Each winter Australian bass turn their minds to spawning. Biological urges compel female bass to head downstream in search of spawning grounds. Their annual migration can take them hundreds of kilometres downriver to the eagerly awaiting males. During these cooler months’, large schools of migrating bass can be found at various points in the river system. These congregations can be vulnerable to over exploitation by fisherman. When targeting these iconic sport fish, there are a number of things the recreational fisherman can do to ensure good catch rates for years to come.
Australian bass are catadromous. This means they migrate downstream to spawn. Most catadromous fish migrate to the sea to spawn, however bass only need move into the brackish water to breed. Rainfall events between May and August trigger the females to move downstream into the estuary to breed. It is thought that males tend to remain in the estuary after spawning, whereas the females move back upstream where they remain until the following season.
Bass prefer to spawn in water of low salinity (about 1/3 sea water). Therefore, it could be predicted that; in most south east coastal Australian river systems bass will be congregating to spawn during the winter months where the salt water meets the fresh. The exact locations will vary each year, dependent on conditions such as salinity. However, spawning often remains within the vicinity of a predicable part of the river each year. The predictability of these congregations of spawning bass make them vulnerable to over fishing.
Some anglers would argue the key to conservation here is catch and release. But it is likely that the trauma caused to a fish after capture and release would at the very least ‘kill the mood’. At worst the eggs or the milt may be purged and spawning for that individual is delayed until next year. Our native fish already face enough adversity through loss of habitat, pollution, over fishing etc. Thus, targeting spawning bass is simply not good practice. Despite this, in NSW the laws currently don’t prohibit targeting spawning bass. From May to August each year a zero-bag limit applies, but fishing in these areas is still allowed. This raises a few questions. Does this mean catch and release anglers can still legally target bass in rivers over winter? More importantly is it ethical?
Pre-spawning and spawning tactics
Perhaps the best rule of thumb is to fish for bass in your local dam during winter. Bass in our rivers are busy ensuring future generations of bass, so they are best left alone to do their thing. The good news is that bass also tend to congregate over the winter months in our dams as well. Their instinct to spawn often has them forming schools in the lower catchment. Large congregations of bass can often be found near dam walls or spillways that prevent their migration downstream. Of course, there is no saltwater in our impoundments, so the bass can’t breed anyway. So, bass fishing over winter can be guilt free and highly productive.
‘A captured and released bass somehow puts out a vibe which often alerts other fish to possible danger’.
In the cooler month’s schools of bass tend to hold down deep out in the middle of the dam. Cycling through a variety of deep presentations such as ice jigs, blades, soft plastics and lipless crankbaits are the ‘go to’ baits over winter. At times these schooling bass can be tight lipped, so varying retrieves and presentations is the key to success on any given day. Perhaps the most valuable technique is to ensure you don’t disturb the school too much. Pressuring a school by the capture of numerous fish can cause the school to shut down. A captured and released bass somehow puts out a vibe which often alerts other fish to possible danger. By temporarily retaining the fish in a live well, the angler can catch a number of bass before the school wises up.
Post spawning tactics
After spawning female bass want to return home to their freshwater habitat. September is the best time to intercept these post spawning females as they make their way home. The freshwater areas immediately above the estuary are the areas to focus on. Spawning activity has left the bass hungry and competition caused by the presence of other bass, means they are particularly vulnerable to capture. Care should be taken not to over exploit the fish stocks at this time of year. Tackle choice plays a large part in the conservation of the fishery.
All the usual array of baits tend to work in September; spinnerbaits, diving minnows, soft plastics, blades, lipless crank baits, flies, surface baits etc. With such an increase in the likely hood of catching high numbers of bass, it makes sense to moderate your approach. First, try using baits that are less likely to cause injury to the fish. Baits with single hooks such as spinnerbaits and soft plastics are less likely to cause injury to vulnerable mouth, eyes and throat parts of the bass. A bass hooked with a single hook is also much easier to release and less likely to cause injury to the angler.
‘Focus on the shady areas around the snags during the day’
September/October is an ideal time to fly fish for bass. Fly fishing can often be a bit daunting due to lower catch rates compared to fishing with lures. But with plenty of hungry bass around now is the time to practice ‘waving the wand’. Focus on the shady areas around snags during the day with clousers and streamers etc. Tie on surface flies such as Dahlberg divers in the low light conditions of early morning and late afternoon. A fly is also far less likely to cause injury to a fish’s mouth parts and eyes compared to many other baits.
When the fishing is tough using lures with double trebles increases your likelihood of hook up. A fish only has to sniff a fine gauge treble and it is hooked. But when unhooking small fine gauge trebles from a high number of captures, you may notice the injuries these trebles can cause to fish. These hooks tend to stick to and penetrate anything they touch, including the fish’s eyes, throats and gills. Modifying trebles by flattening the barbs and even cutting off one of the hooks goes a long way in ensuring the survival of released fish.
At this time of year it is possible to pull a number of fish off each snag. If your intention is to catch and release and you have a live well, be sure to detain each fish temporarily. As with bass fishing in the dams, your catch and released bass might alert the rest of the school to your presence. It is important here you know the local rules and regulations in the area you are fishing. At time of writing, in NSW taking of only 1 bass over 35cm from rivers and 2 from dams is allowed. So even if your intention is catch and release, possession of numerous bass in a live well may not be allowed? In this case the alternative is to release each fish at a distance from the area you wish to keep fishing.
To preserve future stocks of Australian bass, anglers would benefit by altering their fishing locations and techniques just before, during and after the spawning season. In winter avoid fishing in rivers, instead concentrating on dams. Use catch and release friendly tackle such as baits with single hooks or flatten the barbs on trebles. By following local rules and with a little forethought, the iconic Australian bass will be around for many future generations to come.
Simon Fitzpatrick – Ozfish Unlimited