that stretched the tape to 1.28m!  Only one thing can top landing a fish like this and that is watching it swim off to breed and maybe bring someone else a great amount of joy in the future.

After a sleepless night in the swags it was time to hit the water again and it wasn’t long before Clint hooked up onto a solid fish.  As our hearts started to race again, and after a tense few minutes he had his very 1st Murray Cod boat side – a super healthy specimen at 81cm!  You couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces and it was only 10 minutes into the day!  As the day warmed up and I absorbed being back on this majestic river, it wasn’t too long before I hooked up to my second ever Cod, and our 3rd for the trip at 87cm.  A few more pics yet and it was released to fight another day.  The day was finished with a super solid Callop (yellowbelly) at 51cm, landed by Clint and the smiles were worn proudly from ear to ear as we packed up the gear and headed for home.

The South Australian fisheries that look after the River Murray may have saved the Cod and not a moment too soon.  Strict regulations on this fish and the release of 100,000 fingerlings are definitely a step in the right direction for this rejuvenation and protection of our greatest and largest freshwater native.  Also the handling of not only the Murray Cod, but all large fish intended for release is paramount to their survival, so avoiding hot/dry surfaces, hands in the gills and supporting the fish’ entire body weight is crucial. So if you are ever visiting the Riverland, make sure you pack a few cod lures as the chances of catching a fish of a lifetime may not be as bleak as one used to think.  I know I cannot wait to get back again to the land of the fritz ‘n’ sauce sandwich and fruitchoc.  Ya gotta love that!