How to

Bush & Bass

EVER since I was a kid I’ve been dazzled by our great eastern rivers. There’s something special about a big river which starts as a pristine trickle in a remote forest hundreds of kilometres from the ocean.

The mighty Macleay River, in northern NSW, is a huge body of water, its flow and personality constantly changing through drought, flood and seasons. Like a giant serpent, it winds its way from mountainous beginnings to the salty thunder of the Tasman Sea. Two areas of this magnificent system that I love fishing are its headwaters and its lower reaches. It’s all the same river but its beginning and end are poles apart in terms of geography, scenery and target species.

The Macleay River catchment starts high above the flat green coastal pastures of Kempsey in the New England areas of Walcha and Armidale. From here a maze of small creeks and streams catch and deliver water from elevations of more than 1000m to create one of NSW’s premier bass habitats.

The top of the Macleay is a very special place; remote, unspoiled and passionately protected by the anglers who love and respect it. Once you spend a bit of time under its spell you can understand why this river commands such devotion. One of the better ways I’ve found to get a taste of the upper Macleay and what it has to offer is a stay at the Macleay River Bass Lodge.

The Lodge was built back in the 1980s by the late “bassman” Ron Sattler and is now owned by passionate bass angler David Thompson. Built on a foundation of hand laid river stones, the Bass Lodge overlooks rolling hills, green paddocks and the river. Within its log walls it comfortably sleeps
10 or more guests.

I recently spent a weekend at the lodge with Fisho assistant editor Scott Thomas. We arrived at the lodge late on a Friday night and unloaded a car full of fishing tackle, camera gear and food. That night we downed a few rums, prepared some bits and pieces then hit the sack in anticipation of a big day canoe fishing for bass.

We woke at sunrise the next morning. What we saw was vastly different to what we expected: a torrent of chocolate brown water and foam. The river had risen at least a couple of metres overnight, thanks to a wild storm that had followed us up the coast and dumped a bellyfull of rain on the high country above the Macleay.

Shortly after sunrise we met the Bass Lodge’s caretaker and guide, Dave Young. Dave had been busy since 5am towing a camper’s ute out of half a metre of water. The river’s level had risen so fast that it caught them off guard while they were sleeping. You could imagine the surprise they got when they woke to find their vehicle and half their campsite floating away.

At that point Scott and I thought we were going to spend a fair bit of time on the verandah enjoying the bottle of Bundy reserve Scotty had brought along with him, but Dave assured us that we may still have a chance of catching a few fish. Dave had a plan B that involved a bit of four wheel driving, some bush walking and hopefully a bass or two. Scotty and I were both keen, although sitting on that big verandah with that Bundy reserve was still a sound plan C if plan B went to custard.

Dave Young has done plenty of fishing in salt and the fresh. He loves his bass fishing and knows every run and pool along the river as well as a few secret little honey holes. He’s a funny bugger and good company, which always makes a weekend away fishing all that more memorable.

One of the bonuses of staying and fishing with an operation like the Bass Lodge is the benefit of local knowledge, access to water on private property and fishing options. If we were doing our own thing our goose was cooked and we would be driving home with a hangover. Dave made a couple of quick phone calls and plan B was set in motion.

After a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs we loaded up our gear and headed off in the Lodge’s troopy. Scotty and I didn’t really come prepared for bush bashing and we must have been a sight wandering through the riverside scrub carrying our big, heavy water-proof Pelican camera cases.

Our day started slowly with a few small fish on hard-bodies; the water was gin clear and surprisingly warm. Dave recommended that we fish soft plastics and slow things right down, so we rigged some Gulp Craws in camo colour on 1/8th oz jig heads.

Scotty was walking ahead when Dave and I spotted a group of horizontal logs in a long shallow pool. We both watched for a few seconds as four or five bass milled around the timber. A couple of big catfish were having a territorial dispute with the bass and chasing them from under the log. I couldn’t believe what we were watching; the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end as the show went on.

After a while it got the better of us and we had to have a cast. Dave’s Craw hit the water and one of the bass charged it and inhaled it inches below the surface. Dave set the hook and the fish instantly lit up the afterburners and took off downstream. It had Dave doing some fancy rod work while I was setting up my camera. He landed the fish and we took a few photos, released a healthy fat bass and moved on. As we walked I was thinking: You don’t get to fish water like this every day!

The next section was a textbook set up with a gentle run leading into the top of the pool, a deep backwater eddy behind the run in and a steep, rocky, shaded edge that ran the length of the pool. This pool had bass written all over it. I snuck up over the top of the shallow run to get a look at what was sitting in the backwater hole; as I got there Dave hooked up on a nice fish off the rock wall in the shade and Scotty had a follow from another good bass.

From my elevated position amongst the trees I could see five or six large mullet and a couple of nice bass sitting around a stump at the back of the pool. I cast my Craw. Instantly one of the bass swam up and swallowed it. The lure simply disappeared. The fish was swimming away in the opposite direction when I set the hook. I almost had to pinch myself in disbelief.

I’ve had some good days bass fishing before in nice clean water but this was crazy. We were spotting the fish before we made a cast, then watching them eat our lures. Not to mention just watching what they were doing when they were swimming around minding their own business. We were like bass “voyeurs” and happy about it. In some of the pools the water was so clear it was hard to tell how deep it was. Water that looked only half a metre deep was in fact neck deep. It sounds crazy but if we couldn’t see any bass we just kept moving.

The next pool we reached Scotty put in a long cast at a big horizontal snag on the far side of a shaded pool. We both laughed as a nice fish broke cover from the timber and travelled five or six metres to belt his lure as he retrieved it. One thing’s for sure: when bass are hungry they don’t mind crossing some water to eat your lure. You imagine bass hiding under logs and undercut banks and rocks, but I watched them scouting the bottom of pools, scrounging in the shallows and cruising along in the middle of the day without a care in the world. Most of their movements seemed very slow and deliberate … until they spotted something to eat.

Each new pool we fished gave another lesson in bass behaviour. The other cool thing was that the fish were getting bigger. As the shadows were starting to get longer I hooked a nice fish just as Dave came up tight from a well placed cast that touched down under some overhanging branches in a shady corner. I saw the fish’s tail break the water and I knew it was a beauty, but it wasn’t until I landed my fish and walked over to Dave that I realised how big his bass really was. My fish was nice but Dave’s was a ripper.

A quick measure with the tape confirmed what we were all thinking: 50cm at the fork. A stunning fish out of such skinny water. Dave’s plan B turned out to be a red-hot option and we ended up having what I would have to say is one of the most memorable bass fishing sessions I think I have ever had. We ended up catching 20 bass between the three us, but most of them were big fat healthy fish and the best part was we watched most of them eat our lures.

After a long day we made our way back to the lodge and fired up the barbie to enjoy a dinner of fresh pearl perch and crack that bottle of Bundy reserve.

That night I sat back and noticed there were no street lights at the Bass Lodge. There are no streets for that matter, just a dirt track. From the deck I could hear the river running and the stars looked as bright and clear as the water we fished that day. That deck seems to have a strange power over bass fishermen; once you sit down it’s hard to walk away, and when you do, you can’t wait to get back.

The next morning we got up early and headed back to where we had finished fishing the day before. Our plan was to keep making our way up stream and film the action for the Fisho website.

The first pool we fished we managed a small fish; the next one Scotty caught a slightly better fish. The bigger fish were there – they just weren’t interested in eating our lures. I’m sure we still had a good barometer, but the water temperature was definitely cooler than the day before and the bass had lockjaw.

We saw a couple of platypus that morning and Scotty had a close encounter with a red belly black snake. Lucky for Scott not even the snakes were in the mood to bite and it slid away quietly as we filmed it.

We moved on and fished a few more pools with the same result: lots of big bass, some holding station only metres from where we stood, but nothing we tried would get them to bite. It was incredible how two days can be so different.

Anglers visiting the Bass Lodge can bring their own canoes and kayaks or hire them at Lodge, which can be convenient if you have a larger group or a long distance to travel. The Lodge also offers guided fishing trips that vary in length and location depending on your taste for adventure.

The Lodge’s trusty old Toyota troop carrier is fitted with a set of sturdy roof racks that can carry a couple of canoes or kayaks to a chosen launch or pick up location.

For those that just want to get away and enjoy some peace and quiet and a bit of bush walking, the Bass Lodge is a hard spot to beat. Next time I go back I hope to sample some of the night-time topwater lure action that Dave has been telling me about. Jitterbugs on the long dark pools at night sounds like great fun. Stay tuned!
Contacts: If you’re interested in visiting the Bass Lodge, check out a comprehensive website at or phone 0450 557929.

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