The big bass bite back
  |  First Published: May 2017

“I’m convinced that this liberation of bass is the greatest stocking success of native fish we have ever seen in this state.” This is what I said during my recent conversation with Gippsland’s Senior Fisheries Officer Errol Parmigiani. He agreed and told me about the countless number of bass caught in rivers, creeks or dams over the past few years. Victoria is now on its way to being a bass fishery that may one day challenge states north of the border.

Since 2002 well over one million bass have been stocked into impoundments and streams throughout a wide range of Gippsland. A lot of those early stocked bass are now over 40cm and this year I’m sure the first few 45cm bass will start showing up. The stocking will secure bass populations well into the future and hopefully fish can start breeding again.

Maybe re-seeding is here for good. Whatever the case, the future looks very promising and I doubt that anglers have ever caught this many bass in Victoria before. For now, anglers will most likely encounter bass either side 30cm. The years ahead will see this huge population of fish grow bigger and provide the best sportfishing we have ever seen.

It’s time to talk about where and how to get into some serious Victorian bass fishing. Before I talk about the wild fish, let’s look at the stocked population.

Where released bass live

Over 20 sites have now been stocked with over one million bass, into what would be considered their historical natural range. We’ve all heard that Blue Rock Lake is the jewel in the crown of all the bass impoundments and improved access for bigger fishing boats has contributed to its reputation. There are speed restrictions on the dam for boats and it’s very popular with kayak anglers.

Right now reports are coming in thick and fast about bass taking surface lures on early morning and into the night using lures like poppers, cicadas and bent minnows. Lake Glenmaggie is fast catching up to Blue Rock and a lot of anglers even prefer to fish for the better number of larger 35-40cm bass. Anglers are finding plenty of bass biting at the moment in Glenmaggie and a few brown or rainbow trout are also turning up.

Take particular note of the big release into Lake Narracan, because this impoundment is very much underrated. It’s only a matter of time before anglers crack its secrets and there’s a huge number of bass in there now.

As for the stocked rivers, there are so many bass being caught in all of the streams and there are too many streams to mention. It’s easier to refer to a complete list of stocked streams, which you can find on agriculture.vic.gov.au. To name just a few, the river hotspots this year include the Thomson, Tambo, Snowy, Mitchell and Nicholson streams.

The list of stocked waters does not include the Snowy River, which has been given 500,000 bass fingerlings between 2007 and 2013, when Victorian and NSW agencies joined forces to repopulate the river. A further recent release of 40,000 fingerlings into the Snowy River late in 2016 added to that impressive total.

The incredible bass fishing in the Snowy starts just downstream from the Orbost Bridge and no doubt continues right up to the dam wall at Jindabyne. That’s a mighty stretch of river to explore and discover prime bass habitat. It remains fairly untapped to this day. I look forward to unlocking a few of its mysteries in years to come.

Hatchery breeding problems

No fish were released for 6 years after 2003. I asked Fisheries about this and was told that the program failed due to a few reasons, including diseased fingerlings that were not going to be released and potentially contaminate the wild population. The bass broodstock caught in the wild were first sent to a Victorian facility in East Gippsland in the early days with some success.

Narooma Aquaculture is now the only hatchery in Australia successful in producing commercial quantities of bass and estuary perch fingerlings. It’s a real credit to see how science has been able to improve and master breeding techniques and it must have taken a lot of trial and error to get it all right. It’s awesome to see our fishing licence money go to such a good cause. Long live the bass breeding and stocking program!

Big native bass

Scientists say the natural range of Australian bass is from southern QLD right down the coast into East Gippsland. Some sources say that bass also live on the mid Victorian coastline around the Wilsons Promontory area. I can confirm all those reports now. Over the last 20 or so years, I’ve been amazed at where I have found them.

After much exploration between myself and close mates, we have caught them along the whole eastern coast of Victoria from Western Port Bay right over to Mallacoota. The stocked bass in most streams are currently dominating captures, but there is still a significant background population of native wild bass in those very same rivers. The naturally spawned wild bass can only really be identified by their size. They are often gnarly, old and tough fish!

Recently I saw pictures of a mate who lives in Sale where he caught a local wild bass that was 52cm. Over the last five years I have seen photo proof of a few incredible bass close to 60cm. The more anglers that chase the stocked fish over the coming years, the more these huge wild fish will show up.

The sad thing is that Fisheries has discovered that the wild stock were not breeding and there has been little or even no natural recruitment of baby bass in most of Gippsland’s streams for possibly twenty years or more. Researchers can use otolith (ear bone) microchemistry analysis to establish the source of some juvenile bass to verify if they are hatchery-bred fish or if they are natural wild recruits.

The average size reported for wild bass ranges from about 27-40cm for males and from about 35-57cm for females. The largest recorded Australian bass was a 3.78kg fish caught in the Clarence River in 1980.

Discovery – the greatest reward

Wild Victorian bass are still out there to discover and plenty of water in central and far East Gippsland proves that to this day. South Gippsland is another stronghold where I’ve caught most of my big bass to 49cm, while chasing estuary perch. So would I blow the whistle on where to catch wild bass? Not a snowball’s chance in hell! It’s important to know that they are still out there in viable populations for us to enjoy.

What I’m really doing is flaunting a big loud bass banner that says these wild and rare fish need looking after. As long as I keep hearing about dead wild bass, I will keep my lips firmly and proudly shut just like all other bass loving anglers. My secrecy is not selfish or inconsiderate and here’s why it’s a good thing; it will make your search and discovery a special and enthralling triumph. I would have had no exciting rewards if I was told exactly where and how to find wild bass.

My days of fishless pain made the rewards better than gold. Let’s protect, cherish and revere what is left of a rare Victorian angling prize. When you find bass, I bet you end up as ‘swampy’ as me! As far as stocked bass go, everyone is happy to share some of the love. You see the more we catch, the more fisheries are inclined to keep stocking. In dollar terms, it’s a real reward for effort.

Seasonal options

The height of summer is prime bass time. Keen anglers know to start searching early in October for success. November and December really start to produce and only the crazy spring weather beats you with cold fronts and days of high wind. The best bass months start in January right through to May, when water temperatures are peaking and the weather is at its settled best. I’m sure bass can be caught in the colder months. In years to come, angler effort will increase during winter with surprising results.

Techniques and latest lures

To target bass, you need specific angling techniques. Lure fishing is by far the most rewarding and is more successful than bait angling. I hear plenty of stories about lots of bass eating worms and a few caught on floating crickets or cicadas and even live yabbies.

It’s fairly common knowledge that bass bite best a few hours around dawn and dusk. They can be sensitive to barometer movements and shut down totally, or they can fire up madly just before an evening storm. Cold or hot water can shut them down or have them sulking in the deep. All these factors need thinking about when choosing lures and employing specific techniques.

Get on top

Surface lures are the best fun and almost any type will work at some stage. Cicada patterns are the most popular at the moment. Poppers and walk-the-dog lures will also work, as will bent minnows and even unweighted plastics. I’ve seen them all work.

I make my own surface lures with foam glued to the top of a hardbody lure with its bib cut off. I also glue a bit of lead to the back end of the lure to make it sink in the rear slightly. The extra weight also lets me cast it a very long way. I replace trebles with two w hooks so I can drag the lure through and over the thickest timber snags. I made these ugly lures for bream and perch many years ago and I called them Alchopops, because I was fairly full of beer when I dreamed them up and made the first few.

I can assure you they are deadly. If you play around making a similar sort of lure, you may well be shocked. Surface methods include fast rolling your lure, rip-stop-rip-stop action, or a twitch-pause. It’s probably best to try a mixture of them all. Let the bass tell you what works best each time. Often bass will smash a lure as soon as at hits the water. I’ve also found fishing open water as good as targeting structure or snags. Anglers that keenly chase bass in the dark well after midnight often pull in very big numbers and sizes.

One more tip when surface luring, mainly under very shaded spots next to major timber or deep undercuts, is to cast right in close and don’t move the lure. Let it sit there for a long time. It will surprise you just how long it may take and then a big angry bass may appear from nowhere!

Getting down

I’ve got two critical must-use lures for you when going underneath searching for bass: spinnerbaits and Beetle Spins. If you haven’t tried them yet, just do it! They look weird and almost stupid, but jeepers do they work. Bass love them. They have skirts and blades of all types. I’m not going to discuss colours, because I reckon they will all work, but sizes are critical. Start off with the smallest and lightest spinnerbaits you can find – a 1/8oz will sink fast and deep enough to catch you plenty of bass.

Bass guru Joel Petzke lives in Sale and has years of local experience under his belt. He has shown me some very neat tricks using bigger spinnerbaits and he only uses 1/2 or 1/4oz models. Boy, does he catch the hell out of bass. Beetle Spins are just as good and they require you to add a soft plastic lure in place of a skirt. Both lures are often hit on the drop with their flashy blades attracting a quick response.

Beetle Spins are an excellent cheap lure, because you can change the colour or shaped plastic and jighead size in seconds. Once again, all coloured plastics seem to work. Black is just as popular with anglers as orange, white or pink. My favourite colour is chartreuse.

Get confident with these lures because they are your best bass tool in the tackle box. Again, start off with everything really small and light when you first use spinnerbaits and Beetle Spins. Too often new anglers buy the wrong types, either way too heavy or large or even both. Outside that, all the trusted proven bream hardbody and soft plastic lures will all work a treat.

Daytime doldrums

The sad thing about bass is that they can and often do shut down for most of the daylight hours. You would swear not a single fish lives in the system, but come evening or morning and they bite like mad again! When using lures during the day, try sinking spinnerbaits, soft plastics, hardbodies or Beetle Spins around the snags and close to the deeper edges, especially under heavily shaded areas.

Work lures much slower than you would normally. Very cloudy and even rainy days can see bass stay on the chew for hours. In my limited experience, this is rare. The most critical factor for chasing bass is to make sure you time your attack for first or last light. This is crucial and actually more important than any type of lure or technique.

Finally, with all the angler effort and focus on the Hazelwood Pondage barra at the moment, a very interesting by-catch has shocked quite a few anglers. Bass to 50cm and slightly bigger have turned up there. Although only a handful have been caught, I’m thinking we will hear more about those Hazelwood bass in the coming months.

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