WINNING WAYS: Three Dams, Three Strategies


In the opening round The Australian Freshwater Masters, competitors targeted the aptly-named golden perch or yellowbelly of Lake Windamere.

The Australian Freshwater Masters is a unique tournament series that pitches teams of anglers against each other across a time frame of several months at three very different venues, targeting a trio of iconic native species. Jo and I competed in The Freshwater Masters for the first time in 2015/16, and were fortunate enough to ultimately win the event… Here’s the inside story of exactly how we did it:

The Australian Freshwater Masters is an innovative tournament series first conceived by well-known Aussie lure maker, Wayne Lennon, some two decades ago. Wayne successfully ran the annual event for many years before handing the reins to Dave Silva. Later, Dave Shelton picked up the baton and, in more recent times, has been ably assisted by Matt Cunneen, creator of Gangster Lures in Wagga. As of last year, Matt is now running the event largely by himself.


A pity golden perch weren’t actually the target species at Glenbawn. D’oh!

The Masters is a brilliant concept, with three rounds taking place on three very different waterways, targeting a trio of our most popular and iconic freshwater natives: golden perch, Australian bass and Murray cod. Teams consist of two anglers, and their cumulative scores carry forward from one round to the next, eventually deciding the overall champions. It’s definitely a concept that rewards versatility, determination and consistency of performance.

The Masters is a lure-and-fly only event, with both casting and trolling allowed and, naturally, it’s all about catch-and-release. Live fish are photographed on standard issue Fisheries measuring mats and, where possible, witnessed by another team, although the welfare of the fish always comes first, so if there are no witnesses nearby, a date-stamped digital photo is acceptable.screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-11-02-01-am

While ostensibly an invitational series, expressions of interest from new teams are invited every year and are generally accepted, at least until the current cap of 40 teams is reached.

My wife Jo and I competed in the Masters for the first time ever in 2015/16 and I’m rather chuffed to report that we were able to bring home the Champion Team trophy. Here’s how it went down:


The first round of the 2015/16 Australian Freshwater Masters was staged in early November 2015 on the waters of Lake Windamere, near Mudgee, in central western NSW. The target species for this opening round was the golden perch or yellowbelly.

This impoundment has a well-earned reputation for being one of Australia’s premier venues for big goldens, but it also attracts a great deal of intelligent angling effort these days, and most regulars would agree that the fishing isn’t getting any easier, despite the presence of excellent yellowbelly stocks in the dam’s waters.

Sure enough, there’d been a string of competitions in the weeks leading up to the Masters, and word on the street (or rather, at the boat ramp) was that the bite was very tough indeed, with many anglers struggling to pin even a fish or two for a full day on the water.

Over the course of several seasons working Windamere together, both socially and in the annual Golden Classic, Jo and I have developed some proven strategies that seem capable of scoring us at least a few fish on even the toughest of days.

Ecogear's ZX 40 in dark colours is our go-to at Windy.

Ecogear’s ZX 40 in dark colours is our go-to lure at Windy.

Our “go-to” method is to target the 5.5 to 7 m depth band adjacent to sloping shores and points. This puts us outside the weed zone (weed growth is uncommon in Windamere at depths greater than 4.5 m), but close enough to the feeding areas provided by aquatic vegetation to ensure the presence of at least some active fish.

Experience has shown us that the lake’s goldens often seek an apparent “comfort zone” located between 5 and 6 m beneath the surface, and fish will often be seen suspended in this zone on the sounder screen, even over much deeper parts of the lake. Targeting these suspended fish in deep water is a hit-and-miss affair, best undertaken by trolling lures that run in that depth band. As neither Jo nor I particularly enjoy trolling, we’d rather locate those suspended fish in areas where they’re hanging within a metre of the lake bed, as this better suits our preferred presentation methods.


Once we’ve used our Lowrance sounder to identify a likely stretch of bank holding at least the odd scattered fish at the desired depth, we begin casting.

The Jackall Mask Vibe often pulls us a bigger fish or two.

The Jackall Mask Vibe often pulls us a bigger fish or two.

Both of us opt for finesse style “bream-weight” tackle these days, based around light spin rods sporting 1000-size reels loaded with 1.5 to 2 kg (3 to 5 pound) braid. We both love PowerPro Bite Motion braid in this role, as it’s easier to see between rod tip and water than many other types. To the end of this braid we’ll attach one to three rod lengths of fluorocarbon leader (we use Shimano Ocea). The exact length and strength of this leader will depend upon our perceptions of the likely abundance and activity level of the fish, based on what we’ve seen on the sounder and heard on the grapevine from other anglers who’ve recently fished the lake. Our starting point is typically a rod-and-a-half length (about 3 m) of 4 kg (8 pound) fluorocarbon. In demanding conditions, we’ll go to 4 or 5 m of 3 kg (6 pound) leader. At the opposite extreme, in snaggy country or when the fish are more willing, we’ll often use just 2 m (or less) of 5 kg (10 pound) leader.


Windamere is the home of trophy yellas!

Typically, Jo and I will each kick off with a different lure. Most often, I’ll tie on a 60 mm Jackall Mask Vibe in either the Ghost Black Red Belly or Ghost Blue Gill colour, while Jo goes straight to her favourite 40 mm Ecogear ZX in the Dark Knight (black and red) finish. We present these vibes by making lengthy casts along the chosen depth contour (usually parallel with the shore or angled slightly towards the bank), getting our lures to the bottom and then fishing them back to the boat with a series of short hops or lifts and semi-slack-line drops.

On four days out of five, Jo’s Ecogear ZX will catch the first yella, and also go on to catch the most. However, my Jackall often produces the biggest fish of the session. I can also cover more water slightly faster with it, making this a great “prospecting” lure when fish are especially scattered. Unless she’s convincingly kicking my butt with the ZX (as she so often does!), I’ll usually stick to the Mask, but if I’m receiving too much of a whipping, I’ll join her with a ZX, perhaps in the Crawdad (brown) colour.

This was exactly how we approached Round One of the Freshwater Masters, and the strategy paid off for us. Fish were thinly spread, with slightly better concentrations towards the downstream end of the main basin. During pre-fish, we found two “sweet spots” on opposite sides of the dam and we basically spent our two competition days on the water switching between those two stretches of bank, which were each only a couple of hundred metres long. Often, we’d pull a fish very soon after moving to one stretch or the other, only to then have it go quiet. When it did, we’d blast across to the other bank (almost directly opposite) and work that for an hour. The fishing was slow, painstaking and deliberate, but every 40 minutes or so, one or the other of us would usually record a hit.


As is to be expected in any hard fought comp’, we had plenty of company on day two, and one of our prime banks was occupied by other boats for almost the entire session, forcing us to put most of our eggs into one basket, but we still managed a reasonable strike rate.


Jo with one of the hefty Windamere goldens that clinched her the champion angler title in round one during the 2015/16 event, and helped elevate Starlo’s Squidgies to a lead that ultimately proved to be unassailable that year.

Over the course of the round we amassed our maximum potential tally of 10 eligible fish and were also able to upgrade on several occasions. As it turned out, we were the only team who managed a full score card, finishing with a combined total of 5,184 points (one point per millimetre), putting us some 1,800 points ahead of Team Jigheads (Mitchell Skeers and Brad Gardiner) and over 2,000 points in front of the third-placed Team Windybanks (Simon McAlpine and David Dobson). Jo was also overall champion angler for the round, a title she can proudly add to her three Champion Lady Angler trophies and one runner-up gong from four appearances in the annual Lake Windamere Golden Classic… You could say she has the golden touch!

Because of the large average size of Windamere’s goldens (over 50 cm), and the high aggregate scores they therefore generate, it was always going to be difficult for the rest of the field to peg us back after such a convincing win in Round One… Difficult, but not impossible. Our goal now was to not let the wheels fall off our campaign by doing our utmost to finish mid-field or higher in the next two stages.




Aussie cricketing legend and keen Freshwater Masters’ competitor, Merv Hughes (front centre), leads some of the field in his trademark warm-up exercises before the Lake Glenbawn bass round.

Lake Glenbawn, in the Hunter Valley of NSW, is only four or five hours drive over some very scenic back roads from Windamere, so Round Two — targeting Australia bass — was scheduled just two days after Round One. This allowed competitors to relocate and have a pre-fish session (if they chose to) before launching straight back into the competition. A certain amount of “tournament fatigue” definitely sets in after so many intensive days on the water under a hot sun, but it’s important to stay sharp. Fighting a nasty ’flu as well as tiredness, I was well below par by now, but Jo kept me going with her effervescent enthusiasm.

Glenbawn had been fishing fairly well in the lead-up to Round Two, albeit mostly for smaller bass. The water in the main basin was incredibly clear, with a distinct transition to significantly dirtier areas further upstream following some recent, localised rainfall. Word was that the fishing was very slow in the clearer water, apart from a low light and night time edge bite on surface lures and shallow running minnows. Unfortunately, these windows of opportunity fell well outside the designated tournament time frames.

Upstream, in the milky, dirtier water, near-cricket-score catches of small bass were commonly being made by anglers trolling compact mid-depth diving plugs across flooded flats in 3 to 7 m of water. Not surprisingly, this is where most of the field headed, and also how they fished. By contrast, Jo and I opted to stay in the gin-clear waters of the main basin, casting our 3/8th and half ounce (10 – 14 g) dark coloured spinnerbaits at deeper edges and counting them down into the depths below.

Our seemingly counter-intuitive strategy definitely paid off in terms of producing a better average size of fish, but it was also an awfully long time between drinks. By the end of day one we had a small sampling of reasonable bass on our score card, but were well short of securing our total tally of 10 fish. We’d also caught some thumping golden perch, but unfortunately they didn’t count in this round!

Glenbawn’s goldens like spinnerbaits, too, but these fish weren’t point-scorers in round two.

Glenbawn’s goldens like spinnerbaits, too, but these fish weren’t point-scorers in round two.


On day two we bit the bullet and headed upstream with most of the rest of the field. We even swallowed our pride and opted to troll, something we almost never do! It worked, and we soon found ourselves hooking, landing and measuring a string of small bass.

With our 10 “measurers” finally secured and recorded, we immediately reverted back to targeting larger fish in the main basin on spinnerbaits. By now it was extremely windy (a common enough afternoon pattern at Glenbawn). As uncomfortable as it was, we found that the most wave-pounded and stirred-up banks and points produced the better hits, although there were still an awful lot of casts between bass. All the same, we did manage to upgrade a couple of our little runts from earlier in the day.

In the final wash-up, Glenbawn was our worst round of the Masters, and we only managed to place in mid-field (12th to be precise), but this fitted quite nicely with our game plan, and still left us more than 1,800 points ahead of our nearest rivals.

But now we had a nail biting wait of almost four months until the staging of the final round on Lake Mulwala, at the end of February.

A Glenbawn bass from the second round of The Australian Freshwater Masters.

A Glenbawn bass from the second round of The Australian Freshwater Masters.


I’d always figured Mulwala and its legendary Murray cod would be our toughest round. It’s the most remote destination from our home base, and the one I’d fished the least over the years, which still put me well ahead of Jo, who’d never wet a line there and could still count her lifetime Murray cod tally on the fingers of one hand at that point.

Mulwala has always been something of a nemesis spot for me, and over the years I’ve struggled to break the cod code: there or anywhere else. I was definitely nervous about this final round. I knew that if we crashed and burned at Mulwala and one of the other top three teams fared well, we would lose our grip on the coveted cup.


Not a big cod by any means, but worthy of a big smile after all those back-breaking casts!

Secretly, I set us a mental mark of two just-legal cod at Mulwala to hold onto the lead, although more openly, Jo and I talked about a goal of landing four measuring fish. Personally, I figured that would be a big call.

Mulwala had actually been fishing extremely well since the opening of the season, but catches had reportedly plummeted in the days prior to the final round (isn’t that always the way?). By far the best game in town was surface luring at night, but that did us no good at all, because of the competition hours.

Our pre-fish day in the upper reaches of the lake above Majors Creek did nothing to dispel my growing sense of pessimism, as we managed just two sub-legal cod, both taken on skirted jigs fitted with soft plastic trailers. I’d been pinning my hopes on the snag-studded and current-affected stretch of green water from Majors to Bundalong, but it just didn’t seem to be happening up there… not for us, anyway.

This meant that we started day one of the final round with no real game plan and no idea of where we should fish, apart from the fact that it wouldn’t be upstream!




This is the sort of shoreline structure that finally produced fish for us at Mulwala, but pin-point casts into the tightest and most shadowy back corners were needed to produce the goods.

What we ended up doing was what I always seem to end up doing at Mulwala: throwing big spinnerbaits at standing trees, stumps and lay-downs on the northern side of the extensive main basin. This turned out (as it normally does, in my experience) to be a mind-numbing, back-aching, low-percentage game of cast after cast after bloody cast without so much as a bump, a swirl or a follow. The only thing that keeps you going after four or five hours of this torture is the certain knowledge that somewhere out there in that seemingly endless expanse of drowned timber swims a mottled green giant the size of a beer keg that just might have your name on it. But for us, it clearly wasn’t meant to be.

Eventually, I pulled my brain clear of the sticky glue of mindless, muscle memory repetition and suggested switching to a strategy that had worked for me before, albeit generally on smaller cod. Jo jumped at the sniff of a change and a break from the drudgery.


Jo broke our duck at Mulwala with this fish, and also christened Gangster Lures new Breast Cancer Special fund-raising spinnerbait, complete with Squidgies Whip Bait trailer.

We pushed in through the forest of dead trees all the way to the northern (NSW) bank of the lake in an area known as Kieffens Reserve, greatly aided in our task by the excellent Charted Waters’ mapping card in our Lowrance plotter. Once there, we began throwing our big Gangster spinnerbaits at the tangles of logs and lay downs that have built up in the shoreline shallows over the years, again using the Charted Waters imagery to identify stretches of bank that had reasonably deep (2 to 5 m) channels reasonably nearby.

Finally, after more hours of pre-fishing and fishing than we cared to count, we broke our duck. Jo gasped and let out a startled, almost incredulous shout of “I’m on!” Her hot pink, double-armed Gangster spinnerbait with its pink Squidgies Whip Bait trailer had been soundly thumped by what turned out to be a frisky little cod just shy of 58 cm in length. This small fish represented quite a benchmark for us. Not only were we finally on the board in this round, but Jo had also become the first person ever to catch a fish on one of these very special lures, which Matt Cunneen designed and built as a fund raising venture for the Wagga Breast Cancer Group, and which Jo (a breast cancer survivor herself) has designed the backing card for. To say that all of this lifted our spirits would be an understatement, although it still turned out to be our only measurer of the day.


Day two saw us heading back into the wilds of Kieffens and the snaggy northern bank beyond, stretching east towards Drain Lane. The fishing remained agonisingly slow, and I use the word “agonisingly” advisedly, as by now our backs and shoulders were so incredibly sore from casting that we’d both had to take pain killers! The long morning produced a couple of undersized cod, a follow from a yellowbelly and finally a legal cod for me. Frustratingly this was followed by a couple of missed and dropped fish, but gradually we were beginning to identify a pattern of sorts.

The penny finally dropped when I snagged my spinnerbait (for the umpteenth time) just above the waterline at the very back of a tight, shadowy nook where a thicker-than-average tree trunk butted up against the shoreline. Rather than going in to unpick it, I twanged the line several times and, rather fortuitously, the spinnerbait dropped into the dark hole below. I engaged the baitcaster… and was immediately belted savagely by an energetic cod of a little under 66 cm.

Cod country, Mulwala.

Cod country, Mulwala.

It turned out that most of the fish lurking in here against the bank were actually holed up in only the juiciest, most secretive and shadowy clefts, undercuts and tangled corners, and that pin-point casting was required to tempt them. As so often happens, we’d cracked something resembling a “pattern” with little more than an hour left until lines out! That final hour produced several more jarring strikes and one pulled hook on what felt like the fish of the trip, but we simply failed to put another cod on the measuring mat. Somewhat crestfallen, we pulled stumps a few minutes prior to lines out, giving ourselves plenty of time to get back to the ramp before the final cut-off for handing in our score card. We’d managed three legal fish in two days: exactly mid-way between my “secret” hope of two and our shared goal of four… But would it be enough?


In the final wash up, and as mute testimony to just how slow the fishing had been, our three fish tally at Mulwala put us in fourth place for that round. It also took us to a final total score of 10,492 points; some 800 points clear of the Jigheads in second, with Team Windybanks holding on for third. Mitchell Skeers from the Jigheads was the highly deserving overall champion angler for the series, while I narrowly managed to take the silver medal, ahead of Simon McAlpine in third, with Jo finishing fourth.


Scott Hartley broke all previous Freshwater Masters records by catching and releasing this massive 110 cm Murray cod on a Gangster Lures Mother Frogger spinnerbait during the Mulwala round of the event.

But the greatest kudos in the Mulwala round must surely go to Scott Hartley of Team Dog House, who landed the largest fish so far recorded in Freshwater Masters’ history with a whopping 110 cm cod taken on a Gangster Mother Frogger spinnerbait… What an awesome catch!


One-way traffic: the cavernous maw of Scott Hartley’s monster Mulwala cod.

In the end, however, the whole experience had been more about the fantastic and friendly people we met and the lessons we learnt rather than who won what. We truly loved the atmosphere of sharing and caring that pervades the Australian Freshwater Masters, and we’re be back this year competing, albeit not so successfully so far (see the footnote at the bottom of this page).

Expressions of interest are already open for those who’d like to register a team in 2017/18… Are you up for it? If so, drop Matt Cunneen of Gangster Lures an email at, or give him a call on 0418 653822. We might even see you there!

See below for a full set of Team results from the 2015/16 season of The Australian Freshwater Masters:screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-11-02-01-am


The final wrap-up for the 2015/16 Australian Freshwater Masters.

POSTSCRIPT: After our great year in 2015/16, we’ve struggled a bit in 2016/17, bombing out badly at Windamere with just three scoring fish, but coming back a bit at Glenbawn on the bass to move to 9th place overall. As I write this the final Mulwala round is just weeks away… We’ll be sure to let you know how we go and bring you the full results when they come to hand.