The early December day was hot, and the sun riding high found Richard and me sneaking downstream on a crystal clear river, sticking to the shadows where possible and wading when the bank-side vegetation got the better of us. We had been fishing for some time that morning and had made a good time of it; having seen a platypus already as well as some big eel-tailed catfish lounging in their circular stone-ringed nests.
Not having any experience with this form of fishing we were making it up as we went along. We were, or course, hunting that little marvel of the east coast: the Australian Bass.
Wandering along a riffle section we came to an out-of-the-way backwater. Sheltered under low-hanging weeping lilly pilly, full of logs, and with a heavily undercut bank, the inky water cried out to be tested. I lucked out on getting the first cast and positioned myself on a log at the head of the hole. The cast was good, putting my little shallow diving minnow right out towards the far end between the bank and a submerged branch.
Letting the lure sit for as long as I could handle, I took up the slack and gave the rod a flick to kick the lure down into the zone. The tail treble had hardly submerged when something imploded around the lure, the water boiled, and my line darted off towards a menacing snag as the rod buckled under the strain.
The Australian Bass
Free-ranging populations of the Australian bass (Macquaria novemaculeata) are found in sea-flowing river systems east of the Great Dividing Range from the Mary River in Queensland to the Gippsland Lakes of Victoria (DPI). Bass spend the spring to autumn months in freshwater, before migrating over winter to salt water estuaries and river mouths to spawn. A closed season is in effect in rivers downstream of freshwater impoundments between June and September.
Changes to river flow including dams, weirs and road crossings have impacted the species throughout its range and under natural conditions fish will become extirpated from rivers and creeks upstream of these migration barriers.
The bass is one of the most common large native fish in the systems it inhabits and is highly predatory, feeding on small fishes, crustaceans, insects and frogs. During the warmer months, insects including cicadas become a major source of food for the species.
Bass are very reliant on structure to ambush prey from and will take up residence in vicinity of snags, rocks and undercut banks, as well as under overhanging vegetation. This rule is only adhered to during daylight hours, however, and in the low light periods of dawn, dusk and overnight bass will become highly mobile and actively forage in open water.
While many fish caught from rivers range between 20 to 30 centimetres, productive sections will be home to many fish over 30 centimetres, and the fabled ‘unicorn’ of 50 centimetres or more still lurks for those willing to search.
As the majority of freshwater river systems on the east coast of Australia are home to the bass, choosing a local waterway to test is usually a good start. Keep in mind the fact that fish are unlikely to be found upstream of barriers. Work out where local barriers are, if they are there, and start fishing downstream of them.
One of the great drawcards of fishing for the Australian bass is the spectacular locations they can be found in; if that is your thing then hunt them in the best country you can find. If you are more interested in getting up close and personal never fear, they turn up in some pretty ordinary places as well, and if no one else pays attention to a misunderstood waterway you might be in on a jackpot.
When you have chosen your fishing location, start by targeting the deeper holes and areas with plenty of cover for fish to hide in. Where cover is present, don’t get too focussed on water depth as we have pulled some very nice fish from fairly skinny water where there is something for them to hide by.
Early mornings and late afternoons are prime times for this species and are less forgiving of lure placement, but fish can be caught throughout the day if you put a lure where the fish are. Casting to hidden lairs can be tricky for the beginner so practice as much as possible. Accuracy is paramount, but so is the ability to make unorthodox casting techniques part of your repertoire. The only way to really learn this is to get amongst the thick stuff and have patience. If you aren’t occasionally getting snagged on the bank or a cheeky branch, you aren’t casting to the right places.
The Business End
Lure choice, as is too often the case at the moment, seems to be an endless topic. Take caution with this, and remember that most people spruiking a new lure aren’t doing it purely because it’s the best thing yet.
River bass, from my experience, generally aren’t too high ended in their palate. I fish the same surface lure (not the same type – the same lure) first up every time I hit the water. I have used this lure for a year at this stage and it picks up fish without doubt, every time (and I’ve probably just ruined it). Once the sun gets up, I generally put on a plastic shad and go from there. Have some choice at hand for those days that are just off, but don’t go crazy.
Surface fishing for bass can be explosive. ‘Walk the dog’ style surface lures work well, mimicking a wounded baitfish, grasshopper or perhaps a frog. Wobblers are another good lure type, and there is something special about sitting in the pitch black listening to the gurgle of your wobbler as it makes its way back to you only to be interrupted by a sudden strike. I haven’t used poppers to a great extent at this stage but am sure that similar results are to be found. Surface running soft plastics are another choice that may be top-notch.
When the sun gets up it’s time to get down. Fishing diving hard bodies running in the shallow to mid water column can keep the action going all day. Deep divers are a good option in bigger holes. Take consideration of your surroundings. Where we normally fish the water is gin-clear, so natural colours are a smart choice. If the water is a bit murky then consider livening up in the colour department. Lures with a fat profile generally displace more water and make their presence known, and can be retrieved very slowly with plenty of pauses. Keep the lure in the strike zone for as long as possible.
Soft plastics are another favourite of ours when wanting to get down into the murk. I have had great success with small (40-50 millimetre) shads in natural colours. Richard swears by green and red grubs. We have found that strikes will come thick and fast when using a fairly fast retrieve. I generally sink the plastic down a metre or two then start a brisk double-flick followed by a drop to let the lure get back down a bit.
Wait it Out
I can’t stress enough the importance of letting surface lures and diving hard bodies sit after the cast. Leave them for as long as you can handle before starting your retrieve; 30 seconds or more isn’t too long. A good rule of thumb I have read somewhere is to let the ripples dissipate. When a lure splashes down, a fish is likely to hear it from some way off and feel like coming to investigate. Give it time to get there!
The Jerk on the Other
A word on rods. Use one you enjoy casting and playing around with – trust me, you’ll be doing a lot of it. A fast taper rod will provide the ability to plug lures into tight spaces with accuracy, and to put some hurt on big fish in those tight spaces. We use light action spinning rods in the 1.5-3kg and 2-5kg line rating, and at 6’10” and 6’4” respectively. We have found that the slightly longer rods don’t restrict castability once you get going.
Light mainline in 6-8lb breaking strains are all that is required, generally speaking, and a 10-12lb leader of about 2 metres will give a bit of added abrasion resistance. Reels should have a drag that works, feel balanced on the setup, and generally be in good working order. I’m of the opinion that the rod is much more important to this style of fishing than is the reel.
Foot or Float?
I will have to admit it: our catch rates appear to have increased dramatically since we put canoes in the water. I won’t say that this is definitive proof, as increases in our understanding of the fish, our local river, and our fishing skills will have definitely played a part; but the ability to fish more of any given stretch of water is what a canoe or kayak provides.
If you have one and feel like using it, then do it. If you don’t have one, are interested in getting one, then do it. If you don’t have one and aren’t interested in getting one, just bank bash it. The fish are there for those who put in the effort.
A Quick Summary
If you are just too keen to get out there and into them, here is a quick list of things to consider:
• River bass season is closed from 1 June to 31 August inclusive
• Periods of low light are prime times, particularly for targeting fish on the surface
• Bass are most likely to be found in close proximity to structure
• Diving and sinking lures work well during mid-day and when uncooperative fish need some stirring up
When starting out or considering a new area to fish, do your homework. Study maps to determine access and topography. Google Earth is really useful for checking out far away rivers in advance. Search for available information on the waterway you are considering to see if you can glean any tips along the way. And read up on the Australian bass! There is nothing that will get you worked up faster than reading about them, having a look at photos (pay attention to the background to give a hint on the habitat they came from) and watching videos. And when it all works out, you won’t need any more convincing.