Looking across the Murray River from Curlwaa, six kilometres upstream of Wentworth, the riverbank is lined with campers.
It was Easter, and these were free campers. There are many similar stretches of free camping available along the Murray: places where people can pitch a tent or park a van without paying, or signing a visitor’s book, for the privilege. In a world of rules, regulations, and overbearing bureaucracy, it is one of the last bastions of freedom.
In early visits to this river, I took a swag. It was a cosmic experience. A wash was a swim in the river, and a nature walk taken with shovel in one hand and loo roll in the other. Trips these days are more refined, and I take along a Jayco Sterling Outback van. Caravan parks with all mod cons are nice places to be, but so too are the free camps.
Many campers bring boats, and launch them from low-lying stretches of riverbank. Most people bring along fishing rods, even if carp are the main catch.
One reason so many cleared areas exist along this river was river transport. Towns like Wentworth were built on river transport. From Wentworth, food and supplies were carted upstream along the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee Rivers; returning boats would be laden with farm produce. In any given week up to 30 paddle steamers docked at Wentworth. To keep the fleet steaming, every 25 or 50 miles, red gum woodpiles dotted the riverbanks. Up to four tonnes of wood would be loaded aboard the paddle steamers at each stop. And it was needed: big paddle steamers burned up to a tonne of wood an hour – enough fuel for just 10 miles of river.
River transport and irrigation brought about locks to regulate flow. Today, Australia’s second longest waterway is not so much a river as a series of regulated impoundments. Water control is not such a bad thing for anglers, given that rising water levels are a turn on for river fish. In the Murray, water level control means you don’t always have to travel far to find rising water, and a hot bite.
This is the way it is at Wentworth at the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers. There were four of us on this trip: Rod Mackenzie and Gus Storer from Manangatang, a small Mallee wheat town, and Darwin fishing identity Alex Julius. We stayed at the Willow Bend Caravan Park at Wentworth, near where the Darling River flows into the Murray.
There are two boat ramps at Wentworth; one in the Darling River near the Highway Bridge and another on the Murray, which is on your left just before the bridge as you are coming from Mildura. Staying at the Willow Bend Caravan Park, with a riverfront site, enabled us to park the boats in the river in front of the van.
The Murray was clear and green, the Darling where it flowed into the Murray, its usual murky self. I fished with Gus, while Rod and Alex teamed up. On the first day I landed a couple of Murray cod to about 12kg, and that, as it turned out, was my week’s fishing. Gus caught a few small cod to 12kg over the coming days. Rod and Alex did best, netting a couple of cod over 25kg, as well as several smaller cod.
One of the joys of Wentworth is that in the heat of the day, when you need to be out of the sun, you can moor your boat in the Darling River below the Wentworth Services Club, and go for a meal. The view is magnificent, and at about $10 a go, lunch is within most people’s budget.
Down river from Wentworth is Lock 10, under the control of Lock Keeper Norm Boyd. Norm took on the job 13 years ago, after serving as assistant lock keeper for 10 years. Working with water flows seems to have overflowed to land based pursuits. In 1980, Norm started rebuilding engines, like the Blaxland-Chapman or Simplex engines, which he then installs into his handcrafted boats.
Norm spent 10 years helping the community rebuild the paddle steamer Ruby. More than 100 years old, the 40-metre long side paddle wheeler is the pride of Wentworth. Built in 1907 at Morgan in South Australia, the PS Ruby is a rare example of a triple deck passenger and cargo boat.
The Locks are used to regulate water flow, but Norm wanted to talk about the massive Murray cod kill that occurred in the river in 2010: “hundreds of thousands of cod died when the blackwater came down,” Norm said.
In December 2010, native fish kills were being reported after massive flooding that started in September. Summer rains brought more flooding. Floodwaters inundated the Barmah Forest near Echuca on the Murray River, and flowing downstream, the floodwaters flushed poisonous blackwater out of backwaters and billabongs. Consequently, thousands of fish died.
Many people viewed the lack of publicity over the fish kill as some sort of sinister cover up. Some people who wrote about the huge numbers of cod floating belly up in the river copped abuse from traders who feared the news would affect tourism.
Norm said: “cod would swim into the fish ladder, and I could pat them, but then they would leave the ladder, roll over and float downriver. There aren’t enough cod in the river, and we shouldn’t be catching them.”
Not everyone agrees, but you have to respect opinion based on experience.
Up river from Wentworth is a small town called Curlwaa. There is a boat ramp and the Abbotsford Bridge spans the river. Most anglers fish the Victorian side, a sparse, wooded floodplain that can be accessed in a family wagon, provided there has been no rain. The soil is a thin dusting of loam. A few drops of rain and vehicles slip and slide, at best. When camped on these floodplains, and it rains, the best option is to wait for the ground to dry out. The river on the New South Wales side is littered with fallen trees, deep holes and channels – ideal cod water.
The ability to move to find better water around the corner, or as in this case, above the lock, is one aspect of the Murray River that makes the fishing options so good. Towns might be 20km apart by road, but the river has so many twists and turns that there can be 100km of water inbetween.
Downstream from Wentworth, on the Old Renmark Road, is a caravan park called Fort Courage. The park sits like a green oasis amidst a burnt orange landscape. As you drive along the Renmark Road, the only vegetation is saltbush. This is sunburnt country: dry and flat, with a few red soil sand hills.
There are tracks leading off on both sides, but no homesteads in sight. Moreover, while the road follows the Murray River, the only water you come across is the Darling River Anabranch, renowned for its capacity to produce bucket loads of big yabbies after floods. The sign to Fort Courage is clear, and you turn left and drive for about a kilometre over unsealed road.
The park comprises 25ha of Murray River frontage. There is just over a hectare of assorted shade trees and green lawns, powered and unpowered sites, air-conditioned cabins and an amenities block. The cooking area is under cover and there are several sets of tables and chairs. The barbecue consists of a large hot plate, or there are Weber barbecues for those who prefer a roast. There used to be a large, open log fire but that has been replaced with a huge Coonara.
Fort Courage has fish cleaning facilities and boat ramp, and anglers moor their boats to the riverbank at night. A couple of kilometres downstream is Deadmans Creek. Sounds like a name out of a pirate movie. It may not be a creek, as it looks like a cumbungi-lined cut on the south bank of the river. A half dozen or so old, greying shells of trees mark the entrance. Some trees are leaning ready to topple; others already have, their graves marked by short stumps protruding from the tannin coloured waters.
The fishing here can be excellent for cod to about 25kg. Upstream you can go as far as Lock 10 at Wentworth, and downstream about 40km to Lock 9, below Moorna Station. Fort Courage is an ideal base camp if you want to fish Frenchmans and Deadmans Creeks, the Rufus River and the Anabranch.
When bait fishing for yellowbelly, a 6-8 kg outfit with a running sinker and hook size from No. 2-4 long shank, or similar in Suicide pattern. Although most people do not want to admit it, the main target species in the river is carp. Use the same rig as for yellowbelly, and fish with worms. Anglers bait fishing for big cod often go up to 6/0 in size, although this is governed by bait size.
If you have a boat and want to hook big Murray cod with any consistency then slow troll deep running lures. Lure trollers work heavier tackle, using braid lines to 15-24kg, as they are much thinner than equivalent monofilament. Leader material is important if fishing for cod should be about 24kg breaking strain.
While cod have icon like status, the humble yellowbelly (golden perch) is the most common capture, other than carp. Just about any snag will produce yellowbelly, and it is all about working different snags until you find one holding fish. Cheese has become one of the most popular baits for smaller cod. Bardi grub is still the favoured cod bait of most seasoned anglers, followed by shrimp, yabbies, and scrubworms. The best place to seek out yellowbelly is among the snags and fallen timber. If you want cod, look for snags in deep water say from about 6m and deeper.
You have to be prepared to put your bait or lure in among the snags. Employ big, wide action diving lures for trolling. Much depends on getting the lure down to the fish. If your lure is bouncing off the bottom then you know it is deep enough. When trolling upstream work bigger lures than when trolling downstream.
Smaller lures can be used to cast to snags, and spinnerbaits do not snag on timber as often as other lures. Spinnerbaits do well in the cold months when the cod move into the shallows.
If you intend fishing the Murray River, you will need a NSW angling licence.