by Dave Seaman •
There is little doubt that spring is marked with a highlighter on the bass angler’s fishing calendar and, in NSW, 1 September marks the end of the anxious anticipation and the beginning of planned reality.
For most anglers, the winter months are a barren and fishless period, generally because of the DPI imposed closed season, ethical reasons or basic comfort considerations. When the first blush of red appears on the riverside bottlebrushes the bass are well on the move back into the freshwater and the time of this migration is staggered depending on your geographical position on the coast.
The basic cycle of the eastern flowing rivers and the bass that inhabit them is simple. A drop in water temperature and a rise in the river level at the end of autumn triggers the fish to make their way downstream to the brackish reaches of the system. With the correct salinity levels, the bass will congregate and spawn in large schools where the vast majority will survive the nets of the commercial fishers. With the spawning job done, the bass prepare to undertake the journey back to the upper freshwater reaches.
With a bit of luck and a few good rain events the upstream movement accelerates with a springtime rise in water levels and water temperature. Why the fish travel vast distances to the estuary to spawn is, perhaps, to provide more sustenance for the fry in their early development. Whatever the reason, it also provides an important key to understanding how to target these fish as they migrate back into the freshwater.
Early season bass fishing provides the best chance of large fish in numbers. The concentrated schools of breeding stock move back into the freshwater from mid-August through to November, and there are key areas to target. Where the seasonal migration coincides with a rise in the river level the fish will take advantage of the increased water levels to negotiate rock bars and shallow rapids. Fishing the head of a pool below rapids will produce the best fish as they gather to make their advance upstream. Remember, the fish are looking to put on condition after a prolonged period of having a distended gut cavity, full of roe or milt.
With the warming water comes an explosion of activity and the breeding cycle of creatures like firetail gudgeons, Australian smelt or the translucent, freshwater shrimp that make quick meals for bass. While bass are an aggressive, active feeders they can also be distracted and set their focus on certain food sources and, as a result, alter their predatory habits. What starts as a fishless day can soon turn into a bounty if you’re prepared to cycle through lures to pinpoint the focus of the fish.
Early in the season, when the fish are snatching up the shrimp, I use Berkley 2” Shrimps (my favourite is camo colour) and fish them on a 1/24-1/16oz no. 2 jighead along the bottom. This came about after fishing for five hours with all manner of lures, looking for a reaction bite, only to land two small fish. The last of those fish had a mouth stuffed full of small shrimp.
The penny dropped and over the next two hours, from midday, I landed 17 fish over 36cm with 50 and 52cm fork length monsters amongst them. I managed five from five casts in the exact spot I had flogged hours earlier. The key was bouncing the shrimp profile lure along the bottom, where the fish had their heads down and focused on the shrimp. I doubt the fish even noticed the earlier lure offerings, so don’t expect the crunching hit from bass all the time. Sometimes they’ll gently pick up a bottom bounced plastic and spit it out again, if you are not quick enough to strike.
DAY OR NIGHT
The bass tend to move at night, so the areas around rapids are great spots to target with surface lures in and around the eddies created in the broken water. Large profile lures like black Jointed Jitterbugs are perfect and my favourite because they plough through the running water, maintaining tension on the line ready for the strike.
Other lures that float and slide on the surface tend to offer little resistance to the river flow and create a bow in the line. Attempts to correct this only serve to skid the lure faster across the surface. For the fast water at the head of a pool, select a surface lure that sits low in the water, and provides some form of resistance to the flow and reduces line drift and bowing.
During the day, the bankside shaded areas at the base of the rapids are perhaps my favourite spots to target. The fish that mingle in the open water through the night take refuge out of the current and stick to the shadows or rock crevice cover. This is where soft plastics really become an effective tool for attracting the bite. Cast well up current and as close to the bank or shade as possible.
You need to allow the plastic to sink to the bottom and then, with a series of rod lifts to recover line and hop the lure, start the retrieve. While fishing plastics, you need to watch your line for pauses or movement against the flow and any pulse from the rod tip. Bass will drift with the lure, pick it up and spit it out without the slightest indication, so it pays to concentrate.
From November onward in most areas the water temperatures tend to increase steadily, promoting the rapid growth and activity of aquatic life and an exponential expansion of weed. The bass too are more active, and this is arguably the most consistent and predictable time of the year for planning a fishing trip. Early morning and evening sessions with surface lures are the most exciting times to fish, while the daytime temperatures are not so oppressive that they drain your energy. It’s possible to enjoy a midday session with soft plastics or spinnerbaits in the snag piles.
At the height and end of summer where the river flow is slowed by irrigation, evaporation and a lack of rain, the bass can get lethargic with the increasing water temperatures. The depletion of soluble oxygen in shallow pools can stress the fish to a point where they either die or cope by feeding at a time the water is at its coolest and hide in the deepest section of the pool and shade during daylight. Instead of fishing from dusk into dark, it’s often more productive to fish these spots from predawn to daylight after the river has surrendered much of the previous day’s heat to the night.
When and where
Without doubt, I prefer the new moon period to fish the evening surface sessions. Complete and utter darkness robs you of your sight and seems to heighten your other senses like hearing and feel. It also creates a spooky, uneasy feel and when fish hit a lure at the rod tip, you suddenly know what adrenalin is.
Some systems fish better with a full moon and others totally shut down to surface action once the moon appears, so it pays to fish a full cycle of the moon phases on a selected river to determine the best time for that system. The new moon is, however, a great time to start this process of elimination.
Early season in the lower reaches will fish better after a gully-raking flood in April and May than a dry autumn and winter. When no flood event occurs, the fish tend to shift downstream to the next big pool to wait. While the urge to spawn may drive them, they need water to carry them to the estuary and in drought years a successful spawn may not be possible.
Knowing the seasonal events that affect the river system you fish can greatly influence your bass fishing success. By making calculated decisions on where the bulk of the fish will be at any give time and factoring in the effect of rain events that have occurred, you have almost guaranteed your bass season will be off to a great start.
THE AUTHOR’S KIT
Soft plastics tackle
Lures: Gulp 2” Shrimp and 3” Jigging Shrimp
Jigheads: Unweighted to 1/8oz Nitro Bream Pro Gen 2 jigheads
Leader: 10-12lb fluorocarbon leader
Main line: 6-8lb braided line (Fireline Ultra 8 Carrier)
Rod: a fast taper (sensitive tip) 6’8-7’2 Veritas 3.0 and Salty Stage Light Casting
Reel: 2000-2500 spinning reel (Abu Garcia Revo SX 30 or ALX2500SH)
Lures: 1/8-1/4oz black and purple tandem Colorado Blade
Hook: stinger hook
Leader: 14-16lb leader
Main line: 8lb braided line
Rod: a medium/light 3-6kg rod around 6’3
Reel: 2000-2500 spinning reel (Abu Garcia Revo SX 30 or ALX2500SH)
*In heavy cover remove the stinger hook to reduce the risk of snagging.
Jointed Jitterbug (3/8oz) in black
Tiemco Softshell Cicada
Note from Fishing Monthly:
Dave is the producer of the Wild River Bass series of DVD’s. They’re excellent quality and well worth your time whether you’re an experienced bass fisho or a newcomer to the sport. You can find them for purchase here.