Sweetwater Bass

Jack Porter appreciates the raw challenge of fly fishing for Australian bass in wild mountain streams

Sweetwater is the term we give to a very special kind of water. It runs clear, it’s small, it feels wild, it is fringed by dense bush or rainforest and it can be very fishy. Fishing the sweetwater is about the fish, it always is — they are the reward for the effort spent immersing yourself in the journey of finding and reaching them. Due to the nature of this type of water, those really good spots don’t ever give themselves up easily. The country is often steep, with the water dropping over rapids and small falls. Wading through the creek is often the only mode of travel available where impenetrable brush and sheer rocks leave few other options. You have to work to get the rewards, and be willing to submit to failed attempts — many — before the sweetest water will give itself up. Thanks to the Great Dividing Range, there is no shortage of this type of water for us adventurous souls to explore on the East Coast of Australia — however, the fish that reside there will change a little. Jungle perch in the far North, sooty grunter through Central Queensland, then Australian bass throughout the remainder of our coastline — and of course there are a few other less common species along the way. As much as I love fishing for jungle perch, at home here in South East Queensland the Australian bass is the fish that has me scrambling boulders and wading creeks in search of that sweetwater and the secrets it keeps. WHERE TO START Within two hours of Brisbane there are more kilometres of sweetwater to explore than could ever be walked in one lifetime. From the Gold Coast hinterland down into Northern NSW, through the heart of the Brisbane Valley and up along the Sunshine Coast hinterland, there are endless rivers and small tributaries that fall from the feet of the mountains. Thanks to the resilience of wild bass, stocked fish, overflow events and even bass that have moved upstream from stocked impoundments, you will be hard pressed to find water that does not have Australian bass in it. The challenge lies in pushing far enough up any of these creeks, past where most are willing to go, in order to find those small pools of big fish that are rarely disturbed by lures or flies. Once you have decided that bass are worth sore knees and legs scratched to bits from pushing through the scrub just to get to the water, then it’s time to start your research. Learning is the key here. Learn where bass have been stocked, or where they have escaped from, and learn where there are barriers to the migration of those wild fish. Once you have some systems in mind, Google Maps becomes your best friend. Remember these streams will be skinny, so find where you can access water that maybe others might miss, and start there. The only way to know the value of these mountain streams is to go and find out for yourself. My favourite and most productive stream also happens to be the smallest and skinniest one that I fish. It is with this in mind I will make a note about stewardship — if you do find a creek that has everything you are looking for, treat it well. There may be big fish in there, but they will not be stupid. In this small water they will learn fast, so make sure you don’t hit them too hard or too often. I set myself a limit of two trips to any given small stream in a 12-month period — this ensures the bass stay happy and I know my effort will be rewarded each time I make my way in there. And remember, loose lips sink ships. PACKING CONSIDERATIONS The main challenge here is first of all finding creeks or sections of creeks that are worthwhile. In order to do this, there is often a lot of walking, through thick bush, water and slippery rocks, so it pays to be thoughtful in what you choose to carry, and how you dress. Long pants are a good place to start — they keep the stinging nettle at bay and give your legs some cover from all the sticks, thorns and potential reptile encounters. Then a pair of shoes that are comfortable to wear while walking and while wet. A good backpack is a must — big enough to fit drinking water, flies, camera gear if you wish, and capable of keeping it all dry. It is inevitable in these mountain streams that you will get wet, be that through rain that wasn’t forecast or simply the nature of moving around in this environment. The most important bit of equipment to consider finally is your fly delivery system. I prefer a cost-effective reel for this type of fishing, as it will get dropped, dunked, scratched and banged-up in short order. There is no sense in putting a beautiful work-of-art fly reel through this kind of punishment. And if you happen to need any drag, well the fight is already over. A rod in the 6/7-weight range is perfect. I fish a 6-weight Scott Tidal, overlined with a #7 floating line so it loads fast and carries even the bulkiest deer-hair flies where they need to go with minimal false casts. In this type of environment there is no place for long, beautiful fly-casting. Short, ugly, whatever needs to be done casting is what it takes to get the job done here. Standing on a rock with no back-cast, or in the creek with little room to move and a perfect looking snag 20 feet away at the base of some rapids, is pretty much the ideal scenario. It doesn’t need to look good; you just need to make a cast to get your fly to that snag, because chances are a bass will be sitting in wait, ready to ambush that bug you have just managed to deliver to its kitchen table. Often the best creeks aren’t the ones with lots of fishy water. They are the ones with only a handful of bigger pools with all the right structure. It condenses the fish, and you can arrive at each pool confident that there are bass to be caught, if you are good enough to catch them. In order to capitalise on this situation I have taken to fishing my flies attached to a small size 1 Mustad Fastach Clip, and keeping a small box of 3 or 4 flies in my top pocket. This set-up allows me to quickly change from a Dahlberg Diver to a small streamer or Game Changer, to a heavier Rabbit Hair Leech without touching my backpack or making any commotion moving back to the bank. As I said, a few pools with the right structure is ideal, and you just have to be good enough to fish those three different styles of flies through each section of prime real estate, efficiently, to be confident you have done all you can to tempt those fish. THE FISHING I will let the story of a recent day’s fishing in a special little creek do the talking here. You can decide for yourself if this style of fishing is worth the effort… Stringing our rods up in the predawn glow, dimmed by a low layer of clouds, the humidity was already apparent and the air had the feeling that just speaks of bass being on the job. We began the walk of a kilometre or so to the first pool we intended to fish, my friend Sam with his spin rod and me with my fly rod and a favourite little Diver already tied on. Arriving at the tail of the pool we were wet to the waist from the rain-soaked grass and scrub, so wading into the creek to get into position was no challenge at all. Ten minutes later we waded across the creek and climbed out onto the bank to move further up along the pool, both having taken a lovely little mid-30-cm bass off the surface — a good start indeed. Once in position at the head of the pool, I swung the best back-cast I could muster up along the steep edge on our side of the creek, while Sam cast to the fallen tree on the opposite bank. On my first strip a fish buzzed beneath my fly, leaving a significant boil. ‘Big fish!’ I whispered. Two strips later, as the Dahlberg was rising to the surface, the fish buzzed past again and my line snapped tight. Game on! As my fish took off downstream under Sam’s line, his little surface lure was detonated underneath by another big fish; chaos ensued. With some fancy footwork on the slick rocks, and even fancier rod work, we managed to get both of these fish to hand. From this water they were both true trophies, as fine as any specimens of Australian bass you could ever hope to land. After watching them slip away, we fished out the remainder of the pool for another bass each from up towards the head, then began our trek further upstream. The next few pools were uncharacteristically quiet. We pulled just one more fish each. Sam’s was another quality skinny-water bass and mine another mid-30’s class of fish. The final pool we fished could easily be mistaken for a North QLD perch stream — shallow and rocky down one side, and deceptively deep through overhanging trees against the sharp opposite bank. This pool often delivers a number of very small bass, although on this occasion there were more fish into the 30-cm range. Sam pulled a handful of bass in short order on his surface lure while I missed two on a Leech pattern before losing it to a snag. I replaced it quickly with a white and chartreuse streamer, which was promptly spat out by another bass before I finally landed a nice sized fish to finish the day. A dozen of the healthiest bass you’ll see to hand before 9 a.m. A perfect morning’s fishing that we recalled eagerly as we climbed up onto the ridge to round out our 5 km loop back to the car. FINAL THOUGHTS There’s a cliché that gets thrown about a lot: it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey. I guess such clichés exist because there are enough situations in life that they so aptly describe. Chasing these mountain-stream bass is just one such situation. If you do not enjoy the journey in all its glory — the scrapes and bruises, being wet, walking, sliding, climbing and crawling through scrub and down rocks, and of course the failed and unproductive trips — this type of fishing will get old very fast. However, if you do embrace all of this for the experience that it is — time connecting with the Australian bush, admiring its beauty in its rugged and rawest form — the fish truly do become (another cliché) just the icing on the cake in this sweet water.

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