In thirty years of fishing, no fish has got me quite as excited as the Australian bass. It is not a huge fish – on most natural waters, a three-pounder would be exceptional – but it has a number of other characteristics that make it very appealing. For one thing, it lives in Australia – something that makes it quite hard to catch if you live in Milton Keynes. For an another, it is an extremely handsome fish – deeply burnished bronze flanks; huge, almost black eyes; a big, broad tail; and, like all Australian fish and many of its women, a fine array of spines and razor-like gill covers. It's distantly related to our own humble perch, something that is immediately apparent from its overall ill temper. These are not subtle fish. No polite sipping of duns or quiet to-and-fro nymphing here – these fish are smash-and-grab merchants, high-speed ramraiders that will, on occasion, make you wonder why you go fishing at all.
Let's start with an ingredients list for a successful bass trip:
1 eastern Australian waterway, preferably the Noosa river
There are, of course, some other things that you may find useful. Beer, poppers (the fishing kind, not the pharmaceutically recreational kind, although your individual mileage may vary here) and tents all come in quite handy at various times. More on all these later. The flyrod is also not essential. Bass eat more or less anything that moves – fish, shrimps, frogs, insects, small lizards and snakes, mice, kebabs – and they do so with some ferocity. If it moves, they eat it first and ask questions later, one of the other things that makes them very exciting to catch. They like nothing better than live shrimps, and if you really want to catch a shedful of these creatures the way to do it is to suspend a shrimp a couple of feet below a perch-bobber type float, cast it somewhere that looks inviting and wait. If you don't get a bite within 20 seconds, there isn't a bass there; time to move on.
But we're flyfishermen. So we use flyfishing techniques to catch them – a lot more fun, a lot less successful and a lot more likely to get you into all sorts of trouble.
If you were fishing for bass in open water, the ideal rod would be a nine-foot five-weight. Unfortunately, you rarely are. More than any other fish I know, bass love deep cover – stumps, undercut banks, submerged rocks, thick weedbeds and rushes – and on many waters prefer to live very close to the banks. The Noosa River in Queensland is my favourite bass water – perhaps my favourite water anywhere in the world – and is a fine example of a place where your nine-foot rod is likely to be a problem. As you pause to admire the black cockatoos squawking overhead or merely drink in the astonishing tranquility of the tannin-stained river, it is easy to forget that you are drifting under the low paperbark trees that swarm the banks and quietly snap the tip of your expensive new Sage. (It might also pay to reflect on the fact that the Noosa has its own species of tree-dwelling funnel-web spider, so the broken Sage may be the least of your problems).
So, a shorter rod. This will make accurate casting a lot easier, and on rivers like the Noosa this is important: the fish usually live inches from the bank, and you'll need to get your fly between some decidedly non-trivial casting obstacles. No river anywhere has more submerged tree-stumps; they protrude from the surface in hundreds, casting rather wonderful reflections on the glassy surface of the river and thus distracting you from the fact that you have to cast into a gap between them that is only nine inches wide. (It's not all that bad. But as always, the better fish live in the least accessible spots).
Now, what to tempt our bass with? As I mentioned earlier, these bass are not fussy eaters. They will feed more or less all day, but they are at their best at dawn and dusk when they actively hunt their prey rather than just sit and wait for it to wander by. At these times they like nothing better than something large and improbably-shaped on the surface. Muddlers of one kind are another are a good bet, especially the modified versions available in Australia with legs and extended tails and extra heads and stuff. Better still are the poppers I mentioned earlier – the bigger the better, and preferably in dark colours such as blue or purple. A size 2 is not too big for their huge mouths.
Cicada patterns. Mouse imitations. Green deer-hair frogs. In the heat of the day, you might need to fish a little deeper – big shrimp patterns (the Australians make some very good ones), various bright fry lookalikes, anything that flashes and moves in the dark water. Whatever; they must be fished with care. Casting and stripping produces very few fish – they like to have a good look first, so the trick is to cast into a likely-looking hole and wait. The splashier the cast, the better – we need to make sure that the fish is in no doubt that something large and delicious has just knocked on its front door. Now wait some more. Wait for 30 seconds before you even think about moving your fly. Then wait a bit longer. This can get quite interesting when the canoe is drifting with the current – the Noosa is a lazy river if ever there was one, but it still moves. So, a little slack-line cast is advisable (if not always easy when casting into such small gaps). When you've waited long enough, give the fly a single, strong pull – a good 'bloop' is what we're looking for here. And then wait for the slash...
There won't be much doubt about whether the fish has taken or not. Deciding when to strike, however, presents some difficulties. If the line is taut the fish will almost certainly hook itself. If you have any slack line out at all, you will see it rapidly disappearing under the bank and into the snags. On my last trip I missed several fish by striking too early to avoid this, and it takes some practice to get the timing right. But hook one you definitely will, and this is where the fun starts. These fish are very, very strong, and the first 20 seconds of the fight can be very exciting indeed; like many bass species, they reserve most of their ferocious energy for the start of the brawl. Be brave; keep the rod high, don't let them get their heads down and be prepared to lose a lot of fish. You'll need strong leaders for this kind of work – the combination of the submerged snags and the razorblade gill covers will quickly shred that nice Orvis trout leader you brought with you, so get some 12lb tippet material and expect to use lots of it.
That is, in essence, bass fishing. It's real Boy's Own stuff. The one remaining component is the beer, which you have conveniently placed in an esky before setting out and which you drink immediately after the first fish of the day. Some years my friend Michael and I have had a one-fish-one-beer policy, which can make the trip back to the campsite at the end of the day really quite challenging. He takes a little electric motor, which makes this a lot easier; nothing takes the edge off a day's fishing like a drunken, sunburned upstream paddle to a campsite which is by now five kilometres away. Unless, of course, you have cunningly stashed a box or two of Aussie red back at the tent to provide the incentive to paddle faster...
The Noosa river flows through the Great Sandy National Park in south-east Queensland, about 2 hours drive north from Brisbane. It is an exceptionally beautiful river; slow, stained very dark by the tea-trees and very, very flat; truly mirror-like. The best bass fishing on the Noosa is above Lake Cootharaba, where the river narrows and its true character revealed. You can hire canoes at Elanda Point and Boreen Point, both easily accessible by road; but it's a 10-kilometre-plus paddle upstream from there to the best spots above campsite 2. Instead, borrow or steal a 4WD vehicle, strap the canoe to the roof and drive along the lumpy track to Harry's Hut. It's a good 90 minutes to campsite 2 from there, more if you have taken enough beer and food to last you three or four days.
You'll need tents, too, and a fuel stove of some kind; there is a no-open-fires rule all the way along the Noosa. Military-grade insect repellent is advisable; the skeeters are enthusiastic and the march flies (sort of giant Australian horseflies with a bite like a croc) are everywhere. Water! You can swim in the Noosa and it is extremely pleasant to do so – no crocs, very warm, ideal for getting naked – but the water can only be drunk if boiled. (You, of course, can be drunk whenever you like). Take lots of your own instead. Hat, suncream. First-aid kit and bandages – I've never seen a snake there but there are lots around, so learn about pressure bandages and splints before you go. Bait tackle for catfish and eels on the bottom at night and in the middle of the day when it's too hot to be on the river. And don't forget the camping permits – book ahead. It's about two quid each a day. You won't see many other people, but you'll be very pissed off if you get all the way there and somebody's booked your campsite. There are lots of them, though, and the further up you go the better the fishing gets. Anyone who makes it as far as site 15 should let me know exactly how much better...
Make sure you close your tents up and keep the food very well secured, or the goannas will eat it. They will actually take food from the fire while you're cooking it, too. Trying to get your dinner back from six feet of angry lizard can really spoil your day.Australian bass are common in the Noosa but getting less so, so put them back if you can. You'll catch a tagged fish or two, and responsible citizens should make a note of the tag numbers and the size of the fish and report back to DPI Fisheries. You know it makes sense.
A word about other fish. In high summer, big shoals of small tarpon (up to two or three pounds) move up the river and make for some very exciting fishing on light tackle. You can creep up slowly on the rolling fish in the canoe, cast more or less anything at them and have a lot of fun. Cast to the edge of the shoal and try and take the fish away from the rest; that way you might get three fish before they all spook. These fish spend nearly all the time in the air once you've hooked them, and they have very bony mouths so are difficult to keep on the line. They also shred your leaders like no other – the line gets caught between the overlapping plates of their jaws and shreds it to nothing. Take lots of tippet material with you.
Huge numbers of mullet run up the river. Like all other mullet, they are impossible to catch.
I already mentioned the catfish. These really are lots of fun, especially at night. Fish dead shrimps on the bottom, or indeed anything that smells really horrible – we caught them on bits of Peperami-like sausage. Set your drag and wait for the screaming runs. We caught them up to four or five pounds, and there are lots of them. You can eat these and no-one minds, except maybe the fish...
Sean Geer firstname.lastname@example.org is a freelance journalist and author. When writing, he specialises in ritual humiliation by fish on four continents - most recently in New Zealand, where he failed spectacularly in his quest for a six-pound brown trout. A retired seahorse conservationist and self-taught zen origamist, he is currently writing a novel about sex, death and the meaning of fish.