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Catching bass with kids

WITH summer on the way and a good cicada hatch upon us, I couldn’t help but think hard about bass. It’d been a while since I’d chased them and nostalgia had seeped in, flooding my mind with memories of shady, clear water pools on the river I cut my bass-fishing teeth on.

In the time that’d passed since I’d last been to that waterway, my nephew Archie had gotten the hang of spin gear. He hadn’t seen the bass country though and was keen on an adventure; so he and my young pup Muc signed on as canoe-mates.

I was pretty confident of finding fish given the amount of time I’d spent on the river. This would stand me in good stead for getting Archie onto them; and I knew that the scenery alone would be an eye-opener. Add to that some camp fires, swags and a couple of good rapids, and there was plenty to keep the kid interested!

Adventure Bound

We took off the following afternoon with the car’s speakers doling out Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s “The Lost World”. A secret, hidden land of monsters was exactly what our imaginations needed.

Getting clear of the dreary Hunter Valley coal country, the back roads winding out of Singleton quickly forgot the industrial horizon in the rearview mirror, and rural bushland gave out to tangled jungly creeks and scrubby hills. The open windows let in the primeval screeching of channel-billed cuckoos, and elephant-ear like leaves of giant stinging trees hung limply in the build-up to a storm. Anticipation was high.  

We made the river with just enough light to find firewood. Gnawing on a couple of chops we took in the feel of the oncoming night at the water’s edge. The heaviness of the atmosphere gave way to a rising patter of falling rain and the fire smouldered a losing fight. We gave up on the idea of sleeping under the stars and set up the ute canopy as comfortably as possible. At least Muc had a restful night sprawled on top of us.

Still raining, darkness greyed through to light without a dawn and the river emerged from a retreating mist. We were ready for it and slid the canoe into a brisk current.

As always, I was keen to pick a bass off the surface just to slake the craving – but I was most excited to see Archie’s reaction to hooking one.

My go-to daytime surface lure is a spook style walker, mainly because I love watching them swim. I tied one on for Archie but soon realised that the combination of sitting down, waving a seven foot rod and mastering the angler’s equivalent of puppeteering was probably asking too much.

Switching instead to a Koolabung Basswalker fixed that problem. Crawling lures come alive by themselves, the angler required only to put them where the fish are and wind them back in. Bass hit them harder than more subtle surface presentations, I assume because their large presence demands commitment, and they’re also preferred for after-dark work.

Despite our efforts it was a slow surface session and I was the only one lucky enough to get a fish. The cicada hatch hadn’t kicked off where we were and insect life was almost absent, so the fish weren’t looking up. If they wanted to be stubborn we’d just have to go down to them.

The change of tactics, a soft plastic grub for me and a floating diver for Archie, did the trick. I could work the steep edges along the cliffs and boulders; and Archie fished the fallen timber using buoyancy to walk his lure out of cover.

One thing’s for sure, he’s not afraid of snags. Having never lost a lure to one, he approaches each with a naïve confidence that flings trebles into places I wince at. Maybe the snags are too scared to mess with a madman. Whatever it is, his lures tend to come back out – regularly dragging angry fish with them.

On cue, and just as he was getting into a mechanical working of the motions, his little fish imitation was assaulted as it crawled from an overhanging tree. The kid was on the board.

The More Things Change…

It was easy to keep things interesting as we mooched downstream. Archie likes a good yarn as much as anyone and every snag here had a story. He got to know each rapid before it loomed ahead and his pole position in the front seat kept the excitement high, coupled with my relayed memories of close calls and the odd dunking. 

I pointed out how the river had re-decorated in my absence. Some old hotspots had gone – floods eating up the banks and eviscerating snaggy pockets – but new bass housing had gone up in the meantime.

Rumbling the hull onto the cobbles at my traditional turn-around point, we wandered down to see the “Honey Hole”. A sharp bend catapulting water into a massive submerged boulder had gouged a small, deep hole that my mate Richard and I found to be a hotel for post-spawn bass making their way back upstream.

The river hadn’t gotten rid of the boulder – a snagged jig told me that – and I brushed off the loss to getting re-acquainted. My offering was soon repaid with a better than average bass, and Archie took a break from catching snails to see what all the fuss was really about.

We paddled back to camp, ticking off the fish of the trip on the way, and after a lunch break it was time to head back out. I’d been smart enough to pack a bag of clothes only to leave it on my bed at home – so, in the full midday sun with only a t-shirt or jacket to choose from, we pointed the bow for the shadows.

This was where the fish were going to be anyway; but sticking tight to shore also made casting much easier for Archie. Instead of trying for distance, he was able to focus all his effort into short, accurate casts under mossy logs and drooping ribbons of bankside lomandra. Retrieves were easy to keep controlled and effective – and it showed.

The best fish for the afternoon, and Archie’s PB, nailed his diver almost at the rod tip as he brought it from the depths of a river bottlebrush shadow. He kept his cool despite the rough surging dives and purring drag, and we both cheered when the fish hit the net. He gave it some kind words and plopped it back in the drink – he gets fishing.

With a snap of his catch safely taken, the camera was passed back over to his end of the canoe. I guess the interest in photography is something that all kids have – I know I chewed through plenty of film during my school holidays. I’ll have to remember to set the dSLR to single frame shooting mode whenever he gets it though…

We didn’t make it out for a night fish – the long day and hot dinner was enough to make Archie ready for his swag. I told my best stories of pitch-black bass while we poked at the fire, and we penciled that task in for the next trip.

We had another half-day on the water up our sleeves and another overcast dawn. Again, the fish weren’t too excited on top, although eagle eyes spotted some movement out in the middle and a cast to it found the culprit hungry.

I had one secret left to divulge – a hidden oxbow that branches and re-joins the main river – where tiny pools secret themselves beneath a roof of sprawling lilly pilly. We walked in to investigate this pocket water, always the sort of spot to expect a big fish, and I hooked but lost the resident beast. In the years I’ve known about the Oxbow I’ve never landed a single fish from it – and that record stands.

We made our way back upstream, still sticking to the vegetated edges where we could look closely at the cuckoo-doves, honeyeaters and water dragons. Then it was time for the chores of packing up before a pie break on our way back through town – the last traditional activity to sign off another adventure in bass country.

Take a Kid Fishing

Getting kids out fishing is the perfect excuse to spend time together in the outdoors. There’s plenty to feed their imagination and a whole new classroom to learn in.

With the premise of catching monsters – which does happen sooner or later – they get to step into the world of the river (or beach or estuary) and start piecing together its story. Learning how to catch a bass is learning about the whole ecosystem – we have to mimic a bug or frog or gudgeon or shrimp; and they live here and this is why…

With understanding comes appreciation, and before we know it we’ve recruited another pair of hands that want to help look after the fish and the places they call home – which can only be good for everyone.

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