Yakking for bass – Bill Bowtell January 2016

It had been a long paddle, around the 5km mark in total.  And the sweat, combined with excess drips of water falling from the blades of the double paddle, ran down my back, soaking the lightweight shirt in the process. 

In reality, it had a cooling effect and offered some respite from the oppressive pre-dawn heat and high humidity of a late November morning.  A storm rumbled away to the southwest.

I was glad when I finally reached my destination – a rock pool at the base of a two-metre high waterfall.  This was as far as I had ever previously been up this northern NSW stream.  The excitement level rose.

I let the kayak, a 3.8m Viking “Tempo” Fisherman, glide into the pool, shipped the double Carlisle paddle, and took in the mock serenity of this beautiful place.  A glow formed in the east – over my left shoulder.  Soon this pool would be shrouded in filtered light.  But for the present, it was still a victim of darkness that played host to the predators of the pool and provided a deadly trap for the unwary.  I sat and listened.

In the stillness the noise was deafening.  Cicadas, crickets, frogs, early morning bird-life and the waterfall itself, rejuvenated from recent storm rains in the ranges, all added to a crescendo of sound that was a paradox.  For this was indeed the sound of the pool and it did not seem at all out of place in this most serene of places.

The paradox being however, that this symphony of sound, was broken only when the distant “mooing” of a dairy herd and the barking of a cattle dog as it rounded up the cattle, broke the rhythm and the mood.  A Christmas beetle fell from the overhanging canopy of a billowing eucalypt.

It struggled.  But not for long! A suck; a splash; an explosion of water in the poolside darkness.  The former ripples, made by the struggling beetle, gave way to forced rings of expanding water as the viciousness of the attack became evident.  This was a pre-dawn bass-attack at its’ most brutal.  The time for daydreaming was over.  The serenity of the pool had been broken – by its own inhabitants!

I tied on a Rivers 2 Sea, “GT Bug” (minus its belly feathers, which had long ago been smashed off by surface feeding bass), a realistic imitation of a Christmas beetle.  Adjusted my eyes to the shadows formed by the trees and high bank and cast in towards the darkness where the previous attack had taken place.

It was a good cast, clipping the bottom branch of the eucalypt tree, hanging up momentarily, before plopping down vertically beneath the extent of the canopy.  The bass struck in an instant.  Then realized that this beetle bit back!

All hell broke lose in the picaninny darkness.  The ‘yak went sideways. The rod pulled back over my left shoulder as the fish bore down along the bank to the tail of the pool.  I lifted the rod by instinct.  And immediately realized my mistake.  The light 6lb braid tangling up in the overhanging branches of the eucalypt.

I paddled up to the tree.  The fish came to the surface after fighting against the low branch for more than two minutes as I tried to free the line.  To grab the leader was not an option, as it too, was only a light 6lb fluorocarbon and this fish was a good 38-40cm long.  A big fish for this skinny water.

Fortune smiled (on me).  The Viking Fisherman is a forgiving craft.  Its 85cm beam width and hull design offers great stability as well as mobility and efficiency under paddle.  I was able to get to my knees, reach up and free the braid line from the branch.  Then, sit back down and play out the fish.  It was a beauty at 39.5cm.  The little GT Bug wedged very tightly in its lower jaw.  One cast – one fish!  What a way to start.

This trip had, for me, been in the planning for more than eight months.  Regular readers of Fish and Boat may recall previous bass articles of trips to sou-east Queensland and the Northern Rivers District of New South Wales where bass lurk, along undercut banks and beneath the canopies of old and knarled camphor laurel trees.  Where cattle water and platypus play, at the start, and end, of each day.  And where the peace and serenity of the streams give one a great sense of well-being.  I was keen again for these experiences and to see what changes had occurred over several “wet” seasons since I last visited these areas.

It was planned to make this trip a weeklong sojourn.  To take in the area from the back of the Sunshine Coast in SE Queensland to the vast river systems of northern NSW – “yakking” all the way, before meeting up with long time friend and lure maker, Trevor Saunders, of Brisbane, on the final day.  Trevor and I would then “boat” the last stream, fishing it from the freshwater upstream sections to well down into the tidal reaches.

Wild bass populations extend as far north as the Bundaberg region in Queensland.  I have caught fish in the tannin coloured waters of creeks flowing out of the wallum country swamps at the headwaters of the Elliott River, many years before any of the current, or previous, stocking programs.  These were wild fish- big, and in fair numbers.  And locals knew of their presence long before I did.

Similar systems that flow back into the Great Sandy Straits also produced fish, but here their populations are very dependent on the size of the stream system itself.  The system needs to (be big enough) to support the lifecycle of the fish.  It is often the case that here, within the Straits, several streams will support a single population of fish as they move between creeks to spawn, grow out and again, spawn. Reliability in the wild bass population however, is widely recognized to start at the Noosa River and extend south – all the way to Victoria. 

The trip started days before on the Sunshine Coast.  After a long drive south from Yeppoon, I pulled up in the car park, unloaded my kayak, prepared my fishing gear, made a cuppa and sandwich, then headed off upstream on one of my favorite Sunshine Coast bass streams.  It was 3.30pm and hot.  Time was on my side.

This section of stream had a slight tidal influence and a dense overhanging canopy of scrub timber.  The tide was ebbing, creating a slow current, but as importantly, exposing several undercut banks and some old, but reliable, submerged snags. Small backwaters formed in these areas.

Bass are ambush experts.  They are also opportunistic feeders.  They will take up station where they expend little energy, but leave themselves enough room to take advantage of any passing quarry.  One such spot in this little stream was a creek junction with fallen timber.

One of my most favored lures for stream and river bass, of the past ten years is the Daiwa TD Crank SF-G “Scouter”.  This little, 50mm long, crank bait is a floating lure that dives to around five feet (1.5mtr).  In filtered light my preference is gold/orange and in more direct sunlight green/silver.  The little gold and orange lure plopped gently down beside the broken and water-worn tree stump hidden deep in amongst the mottled sunlight.  A wriggle; a twitch, then a slow retrieve.

The bass was lethargic at first.  It casually cruised out from under the fallen timber with fins erect and tracked the little vibrating plug.  It was interested.  I slowed the retrieve down to barely a crawl.  The little lure lifted in the water.  The fish followed.  It was close and almost nudged the back set of trebles. I gave the rod a short, but quick, draw.

The bass struck in an instant and dived.  It was a game little fighter and tried to make the sanctuary of the tree roots several times. But in the end, it was no match for the 4kg outfit and was soon drawn along side the kayak and finger-gripped by the bottom jaw.  After the hooks were removed it was photographed and released.

Two more followed that afternoon and I returned to my campsite content and happy.  The bass were still there.

The next morning and showers drifted in from the east.  They were only light so would not affect the stream flow.  I pushed the kayak away from the grassy bank, climbed aboard and headed down stream.  It was dark with a grey mist hanging over the water.

Fishing for bass under these conditions of darkness and being so close to the water, is exciting.  The alertness of one’s senses rise several notches and the muscles tense a little.  It would also be fair to say that the heart rate goes up a peg, or two.  Great to be alive.

The first cast with a Rivers 2 Sea, 65mm purple “Bubble Pop” raised an inquiry.  The ramp launch site was  barely 50 meters away!  The next cast – a little deeper into the darkness of the bank – and an angry bass smashed the lure.

In the darkness it was hard to judge how far the kayak was positioned out from the bank, or around what sort of cover the bass was hiding.  The only thing of which I could be certain was that, this was a good fish, and it was determined to pull me further into the darkness along the high bank.

Using a double bladed paddle under these circumstances is almost impossible, and totally impracticable.  I have manufactured a little flat blade paddle with a stump handle that can easily be used one handed.  It allows the freedom to use the rod to hold the fish whilst at the same time maneuver the kayak, either away from cover, or into a better position to fight the fish.  By pulling out to the centre of the stream, I was able to do both.  At 38cm the fish was a beauty.

I paddled with the ebbing tide, fishing all the likely spots along the way.  But drew a blank, save for one little flathead that I felt was rather lost.  The stream was low and silted, with very little streamside foliage.  It was not as I remembered it from years gone by.  I followed it to its mouth at the junction with the main river.  The tide turned for the return trip.

The bigger day tides leading up to the new moon put a fair run in the river and subsequently into the side streams.  This one was no different.  And the fish reacted accordingly.  Three mature bass and one trevally all fell to the little TD Crank-Scouter, before it was unceremoniously snaffled by a big fish deep amongst an entanglement of timber.  I knew that there was a fish in amongst that lot, so persisted.  A fatal mistake.  It was a good lure.

Trevor and I remained in contact every night, as I reported on the creeks, my whereabouts, the fish that I was catching, and of course the lures being used.  We met up on the final day in Ballina and went fishing.

Big river fishing usually means big fish.  It can also be very testing, because the bass will definitely move about more.  And it is usually a case of find one and more will follow. But finding that ONE, is the TEST! We had to call on all of our experience.

Trev and I fished the ebbing tide, working our lures along the banks of reeds and intermittent scrub timbers. It was generally big and open water. The net result after two hours of prime-time fishing was, one baby bass of 18cms and a “tailess” bream that belted a 65mm “Bubble Pop” worked along the edges of the reeds. It looked more like a Sunfish than a bream! We moved upstream and got onto the weedbeds.

At certain times of the year bass will move away from regular cover and forage amongst the weedbeds located near the upper tidal and brackish reaches of these river systems. They are in search of baby shrimp, prawns, dragonfly larvae, water snails and small fish that also forage on these bait sources. We had noted earlier some small jelly prawns flick away from our casts and knew that they were in the river. So it was worth a go to fish the weed.

Trevor took two good fish in quick succession on one of his red cedar plugs. These beautifully crafted lures are the traditional “bug shaped” models and over the years of fishing with him, they (the lures) have accounted for many bass. I persisted with a little elongated Jackal 67mm silent “Squirrel” in green/silver as we were fishing direct sunlight along the weedbeds. And when we did eventually move in under cover of the scrubwoods and camphor laurel trees, reverted to a gold/black Savage Gear 60F model. Both worked.

The weedbeds fired. And between us, along a 1km section of river, we took a further 10 bass, one turtle which took a liking to Trevs red cedar plug and a bloody big eel which ate the 60F. What a time we had getting the hooks out of the mouth of that slimy B…..!

It was a great trip and back home in Yeppoon as I sit and look at the photos and reflect on the sights, the sounds of the rivers and streams, the cattle, the mullet as they shot past the kayak, the quiet backwaters, the weedbeds, the day with Trev and of course the bass themselves, I know that I will be back “Yakking with the Bass”.