Impoundment Techniques Move Towards the Next Century
Text and photographs by Steve Morgan
THE last year has seen a lot of change on the impoundments of south-east Queensland. Changing techniques, changing ideas about how fish behave and a fairly radical shift in tournament protocols; culminating in the much publicised south-east Queensland Bass Anglers Sportfishing Series in the first half of 1999.
Most anglers have welcomed the revolution of impoundment fishing, and in particular impoundment bass fishing as a refreshing change to tinkering with their trolling techniques and trying to tote trumps when faced with a comp where numbers rule. Targeting quality fish with pinpoint casting techniques offers anglers a new and challenging impoundment option.
BASS Grand Final winner, Harry Watson is a Maroon and Moogerah dam specialist. This double hookup came from Moogerah dam on XOS spinnerbaits fished with a couple of feet of the bottom.
And that’s what’s so exciting about impoundment bassing at the moment – anglers’ options are expanding from month to month – hand in hand with a tournament series that’s custom made to share information.
Anglers striving for the competitive edge can be quite open minded and at no time during the impoundment stocking boom of the 90s was technique development more active than the 1998/99 season.
The best way to track the trends, fads and techniques that caught a lot of anglers a lot of fish is to follow the bass season through and see what worked and when.
1999 saw a lot of dams start with very low levels and then fill rapidly during a late, wet Summer. Bass behaviour was found by many to be drastically effected by water levels and separating the seasonal effects from the effects of rising and dropping dam levels wasn’t an easy exercise over just one season.
To a lot of anglers, freshwater fishing in south-east Queensland is no longer dragging minnows around an impoundment with varying degrees of cleverness. It’s about actively finding fish and using the best techniques available to target them.
But we want you to do more. Take these ideas and help us refine them. The better and more successful freshwater anglers are, the better our freshwater fishery will be in the long run.
BIG BAITS – BIG BASS
Although most of SEQ’s impoundments boast excellent bass fisheries, there’s a definite distinction between the good bass fisheries and the good big bass fisheries. And it’s all related to the availability and size of baitfish.
Well known big bass dams include Wivenhoe, Somerset, Boondooma and Moogerah. All of these waters have bony bream or similar cannon fodder that rewards the effort expended to catch it with food not only adequate for survival, but abundant growth also. Other dams that support excellent fisheries, but maybe not a large proportion of trophy fish include Hinze, Maroon and Clarrie Hall. These waterways sustain their bass with firetail gudgeons, guppies and shrimps that just don’t fill an empty stomach like bigger bait can.
Most anglers in these dams will agree that the best surface fishing, however, occurs in the latter waterways. One could assume that the bass’ eyes are angled up in search of terrestrials. Hungry bass will eat what they can get. Why come up to the top to eat when the main course is served up to your doorstep?
Tailspin madness! Somerset’s hot Tailspinner sessions in early Summer yielded fish to 56cm and catches of over 100 fish released for a day
As mentioned, techniques targeting these trophy bass have most commonly involved trolling diving plugs that run at the depth the fish are holding. It’s a great way to target fish that are too deep for floating divers, but maybe not satisfying for river anglers that love their casting, or anglers looking to keep in practice for the casting-only BASS tournaments.
Targeting fish that are holding deep means that you have to use sinking lures and in recent years, small spinnerbaits scored well on dams like Maroon and Clarrie Hall. The idea of using really big spinnerbaits to target trophy bass only came together for me after a month of largemouth lessons in the USA and some serious prodding by Clarence river guide, Rob Lockwood.
“Bass’ll eat those,” Rob observed in his usual, understated manner. I’d learned not to dismiss Rob’s casual observations. They’re usually understated gems of wisdom. Also, Rob’s probably caught more big bass than most of us will ever dream of. He was examining a pile of half ounce XOS spinnerbaits with huge #6 and #5 willow blades.
I imagined the bass being belted by the blades rather than the opposite, but was determined to fish them seriously at the next available opportunity.
Moogerah dam guide Harry Watson helped me to put the last piece of this first jigsaw together. Harry had pinpointed areas holding quantities of 40cm+ fish and after outlining their presence in 20 odd feet of water with some marker buoys, we commenced prospecting.
Harry came solid first drift through the marked area, slow rolling a huge gold #6 willow and Colorado blade spinnerbait within a foot of the bottom and from that moment until we tired of doing it, we hooked, fought and released the biggest succession of big bass I’d ever witnessed. Fish averaged around 45 cm with the tips of some tails topping 50 cm and the “little buggers” only squeezing past 40. I’d estimate that 35 fish felt the sting of the spinnerbaits in a three hour session.
During the entire time, we didn’t hook a fish if the lure ventured more than a foot off the bottom, demonstrating the unwillingness of these bass to rise to a lure that wasn’t presented right in front of their noses. These early-season/stable-low-water-level fish hung close to the bottom …. but that pattern wouldn’t last long.
Slow rolling spinnerbaits involves delivering your lure with a long cast, letting it sink right to the bottom and then retrieving it at a speed that keeps it in the strike zone. Depending on your line diameter and speed of drift, this can mean stopping your retrieve periodically to let it flutter back to the bottom or even letting out line to keep it there on a breezy day that sends you on a fast drift. Big Bass guide Brett Thomson is a keen adherent to largemouth techniques and calls the technique “longlining”. Longlining involves a short cast and one-step-forward, two-steps-back style retrieve.
“You may start with 20 feet of line out and end up with 80 feet trailing at the end of a drift, but that doesn’t matter,” explains Brett, “the only thing that does is that the lure’s in front of the fish for the maximum possible time.”
Big bladed spinnerbaits can work at quite slow retrieve speeds and are ideally suited to this technique. The fact that they happen to imitate the preferred baitfish for these big bass is a bonus for the basscaster.
As with most deep presentations, braided or fused GSP lines are recommended. The added sensitivity means that you can feel the blades vibrating and hence any loss of action as a bass rolls the lure without hitting it. Dropping the lure back to interested fish is one way to turn lookers into hookups. The other is to buzz it away from them after the lure hits the bottom after a drop back. Vary your pace when you detect an interested fish.
Bass angler Craig Johnson’s personal best fell to this technique, a prize 51 cm bass slamming a retrieve that was so slow it was infuriating me as much as the fish.
“That fish fought every bit as hard as its size suggests,” beams Johnno, “it’s lucky those fish were holding the bottom in open water. Any timber and I’d have been in real trouble.” Craig’s reel was spooled with 11 pound fused GSP.
Fish that hug the bottom in cooler waters fed more openly during the later summer months. Counting down spinnerbaits to the depths that fish are detected on your sounder and slow rolling them there was a useful tactic for later in the season.
By October 1998, dam levels were still dropping, but the warming water meant that bass were often spotted on the sounder in large schools, usually suspending in varying depths depending on their activity.
At this time during Spring, there was no definite stratification in most lakes – in the most popular instance Somerset – and bass were often found schooled in depths of up to 70 feet.
The author and a 44cm fork length bass from Cressbrook. Cressbrook has a reputation for year-round fishing for bass like this. Not a bad reward on a frosty morning.
To target fish at this depth – or in fact any depth they were schooling – one needed a fairly fast sinking lure, and there was nothing more readily available than everyday spoon and slug style lures.
Dropping the lure to or through the schooling fish and retrieving it erratically would result in hookups. Often the first fish to bite would trigger a feeding frenzy resulting in a-fish-a-drop action, cast after cast.
With the technique still in its infancy, Kim Bain bravely fished a 20g Halco Wobbler in the October Somerset One-Lure competition and stayed in touch with the top trollers with a long list of released bass to 51cm.
Naturally, anglers needed a high quality fish finder to ‘see’ these fish down deep, but top of the line Humminbird units paved the way to a steep learning curve.
Another couple of months at Somerset saw the dropping water stratify – warm on top and cool down below, and bass were rarely caught below the thermocline. Fish would suspend down to about 30 feet but not below that, but schools were as thick as ever, with some anglers catching and releasing over 100 fish in a day.
By November, North Brisbane’s popular Catch and Release Competition at Somerset drew its usual large gathering of freshwater experts, and although a top troller took the final honours, Brisbane basscaster Errol Hardke turned heads with his outstanding second place using locally made Tournament Tailspinners and a variety of innovative techniques.
What’s a tailspinner? It’s a cross between a jig and a spinnerbait. A cast lead fish-shaped head that looks somewhat like a Rattlin’ Spot is armed with a treble based on the belly and a Colorado spinnerbait blade on the tail. The result is a lure that can be counted down quite quickly to the required depth, but with a whole lot more action than a standard spoon.
The fast sink meant that the blade spun on the drop. While retrieving the lure had the body sending out all of the right signals with a tight wobble.
Targeting suspended fish is just what Errol did during the NBSFC competition, and the most productive technique on the weekend was dramatically named the "burn-n-kill".
"Burn-n-kill"ing was simple and effective when dense schools of fish were found on the depth sounder. Positioning his boat upwind of the school, he’d hast across the fish and let the lure sink though them. Half a dozen cranks on the handle of his high speed baitcaster burned the lure through the school and a sudden stop (or kill) let it flutter back through the fish.
Bass invariably hit when the lure’s dead in the water or dropping, and the sudden changes in retrieve rates can drive competitive fish wild.
Serendipitously, the school often followed the hooked fish to the boat, and as long as fish were brought in, the school would stay. A hot bite could result in 30 fish in as many casts. It’s exciting fishing.
When schooling fish could not be found in Somerset, tailspinners were still an extremely effective tool for combing the flats for scattered fish. The effective technique was effectively called ‘hopping’.
Somerset’s ‘flats’ consist of submerged fields devoid of substantial features. Most commonly, anglers targeting bass would find a flat at around the same depth as scattered fish were located on the sounder. A series of arches, for instance, at 20 feet would see smart basscasters finding a flat nearby averaging 20 feet deep. Setting up a drift using the wind to push them across the target area, a long cast into the wind would cover the most ground.
Letting the tailspinner sink all the way to the bottom, the retrieve would consist of lifting the rod tip and taking a few turns of the reel to lift the lure off the bottom. Dropping the rod tip and halting the retrieve would let if fall back to the bottom. Part of this technique’s success related to keeping the lure constantly within a few feet of the inactive fish’s preferred depth and the retrieve’s stop-start nature completed the presentation. Predictably, hits happened as the lure moved again after a pause on the bottom.
PRIMITIVE PLASTIC TACTICS
I really brought them back from a recent trip to the USA as a bit of a joke. Seven inch plastic lizards – or real ones for that matter – weren’t high on the list of top tucker for our dam dwelling bass. Or so I thought. The 1998/99 season surprised so many that maybe I shouldn’t have been startled when lizards, and other soft plastics for that matter, became effective in a variety of situations.
Putting the lizard’s existence in perspective, largemouth bass in North America have their spawning beds raided by salamanders. This makes ‘lizards’ a target for territorial, as well as feeding attacks by that species. Largemouths spawn in much the same manner as out eel tailed catfish.
So, during a morning of successful bassing this season gone, I just had to give one a swim.
Rigging the lizard Texas style, it sunk from view with a quite enticing wobble – legs and tail fluttering through the water column, being led by the bullet weight.
As there was no wind blowing, I fired a long cast towards our marker buoy, letting the rig sink 19 feet to the bottom, and worked the lure through the fish we were seeing low on the sounder. It meant fishing the lizard dead slow and within a couple of feet of the bottom.
I’d learned the technique the hard way in the States, receiving a real lesson by aspiring pass pro Ryan O’Flaherty on a Connecticut lake. There was one way to make these lures really produce there, and that was to fish them slow and right on the fish’s nose.
The Humminbird showed the bass as a series of diagonal slashes. Some shadowing schools of suspended baitfish and others simply hugging the bottom.
I swept the rod tip and followed the line back as I retrieved the slack line. There may have been a slight bump half way through the retrieve, but I dismissed it as it seemed to show no further interest.
Second cast, and everything came up tight. The bass smashed the lizard on the second draw and hooked itself on the low stretch fused GSP line. At around the 50 cm mark, it caused heartbreak by breaking the line next to the boat, but it wasn’t long before another fish of similar proportions attacked the offering.
In the heat of midsummer and before the flooding rains of February, soft plastics were becoming the bait of choice for several switched-on anglers.
As well as hopping lizards across a flat tailspinner style, plastics proved effective on schooling fish as well. Brett Thomson spread the word that he was catching bass by sinking a small, jighead-rigged plastic worm through the fish and retrieving it slowly. No fancy rod work – it was just like whiting fishing on a sandbank. The hits and hookups were often savage.
Brett upped the size and it seemed like plastics to the size of the lizards were all effective in certain situations. Barra-plastics were piggishly devoured by bass as small as 35cm.
There are four main ways in which these lures can be rigged with different rigging styles suitable for varying situations. The Americans call them Texas, Carolina, Florida and jig head rigging.
JIG HEAD RIGGING:
This is the way most Australians would be familiar with rigging their soft plastics. We’ve been exposed to “Mr Twister” and Vibrotail style soft plastics for years now and their success was demonstrated at the 1998 Barra Classic. You can fish this style of lure very directly and as the hook rides upwards, you can walk it across quite rough country.
With the weight moulded onto the hook to make the jig head, you can fish them in much the same way as you would work a bucktail jig. and they generally cast like bullets.
The local bait fish types should be kept in mind when selecting a soft plastic bait or “tail” for the jig head. In dams that are loaded with bony bream, you can expect to be successful on larger plastics than impoundments where gudgeons and shrimps are the main fare. Use smaller offerings in these situations.
TEXAS AND FLORIDA STYLE:
Even though this is one of the most simple ways to rig a soft plastic bait, it’s extremely effective and very versatile. Texas and Florida rigging is useful for fishing tight country due to the fact that you can make your rig virtually weedless and vary the weight to suit fishing any depth from the surface to the bottom.
Texas rigging is simply placing a free running weight above the hook. The Florida rigging variation involves making the weight fixed directly above the hook. This can be done by ‘pegging’ the sinker in place with a toothpick or small wooden sliver, or by using a special Florida bullet weights with a pigtail screw to secure the weight directly to the plastic.
Use a Florida rigging style in the tightest of tight cover and Texas rigging in more open water. Carolina rigging is suitable for the clearest country.
Both rigging styles allow the hook to be rigged either exposed or buried in the plastic. Weedless rigging demands the point to be buried, but whenever possible, try to fish it exposed. Hooking up is easier.
Fishing soft plastics rigged in this style is usually done quite slowly. Drawing the rod tip back lifts the lure off the bottom or through the water column. As you drop the rod tip back, you can slowly retrieve to keep slack out of the line.
Largemouths quite happily mouth a plastic and chew on it for several seconds while sitting in the one spot. The angler feels a hit, drops back a foot or two of line and then strikes two seconds later.
Australian bass are less inclined to stay put and chew on the lure than their American cousins. Our fish typically register a solid hit as they inhale the lure and run with it or alternatively ‘tap’ at the lure repeatedly without mouthing it fully. It’s not unusual for the line to spring tight on the drop back and for everything to come up solid, but if you experience fish that are plucking at the bait, try to entice a more aggressive strike by varying the speed and consistency of your retrieve.
Carolina rigging is something most Aussie anglers can relate to. It’s just like a saltwater baitfishing rig with a trace, swivel and sinker above it. In this manner, the soft plastic is distanced from the sinker and this lends itself to a variety of variations for different situations.
Carolina rigs are great for prospecting in open water. You can use quite a substantial weight and work the lures at the desired depths quite quickly.
Don’t be afraid to use substantial weights to get the lure down to where the fish are. Thomson uses sinkers as large as a 4 ball to take large plastics to the correct depth. And the method is quite successful.
Another one of Brett’s tricks to use hollow soft plastic tube-style baits and place a sliver of polystyrene inside them to keep them up off the bottom.
“With the sinker dragging the bottom and the plastic floating behind, some bass just can’t say no,” says Brett.
Vertical jigging with ice jigs, most commonly Rauhalas, is an excellent way to target fish suspending at a particular level. Deserving the “coat hanger” title even more than spinnerbaits, these jigs are nothing more than a glorified barrel sinker, rigged sideways and armed with hooks and fins to add action on the drop.
Brett Thomson used these lures to add 30-40 ‘measurer’ bass and over 50 undersize fish to his tally at the Hinze Dam Catch-and-Release John Franklin Classic in November 1998, an effort that saw him out-fish even the live-bait anglers on the weekend.
Thomson found the fish suspending on breaklines (drop-offs) at intermediate depths and with clever use of the sounder, these fish were continually presented with the darting lures right in their faces.
SPINNERBAITS – SMALL AND SHALLOW
Another grunt of a bass produced buzzing
At no place was the switch to effective casting techniques more apparent than at the Invitational ABA Bass Classic, an annual event held on the picturesque Clarrie Hall Dam in the Tweed Valley in northern NSW.
Where trolling usually resulted in the top places, this year, four of the top five teams cast their way to success. And no one technique stood out from the pack. Steve Morgan and Paul Dolan cast both surface and sinking flies to the depths they though the fish were feeding while Brett Thomson scored on a wide variety of techniques, including fishing weedless plastics early inside the weed line and jighead rigged worms and spinnerbaits outside the lilies and weeds later on.
I switched from surface flies early to small spinnerbaits slow rolled at the depth the fish were holding after the sun fit the water. With the sounder showing scattered fish at 10-12 feet, constant presentations at this depth kept the fish biting throughout the day.
It takes discipline to keep the spinnerbait swimming at the target depth. Counting down the lure and slowing the retrieve as it approaches the boat are essential ingredients.
During low-light conditions, the bass fed higher in the water column and a quickly retrieved small spinnerbait drew exciting, fully visible strikes. Called “buzzing”, you wind quickly with the rod high enough to have the lure running just under the surface. It’s exciting stuff.
THE BASS SERIES
The four events of the 1999 Humminbird Bass Anglers Sportfishing Series matched anglers and their newly acquired skills in a foolproof format. “Boater” anglers fished their own craft while “non-boater” passengers were randomly drawn each fishing day. The events were cast-and-retrieve only to minimise the effects on piggybacking a top troller and two fish per session over five sessions were measured and released alive by tournament officials.
This format and the scoring system were designed to keep the field close, but the week before the first competition brought conditions anglers hadn’t experienced for years – dam-filling, flooding rains.
When the waters rose, anglers found that the fish moved. Moogerah’s winners found fish in areas that were dry just weeks before and Somerset’s anglers were fishing ten kilometres upstream and twenty feet shallower than a couple of months before.
After a while, the fish dropped back again as inundated vegetation decomposed. My the grand final at Maroon dam in May, flyfishing anglers found the fish back at 16 to 24 feet and local guide Harry Watson narrowly pipped Caloundra’s Paul Dolan at the post.
The series proved that to be a good bass angler, you needed to be versatile, and fluent in not just a variety, but all of the developing techniques.
1999 BASS Angler of the year, Brett Thomson, undoubtedly displayed these qualities and will be a role model to all BASS anglers in the year 2000 season.
Four qualifying rounds and a Grand Final will grow the Pro series by one event. Also keep an eye out for a BASS Electric series and a saltwater BREAM series in 2000.
It was no secret that a lot of the 30 anglers qualifying for the BASS Grand Final thought that flyfishing would be the winner’s key to success. Successful techniques on the weeks leading up to the event revolved around fishing small, dark-coloured gudgeon imitations close to the bottom.
Tackle for the technique required the fastest sinking line you could get your hands on – Scientific Anglers’ WetCel Vs were in high demand, as were Paul Dolan’s gudgeon flies, which he unselfishly distributed to those in need.
Again, using sounders to find the concentrations of fish, flies would be presented at the depth the fish were holding – right on the bottom.
Since the Final and into the 1999 Winter, other anglers have supported this technique’s success with good catches at Hinze, Cressbrook and Moogerah.
The future for bass fishing, and more generally impoundment fishing in the south of Queensland is bright. A recently introduced permit system for fishing the popular dams in the area will help to take the pressure off the hard-working local stocking groups and keep these put-and-take fisheries topped up.
Do yourself a favour and try some of the techniques mentioned, or use your head and develop something new. Then come and share the information at a BASS tournament.
“Who Shares Wins” is the motto of BASS tournament parent company Australian Bass Tournaments and we all want impoundment bass and their cousins to be the winners into the next century.