Lake Copeton has an excellent catchment area, fed by the Gwydir River and runoff from the New England Tablelands. The lake is about 46 km west of Inverell on the Gwydir Highway. Its dam wall was constructed primarily to serve the cotton farms further west. At full capacity, the volume of water in Copeton is about three times that of Sydney Harbour.
The lake is a popular angling site and is well stocked with Murray cod, yellowbelly and silver perch, and has good numbers of catfish, redfin and noxious carp.
I first fished this water in the mid-1990s in company with native fish specialist Rod Harrison. We stayed at Copeton Waters State Park and launched our boat at Diamond Bay to make the 30 km trip to where the Gwydir River flowed into the lake. The flat-bottomed aluminium boat had a 50-horsepower four-stroke outboard. Rod drove at top speed regardless of whether we were in open water or motoring through dead trees, so the run took less than 30 min.
Catching native fish on lures requires specialised techniques. First, you have to know where the fish are likely to be lurking and then offer a lure with all the right attributes: colour, action and depth are the keys to success. Before a lure was used, Rod set about changing the hooks, always upsizing the front set of trebles and downsizing the rear trebles before working the hooks over with a sharpening stone. He changed the hooks because of the way native fi sh feed, in that they flare their gills to inhale their prey. It means fish are taken at the broadest surface and he reasoned that would be the same with lures, which was why he placed special significance on the front treble.
We used baitcaster reels spooled with braid and cast diving lures to the edge of rocks and alongside the skeletal remains of treetops. Our modus operandi was to work rocky points, snags and drop-offs. The slightest irregularities in the shoreline or bottom are likely places, as are choke points where the water narrows and the current increases.
It was in a choke point when the action went from hot to hotter. A yellowbelly of about 2.5 kg was putting up a valiant struggle after taking a lure and Rod was coaxing it along through the current. We were drifting through a stretch of fast water in a small canyon and, even though the fish was making life difficult by using its deep flank to hold in the current, it was almost a regulation battle. Then a huge flash of white surged through the tannincoloured water as a big Murray cod rose from its lair to take a swipe at the struggling yellowbelly.
‘Did you see the size of that bloody cod?’ Rod asked. He was excited. We had been on the lake trolling and spinning for such a huge cod since sunrise, more than eight hours beforehand. But the cod proved scarce and after two and a half days we only managed two of the ‘green fish’. Mostly we caught and released 1–3.5 kg yellowbelly, as well as redfin and silver perch.
Even when the fishing was slow, water dragons provided plenty of fun. When one of these lizards spotted a lure in the water, it would clamber along the rocky shoreline, dive in and chase the lure. We made sure no lizard got close enough to hook up, but the sight of a reptilian head poking periscope-like out of the water pursuing a piece of coloured, vibrating plastic was good for a few laughs.
Back in the early 1990s, a Murray cod of 10 kg was regarded as a good fish. These days the cod are up to 40 kg. The yellowbelly average 2–3 kg, so you won’t be hooking tiddlers. The redfin aren’t huge, but they act more as a food source for other fish than an angling resource.
If the lake has a problem, it is because it’s too big and there are so many fishing opportunities to choose from. The Gwydir River end offers more in the way of scenery, and the small bays strewn with fallen timber are more protected. Accommodation is available at Copeton Waters State Park with cabins (bring your own linen), powered and unpowered campsites.
Lure anglers prefer baitcaster outfits of 4–6 kg and spool their reels with 15 kg breaking strain braid. Trolling or casting lures will produce cod, yellowbelly, silver perch and redfin. If fishing for cod, use a minimum 15 kg monofilament leader. Bait anglers tend to employ 4–6 kg threadline outfits.
The simplest rig for bait fishing is to use a pea-size ball sinker and allow it to run to the hook. Some anglers prefer to use running sinker rigs with a leader for cod, and paternoster style rigs for yellowbelly. Hook size for baits are generally No. 2–4 long shank. Bobbing with lures and bait is popular in heavily timbered areas for redfi n and yellowbelly. Drop the bait to the bottom, lift it a metre or so and then drop it again.
Shrimp and yabbies are the two most popular baits, but scrub worms and woodgrubs will also produce solid results.
Large bibbed, deep-running lures are best for trolling. A few with a record of accomplishment here include Stumpjumpers, Predatek Boomerangs and Halco Poltergeists. Spinning with minnow lures or working spinnerbaits in the heavy timber and rocky gorges is sure to be productive.