Weedbed Bass

Mick Fletoridis tackles Hunter Valley impoundment bass in the weed zone

Bass fishing can be a feast or famine, largely due to weather conditions. That said, catching this feisty native on fly can be very satisfying, no matter the numbers. I still clearly recall my first fly-caught bass, on a dark night on the Nymboida River, thirty or so years ago. Stripping in a black Slider at the tail of a bouldery pool, the water exploded as an aggro fish boofed the fly. That river is home to Eastern freshwater cod as well as bass — both noisy surface eaters — and it wasn’t clear which I’d hooked. There was much to and fro on a Silstar 8-weight before the headtorch lit up a bronzed bass — a wild 4-or-so pounder. A few photos later it tail-slapped back to freedom and had made my trip. It’s still a fish I’ve yet to better, and the Aussie bass has been on my favourite sportfish list ever since. While the upper reaches of Australia’s east coast rivers have long been playgrounds for bass fishers, recent decades have seen hatchery bred fish put into big open waters and in the process they’ve provided different fishing challenges and rewards. I readily admit to having lacked confidence when chasing impoundment bass with a fly rod, especially alongside lure fishers I know who ‘get the job done’ regularly. Fishing big waterways that lack obvious structure can be daunting, especially in comparison to the rivers bass naturally call home. To add to the difficulty, these lake fish often school down deeper, near the small baitfish they predate on, which for fly fishers usually means constant watching of sounders and slinging weighted lines and flies — not my cup of tea these days. That said, I’ve lately enjoyed a less taxing way to catch big-water bass on fly. On the last trip to the NSW Hunter Valley, lessons learnt from previous visits led to some confidence with a 4-weight 11-foot switch rod — seemingly an odd choice from a 4-metre tinny perhaps, but since being pushed to double handers by my mate Dave Longin I haven’t really looked at my other ‘short’ rods. The advantages this long rod offers outweigh the inconveniences. I generally use it like a standard one-handed rod, but do less false casts for more distance — this could also say more about my casting technique. Being a soft rod, it’s also more forgiving of punishment such as high-sticking when pulling stubborn fish to net. BASS IN THE WEEDS Back to early March 2020, pre Covid-19 lockdown. I’d caught a 38 cm bass the first morning of the Hunter Valley trip, from near a drowned tree and weedy bank-line. It had slammed a pink-and-white beadhead Bendback fly and tried to get to the timber, but the long rod held it clear of the danger. That cloudless afternoon there wasn’t a breeze on the lake as I steered the boat to a steep western bank and a hillside dotted with cattle. The water level was down to 40% and thick weeds (most likely the introduced Elodea) were poking through the surface right along the shoreline. These weedbeds provide important structure in dams and are like underwater markets for predatory fish, a haven for galaxias, shrimps, yabbies and waterborne and terrestrial insects. Amongst the weed and fringes, bass are on the lookout for unsuspecting prey. And if drowned trees are in close proximity, yellowbelly (golden perch) are often nearby and ready to surprise bass-focused anglers with thumping strikes and short bulldozing runs. Figuring that working the shoreline weed fringes should draw any bass out, I faced the afternoon sun and worked the fly. Misjudging the edges fouled up the fly with long ribbons of weed. Thankfully, fast pulls on the line usually freed up the fly. After 30 or so minutes of constantly working the green edges, a jolting strike made me grab the line. The 11-footer bent into the water as the hooked fish shot into the weed, 8 lb leader cutting a way through. Rod pressure slowed the fish and it sulked away in the weed. A few seconds of eased pressure got the line moving again and the lifted rod steered the fish to open water and a waiting net. The healthy looking bass measured 40 cm, and leaving no doubt where it came from, long strands of weed dangled from the line like streamers. The fish signalled the start of a productive session with several similar bass landed and more missed. The takes were notably aggressive with one fish snapping the stinger hook right off the fly. The action peaked as the bass became turned on by late afternoon insect activity, with damselflies on the wing and caddis clouds forming on dusk. In a memorable session, numbers of bass had moved out to open water and were rising aggressively like big trout, only louder! While they unfortunately proved harder to hook on the surface flies I’d tied, the odd heart-stopping strike kept me casting well into the night under a black sky full of stars. BASS BITES Switched-on lure fishers can find success on bass-stocked lakes like Glenbawn, St Clair and Somerset by working the banks, targeting areas with extensive weedbeds. This can be both productive and frustrating as the weed fouls hooks with regularity. While it happens with wet or weighted flies, it’s more manageable with slow sinking flies like Bass Vampires and the bead chain Bendbacks and Clousers on which I’ve had some success. Tied long and sparse (70–80 mm) on size 2 Aberdeen hooks and assisted with a size 8 stinger hook on braided running line, they can work well when fished near weed zones. In some bays this weed forms large impenetrable fields, so steering a clear course with an electric motor to avoid foul-ups and optimise casts is a must. A bow-mount electric with autopilot also allows you to concentrate on working the fly. In comparison to trout, natives like bass often strike immediately after a fly hits the water. In this way they tend to be more aggressive and territorial, especially when that fly is enticingly worked near their position. Strikes tend to come more often when barometric conditions are to their liking — especially prior to an afternoon storm — and there is food aplenty. It can be easy to over think things when the bite is slow, but in general, putting your fly in the right areas can get you hooked up. As well as working flies tight to the weed zone to attract bass, the retrieve can be important. Like their close cousin the estuary perch, bass will react aggressively to a strip/pause style retrieve, and it can work better if slowed right down — try counting slowly to two or three between strips. Many times I’ve seen the effectiveness of a slow pause retrieve in estuaries, as demonstrated by my mate Dave Longin, hooking EPs and bream hand over fist, albeit with the advantage of his innovative flies. Whenever a fly is put in prime looking areas and hits don’t come, slowing the retrieve and letting it sink a few seconds before a long strip to raise it in the water column can get bass bites. Working flies around weedbeds half a footy field in length can be challenging, especially when you can’t see how far under the surface the plant starts and ends. Foul-ups are part and parcel of this fishing but, obviously, the more time you have a working weed-free fly near the bass, the better. FIGHTING WEED When a bass is hooked near a weedbed its first instinct is to run into it. If a bass makes it to the weeds, hooks often come unstuck, so keeping them out is the name of the game. That said, big bass are always strong out of the gate and hard to steer away from the green stuff. The first few seconds are important for getting these fish to the net. On the take, strip-striking to set the hook then using the rod to turn fish is the go. The big plus of long softer rods is that they just keep bending, effectively absorbing the fish’s initial runs. While it’s also practical to use heavy leader in this situation — anything up to 16 lb is common, preferably fluorocarbon — taking chances with lighter 8–10 lb leader material tends to get more bites. No matter the end result, targeting impoundment bass near weedbeds is a challenge well worth considering for any fly fisher keen to expand their freshwater horizons. POSTSCRIPT Returning to the scene of my last bass trip, eight months later, the water level was slightly higher and the weedbeds were less pronounced around the edges. This had little effect on the quality of the fishing or the bass for that matter. While the flies didn’t receive as much attention as the spinnerbaits my mate Pat was wielding, the fly fishing was challenging and ultimately rewarding. My fish of the trip was a healthy 42 cm bass that boiled on a Bendback as it hit the water on the fringe of the weed. The fish did its best to bury me but somehow stayed hooked when dragged back through the weed. I’m planning to get back soon for more of the same.

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