There is little doubt that spring is marked with a highlighter on the bass angler's fishing calendar and, in NSW, 1 September marks the end of the anxious anticipation and the beginning of planned reality.
For most anglers, the winter months are a barren and fishless period, generally because of the DPI imposed closed season, ethical reasons or basic comfort considerations. When the first blush of red appears on the riverside bottlebrushes the bass are well on the move back into the freshwater and the time of this migration is staggered depending on your geographical position on the coast.
The basic cycle of the eastern flowing rivers and the bass that inhabit them is simple. A drop in water temperature and a rise in the river level at the end of autumn triggers the fish to make their way downstream to the brackish reaches of the system. With the correct salinity levels, the bass will congregate and spawn in large schools where the vast majority will survive the nets of the commercial fishers. With the spawning job done, the bass prepare to undertake the journey back to the upper freshwater reaches.
With a bit of luck and a few good rain events the upstream movement accelerates with a springtime rise in water levels and water temperature. Why the fish travel vast distances to the estuary to spawn is, perhaps, to provide more sustenance for the fry in their early development. Whatever the reason, it also provides an important key to understanding how to target these fish as they migrate back into the freshwater.
Early season bass fishing provides the best chance of large fish in numbers. The concentrated schools of breeding stock move back into the freshwater from mid-August through to November, and there are key areas to target. Where the seasonal migration coincides with a rise in the river level the fish will take advantage of the increased water levels to negotiate rock bars and shallow rapids. Fishing the head of a pool below rapids will produce the best fish as they gather to make their advance upstream. Remember, the fish are looking to put on condition after a prolonged period of having a distended gut cavity, full of roe or milt.
With the warming water comes an explosion of activity and the breeding cycle of creatures like firetail gudgeons, Australian smelt or the translucent, freshwater shrimp that make quick meals for bass. While bass are an aggressive, active feeders they can also be distracted and set their focus on certain food sources and, as a result, alter their predatory habits. What starts as a fishless day can soon turn into a bounty if you're prepared to cycle through lures to pinpoint the focus of the fish.
Early in the season, when the fish are snatching up the shrimp, I use Berkley 2" Shrimps (my favourite is camo colour) and fish them on a 1/24-1/16oz no. 2 jighead along the bottom. This came about after fishing for five hours with all manner of lures, looking for a reaction bite, only to land two small fish. The last of those fish had a mouth stuffed full of small shrimp.
The penny dropped and over the next two hours, from midday, I landed 17 fish over 36cm with 50 and 52cm fork length monsters amongst them. I managed five from five casts in the exact spot I had flogged hours earlier. The key was bouncing the shrimp profile lure along the bottom, where the fish had their heads down and focused on the shrimp. I doubt the fish even noticed the earlier lure offerings, so don't expect the crunching hit from bass all the time. Sometimes they'll gently pick up a bottom bounced plastic and spit it out again, if you are not quick enough to strike.
DAY OR NIGHT
The bass tend to move at night, so the areas around rapids are great spots to target with surface lures in and around the eddies created in the broken water. Large profile lures like black Jointed Jitterbugs are perfect and my favourite because they plough through the running water, maintaining tension on the line ready for the strike.
Other lures that float and slide on the surface tend to offer little resistance to the river flow and create a bow in the line. Attempts to correct this only serve to skid the lure faster across the surface. For the fast water at the head of a pool, select a surface lure that sits low in the water, and provides some form of resistance to the flow and reduces line drift and bowing.
During the day, the bankside shaded areas at the base