The Big and Small Water Scene in Northern N.S.W.

Bass : The Big and Small Water Scene in Northern N.S.W.

Stephen Morgan

Joe’s hands were still shaking, even as the boil caused by the stroke of the tail subsided and the bubbles disappeared. It was a magnificent sight; the three kilos of bronze and silver mouth and muscle, arrogantly gliding over the rocky ledges and down to the depths of the hole. Lack of decent rain had resulted in clear water and it was several seconds until she disappeared from view; the memories of her presence etched in our minds and her image recorded on film.

Bass Boats offer excellent fishing opportunities in the big waters.

She was a big fish, but not unexpected on the warm March afternoon. We were fishing big water in a big river, right in the heart of big bass country – northern New South Wales.

Macquaria novaemaculata appears to be suffering from habitat degradation throughout most of the country. Dams, the clearing of watersheds and pollution in general have all taken their toll on the rivers from the deep south (such as the Shoalhaven and the Bega) to the once great rivers of southern Queensland. There are, however, still some strongholds of bass remaining and possibly the greatest of these is in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales. Encompassing three large rivers; the Tweed, Richmond and Clarence, this region draws bass anglers from great distances to sample the delights of mixing it with a big bass.

A bass fishing trip in this Northern Rivers area usually falls into one of two categories; fishing the big waters in the larger parts of the rivers (usually with a boat or canoe), or tackling the smaller tributaries or creeks, most often on foot. Both styles of fishing can be rewarding, although finding a rainforest pool full of uneducated small fish, after hours of trekking through the scrub, falls only marginally short of extracting a two kilo slab of fish from that one snag on the wide river bend where she just `had to be’. There is a big difference in gear, lures and tactics for these two types of fishing and looking at them both individually should help you gain an insight into what it’s like to chase bass in this part of the world.

Being a zoologist in the field of aquatic sciences, I personally believe that a sound understanding of bass (or indeed any fish in freshwater) at a biological level will lead to a greater appreciation of the environment necessary for their survival, and to advantage when trying to establish just where in a river system the fish will be. Libraries are an excellent place to start, but if you’re not that way inclined, talking to experienced bass fishermen is the way to go.

Both scientific and anecdotal evidence have combined to support a common view of the life history of the bass. The bass is a catadromous fish, meaning that to spawn, it must migrate downstream from its usual freshwater habitat to the tidal confluence of the fresh and salt water. Catadromy is not unique to bass; barramundi exhibit similar patterns, as do jungle perch. In fish such as the steelhead salmon of the North American continent, the situation is reversed, the migration of the fish upstream to the freshwater from the ocean to spawn being called anadromy.

A common problem of all fish that migrate is that of barriers to their journey upstream. It makes sense that if a fish breeds in saltwater, any limitation to upstream travel will define the range of that species. Don’t be surprised, however, if that upstream range is well above where you think it could possibly be. One of my favourite little pools (on a tributary of the Richmond river) is nestled in rainforest only twenty kilometres from the coast as the crow flies. But by river, this pool is about 150 kilometres from saltwater and elevated 200m above it. I suppose it shows that bass that are keen upstream travellers have been selected for, and a good flood will send them up and over amazing barriers. A good example is the Clarence river. Waterfalls of up to seven metres mean that bass can only pass these obstacles during large floods, but an excellent fishery exists on both sides of these barriers.

Luckily, no major dams interrupt the main watercourses of these three rivers at the moment. Robert Lockwood told us about Toonumbar Dam in issue 23, and this dam is built on a tributary of the Richmond river. Smaller impoundments on the Richmond and Tweed tributaries include Rocky Creek dam and Clarrie Hall dam, but these do little to mitigate the flooding which is essential to the life cycle of bass in these river systems.


Tidal bass can be huge – like this fish from the Brunswick River.

By far the best way to explore the stretches of big water in these rivers is either canoe or small punt. Generally as the water gets smaller, the canoe becomes more practical and if any portaging at all is likely, the canoe is definitely the best way to go about it. Punts are generally limited to the biggest stretches of rivers, but do offer advantages in stability (especially when flycasting) and safety. I’ve experienced conditions, especially in the early season, when strong winds have generated enough chop to make conditions downright dangerous in a canoe and paddling virtually impossible.

On the subject of canoes, the most dependable are those made of the virtually indestructible thermoplastics. Having destroyed a fibreglass canoe it broaching it in a set of rapids, I speak from experience on this point. Both Coleman and Australis make plastic canoes that are big enough to hold a bit of gear and are stable enough from which to fish. Gear is best carried in large plastic screw-top drums, which are waterproof (and float) if the canoe is rolled.

As the water becomes smaller again, there is a good case for walking the river by foot, as the presence of the canoe is more readily noticed in a small pool. We will look at this situation later, in the smallwater section.

Fishing a big river can often be a daunting prospect, but I’ll stand by my preference for bass fishing in rivers rather than dams, because they are not that hard to find! As with a lot of freshwater fishing scenarios, there are several scales of fish activity that must be considered when chasing your quarry.

Seasonality is the first variable influencing where the bass will be at certain stages of the year. Consensus is that bass breed in these rivers in brackish water in the depths of winter. At this time spawning fish are active in the upper tidal/lower freshwater reaches of these rivers. At certain stages, these fish are just as active as summertime fish and will grab a lure with gusto. Several times in the winter months, these fish are picked up while bream luring in the salt and they sure give you the run-around on the light line that this style of fishing requires. Generally, we leave these fish alone, as, like the various species of freshwater cods (Maccullochella spp.), the eggs of pre-spawn fish will degenerate and be resorbed with capture and handling. September is the time that we generally dust off the six and eight kilo outfits and head to the freshwater areas below the first unpassable barrier to tangle with some aggressive, post-spawn bass. As we release all of the bass we catch, lines of less than six kilogram breaking strain are of little interest. In my opinion, losing or playing a bass to death on one kilo line has not got the same excitement value as concentrating on actually getting a strike from a reluctant fish. As the fish can reach three kilograms plus in these rivers, six and eight kilogram breaking strain line is not that unsporting!
I distinctly remember early one afternoon while fishing with friends John Taylor and Ron Webb, witnessing Ron get smashed up on fifteen pound line in less than a second. Bass of this size can hit a lure with a vigour rivalling some of their saltwater brethren.

Once you have decided on a likely stretch of river to fish, taking into account the seasonality factors, questions arise on a smaller scale as to where the fish will be. The dynamics of these big rivers mean that there are pools, rapids, deep rocky sections, shallow sandy sections and weedbeds to contend with.

I learned the traditional diurnal bass behaviour over the counter of a fish and chips shop in Brunswick Heads as a prelude to my first successful bass fishing trip. Old friend Robert Latimer was on the cook’s side of the counter and apart from a few modifications, the model (drawn on a large piece of blotting paper) remains clear in my mind. Robert explained that during the day, bass seek shelter amongst snags and under shady banks, out of the main current and most likely in the deeper pools and undercuts. As darkness approaches, the bass become less site attached and start spreading through the river system, taking advantage of the food-rich weedbeds and shallow verges during darkness. As dawn arrives, the bass return to their cover, but will still remain active until the sun lights up the pools.

Piscatorial evidence suggests that this is the case, as during the day, casting deep diving lures to the snags gives good results, as does combing the pools with jitterbugs at night. In the bigwater, the model is modified, as a smaller percentage of the water is utilised by the feeding bass. The fish seem to feed in certain corridors, with food rich areas becoming `hotspots’ and deep sandy stretches yielding few fish. As scale diminishes even further, bass become less predictable. Often, along a long stretch of tangled timber, the bass will aggregate at a certain snag. Is it that the bass at this snag are more catchable than the bass in the other snag simply due to the structure of the structure? Or do the bass aggregate at certain points due to small differences in environmental variables? I suppose this question should be left unanswered, as it’s the delicious uncertainty you feel as your lure splashes down in the crux of a huge snag that keeps me fishing from one snag to snag, bend to bend and from river to river.

Often bass in the bigwater smash the lure on its first foray into a likely looking snag. More often, however, it takes a series of well placed casts to turn a fish on. This is especially true when weather conditions are not optimal and the fish are off the bite. This point was driven home one morning on the lower Clarence, when, upon rounding the corner towards a favourite snag, we found a couple of mates tied to the tangled timber and giving it the coverage it deserved with deep diving lures. After exchanging pleasantries

we fished further downstream and released a number of small bass, only to return to the snag as the other pair were leaving it. They would have been fishing it for over half an hour for nil result. As they motored off upstream, we tied to the tip of the snag to give it a try and my hammerhead was clobbered first cast. If you encounter a piece of river where there just has to be a fish, they are usually at home and just need the right type of coaxing to extract – whether it’s a pause, a lure change or just sheer perseverance – it’s all worth a try in the big rivers.


Edgewater Surface Flies
Surface fly fishing between dusk and dawn is, in my experience, the best way of tempting bass (and goodoo) with a flyrod. I think that subsurface flies are just too quiet for these fish. A well tied deceiver just slides past un-noticed, whereas a blooping surface fly attracts the attention it deserves. This doesn’t mean that you should work a surface fly vigorously for the entire retrieve. If there is such a thing, a `typical’ retrieve involves letting the fly sit for as long as you dare, and then a stop-start retrieve using short strips ans virtually silent bloops. Especially when it’s dark, work the fly right to the rod tip. Usually the bass don’t know that you’re there and hits occasionally occur a foot or two from the boat or canoe. Quite exciting.

Once upon a time, I persisted in using Dhalberg divers, as they were the only bloopy weedless pattern I could come across. Then came the Edgewaters. Made in the U.S.A. and imported by Jack Erskine, there’s one pattern that fell straight into the bass and cod niche. Illustrated above, the pattern has a cup face, tapering down to a point, and casts remarkably well for a fly with a large frontal surface area.

Unlike Dhalbergs, Edgewaters are made of a duralon-like closed cell foam which will float all day without any maintenance or treatment. The weedguards are constructed from a piece of plastic coated, pre-straightened stainless steel wire and old down easily when struck . Unless you Araldite the weedguards in place, they will fall out after a few hours’ casting, but that is the only modification required before fishing.

It has got to a stage that when I go fly fishing for either cod or bass, a selection of edgewaters is all that my flybox contains.
Succesful imitations can be turned, with the help of a drill bit , out of old thongs. Using either Mustad stinger hooks or 34007’s and a few feathers for a tail, old thongs can be recycled remarkably well.

I buy my Edgewaters mail order from Erskine’s Tackle in Cairns: phone (0740) 516099 or fax (0740) 520180, for around five bucks each

With the inherent stability of punts and tinnies in the bigwater and the openness of the territory, flyfishing is an exciting and viable method of capture. To date, the most successful method by a long margin is fishing with surface flies. Whenever the water is covered by shadow, surface flies (and lures, by the way) have a good chance of taking fish.

Nine weight outfits are big enough to deliver any bass fly you care to use, but are light enough not to tire you out after half an hour’s fishing. My favourite fly, a weedless Edgewater popper, throws excellently on my preferred outfit, a four piece eight weight IMX Loomis. Coupled with the smaller of the Loomis fly reels, the whole rig is a delight to use. The Edgewater has a one piece, fold down wire weedguard that allows `treed’ casts to be jiggled free and has negligible effects on hookup rates. Unlike Dhalbergs, the Edgewaters never sink, and if you apply a drop of Araldite where the weedguard inserts into the fly, they will last for ages.

As evening approaches, work the surface flies around cover, but as darkness falls, fish the shallower stretches and weedbeds with longer, searching casts.

It’s very important to fish by feel and not by what you hear going on at the business end of your line. I can laugh now at the number of times I’ve pulled the fly away from the attentions of an interested fish crashing the fly, but at the time it can be frustrating! Hold the tip of the rod just in the water and point it straight at the fly. If a bass is keen, it will hook itself up on the strike. Short strikes are heard but not felt, and by slowing the retrieve to a virtual stop, the fish can usually be enticed to return.


Don’t get me wrong, by backwaters, what I refer to is the smaller creeks and rivers that are practically unfishable by any means apart from on foot. In terms of the amount of small creek fishing available in the tributaries of the Richmond River especially, there are literally hundreds of kilometres of water to explore. This type of fishing really is the lifeblood of the anglers that love fighting through lantana thickets and stinging nettles, getting chased by bulls and drug growers and catching three or four small bass in every picturesque pool they encounter.

As I explained earlier in the piece, in my mind, there’s not a lot that feels better than crawling through the vegetation to a secluded pool and having the first, misguided cast slurped from the surface by a small, highly aggressive fish.

Do not expect to encounter many fish over the one kilogram mark. These creeks recruit small bass as soon as they are large enough, and have enough rising water, to undertake upstream migration. After years of good heavy rains, you will be amazed at the water these bass reach. It seems that when they reach sexual maturity, they head down to the tidal areas to take part in the winter spawnings. I assume that once the fish are sexually active, they remain in the bigwater and are encountered from then on mainly in that environment.

Topographic Maps
Topographic maps, or `Topos’, are one of the most useful tools of an exploring bass fisherman. Basically a topographic map shows not only the linear features of the landscape, it also reveals the form of the land by the use of contour lines. Contours are always drawn in brown and join areas of the same height.

When you’re looking on the broad scale, a 1:100,000 scale map shows 1 kilometre on the ground as a centimetre on the map, so these are good for wide scale prospecting. Generally, you can see the entire watershed of the creeks, and this gives a good indication of the amount of water they hold. Only experience will provide the ability to judge whigh creeks are too small and which are not. Once you’ve decided on an area a 1:25,000 version provides more detailed contour information and even the presence of larger holes. These are usually well worth checking out. Also pay particular attention to areas hemmed in by steep contours (gorges) and areas which are particularly inaccessible and vegetated. Topographic maps use different shades and patterns of greens to indicate different vegetation types.

Usually, creek bends are gouged out by years of water flow and are associated with deep water. While these places are always worth a look, never ignore the stretches in between bends. Some of our best holes are formed from unusual rock deposits and sit smack in the middle of a long stretch of shallower water.

Remember, it’s only a point on the map until you go there and maps must be mixed equally with enthusiasm to ensure success!

In Queensland the State Government’s Lands Department (incorporating Sunmap) is as good a source of maps as any while New South Wales anglers should contact the C.M.A. (Central Mapping Authority) for topographic maps on the Southern side of the border. Hema maps sells maps for both states from their retail outlet in George St, Brisbane City.

The first requirement for this type of fishing is an ability to interpret topographic maps. Creeks that have a decent flow and pass through areas of virgin forest and rocky gorges are definitely well worth a look. Be careful, however, of ignoring grazing lands, as these areas often produce excellent fishing as well. One to 100,000 scale maps are fine on the broad scale, but once you have pinpointed a creek of interest, 1:25,000 topo’s will show you large pools and access points to the property owners’ houses. In the more heavily populated areas, it’s often impossible to ask the permission of every hobby-farm owner along a stretch of creek. In these situations, we just make sure that we do not scare any livestock, roll under fences and close all gates. Most farms leave a buffer of vegetation along the creek and we pass through unnoticed 99 percent of the time.

Tackle requirements are another difference between the bigwater and creek fishing. Ultralight threadline tackle spooled with two kilogram breaking strain line is the ideal outfit. A Loomis S6010 and Shimano Aerocast 1010 make the perfect outfit. The rod is short enough to not be too much of a nuisance in the undergrowth and the eggbeater reel allows casts to be made that would be impossible with an overhead reel. Lack of space to complete a backswing is a common problem in these creeks.

Lures are generally small, and double as our bream-luring collection for saltwater trips. If I were to name my favourite three subsurface lures for this style of fishing, they would be the Bill Norman DeepTiny-N, the smallest new Rapala Fat Raps and the Rebel Wee-R series. Buoyant diving lures are very versatile and can be bobbed on the surface to entice a surface strike before retrieval. Retrieves can be as sedate or as wild as you like them. One particular day, brother Tim and mate Joe had a session that yielded 44 bass from a five kilometre stretch of creek. On that occasion, the fish responded to a retrieve that involved cranking the lure flat out for five or six turns of the handle and then letting the lure float on its own accord back to the surface. Invariably the lure would get hammered while it was not moving. On other occasions, the best mode of attack has been to cast into the snag and simply let the lure sit in the one position. One can imagine the bass in the snag getting aggravated at the presence of the plastic and finally exploding all over it. Again, it pays to experiment, as there are no hard and fast rules in bass fishing.

Canoes and surface lures are a perfect combination in areas like the Clarence River.

Seasonality is not as important in these smaller creeks as on the bigger waters. From larvae in the brackish water, the bass grow into juveniles, where their osmoregulatory capacity allows them to be physiologically competent to migrate into the freshwater. Another requirement for upstream movement is a rising water level brought about by heavy rains. You would be amazed by the capabilities of small bass to move upstream. Until the bass are sexually mature, they have no reason to move from these streams, where food is plentiful and predation is low. This means that in the wintertime, there should be nearly as many bass as in the summertime, and there are.

Winter bass in these creeks tend to peak in activity midmorning rather than at dawn and dusk as they do in summer. This is fine by me as it gets quite cool early on a winter’s morning, even in Northern New South Wales.

Flyfishing these creeks has been an unmitigated disaster. If lantana was a sportfish, you could call me Lefty. I’m sure that anyone flyfishing these creeks with the same casting ability as me would wake in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, with visions of a luge Lantana camara transmogrified into an octopus-like, fly snatching beast! Seriously, the density of the bankside foliage deters the keenest of flyfishermen. If you are after a thrill, crawl a surface lure past a shady snag in the middle of the day.

Night fishing, like fly fishing, is extremely difficult in these creeks, until you are familiar enough with a stretch to know all of its idiosyncrasies. In this respect, creeks flowing through grazing land are often more fishable at night than the more vegetated stretches.


Handling Bass
There has been a lot in the press in the last few years about how best to handle fish to minimize stress and maximise their prospects of survival after release. The traditional thumb in the jaw approach was adopted by many anglers because in this way contact with the mucus layer overlying the fish’s skin was avoided. This mucus layer provides the fish with a significant defence against parasitic, including bacterial, attack, and removal of all or part of it may put the fish at risk of disease and infestation. Also for this reason, landing nets are usually avoided these days by anglers who want to release fish relatively unharmed. Needless to say, thrashing about on the floor of a boat or on dry shore hardly does the fish any good either.
However, criticism has been levelled at the jaw grip, as there has been disagreement about whether the jaws alone are capable of sustaining the weight of the entire fish. After all, the jaw mechanisms of fishes, freshwater fishes in particular, are usually complicated and quite delicate-looking. Serious damage to the jaws is obviously going to have dire consequences for the fish. So the simple jaw grip has been modified to include supporting the fish by the belly with a wet hand. In this way the weight of the fish is borne at its centre of gravity, and the jaw grip serves as a security measure only. Application of this technique is illustrated well in the accompanying photograph.
Best of all, however, is to leave the fish in the water as much as possible, with just the head above the surface. With the weight of the fish entirely supported by the water, and the jaw secured in one hand, the angler can most quickly and painlessly extricate the hooks.

The biology of the bass defines a special set of environmental requirements. To properly maintain full habitat diversity, the entire natural range of the fish must be accessible to wild spawned fish from the brackish water. Tagging data supports the view that fish from one river system do not mix regularly with fish from others. In this light, it makes good sense to maintain the present diversity in bass stocks by looking after the habitats in these rivers. In my opinion, recreational bass fishermen do not pose as much of a threat to bass stocks as wholesale habitat loss – either through damming or poor land use. One of my favourite smallwater creeks gets dirtier and shallower by the year.

The reintroduction of bass into freshwater impoundments has been a success story of sorts. Fast growth rates and good catchability mean that the products of successful hatchery protocol can be utilised by the public at large. We must not become complacent, however, and treat these fish as a part of the wild bass stocks. Some present work on bass is looking at the genetic differences between stocks in different rivers. One of the spinoffs from this type of research is development of improved breeding techniques – mainly the isolation of the biggest and fastest growing strains of bass for stocking into impoundments.

At an individual level, we, the bass fishermen, must make sure that we set an example by using the resource properly. Carefully releasing fish and respecting the land of the property owners that contains bass water are perhaps the only hard and fast rules of bass fishing.