Big, bad and black

Al McGlashan | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 1
… every pass, I got nailed. But each time, I was completely and utterly towelled up.
PNG’s black bass have a reputation for being easy to excite, but tough to fight and even tougher to land.

Trolling up a creek, it seemed surreal to be holding a 24kg rod loaded with 40kg braid. Holding a stump-pulling rod that would be more suitable for the likes of giant trevally or billfish seemed so ridiculously out of place in a river … yet it was anything but overkill because, despite my best efforts, I hadn’t landed a single fish!

I was in Papua New Guinea’s remote Gulf Province, chasing the infamous black bass, which has the unenviable reputation of being the toughest and meanest of all freshwater fish on the planet. So far on this trip, it had well and truly lived up to its reputation.

Unbelievably, after four passes along a bank full of snags, I had not even come close to landing a single fish – in fact, at last count, my tally was something like one from 12. It wasn’t because I was having bad luck – quite the contrary: every pass, I got nailed. But each time, I was completely and utterly towelled up. The only thing I was getting good at was losing lures and tying FG knots.

Approaching the danger zone for the fifth time, I admit I actually pointed the rod away from the snag, as opposed to leaning in toward the structure as you normally would. It sounds crazy because the natural approach is to get your lure in as tightly as possible, but not in bass country … you need to be ready when the attack begins!

My efforts to avoid attention failed dismally and, seconds later, my worst fears came true as the rod bucked in my hands. That the drag was locked up really tight – to the point that I couldn’t even pull any line off the reel – didn’t seem to worry the fish, which stripped it like there was no pressure at all. Charles, our driver, was on the tiller-steer and reacted quickly, steering the boat into the centre of the river as I struggled to stay both upright and attached. Somehow, I managed to get the beast out of its lair, making it the longest fight so far. But, just as I thought I was going to get this sucker, I was wrong – again!

The fight was dogged up and down and, as we were clear of the snags, I figured everything was in my favour. Shortly after, I finally got a glimpse of it and it was a big bad bass. It wasn’t a record, but at more than 30 old-fashioned pounds it was a cracker and a PB for me. Finally, after a few more lunges, I had it on the surface. Despite a few close calls, our guide Molikazu ‘Moli’ Hidaka slipped the net underneath.

With any other fish, the fight would have been sealed at this point, but not with a black bass. As soon as it saw the net, it flipped its tail and in a flash jumped out of the landing net, snapping me off in the process. For a moment I just stared unbelievably … and then started tying yet another FG knot!

THE BLACK BEAST

The Papua New Guinea black bass is part of the Lutjanidae clan, which includes other hard pullers like mangrove jack, red bass and golden snapper. The bass stands alone as being the only freshwater version and grows substantially larger than its brethren, reaching 25kg or more. They may grow larger … but no one really knows, because they are near impossible to land.

PNG national and black bass fanatic, Jason Yip holds the all-tackle record with a stomping 46-pounder. Perhaps ironically, his charter operation, Sportfishing PNG, is opening up new river systems, so it’s only a matter of time until someone on Jason’s boat will beat his record. And after my introduction to bass fishing, I figured catching any bass is an achievement!

Black bass are ambush hunters, that hole up in the snags and, believe me, they don’t like coming out. The moment they hit the lure they’re already on their way home, like an unstoppable freight train. There is only one way to win, and that is with sheer brute force. And, as I can attest, more often than not it ends in tears.

With 50kg braid and a 50kg leader you’d think it would be impossible to bust off – remember these things live in freshwater. Having felt how they do things way too often, I decided that evening that a 50kg leader was inadequate, so I beefed things up to 75kg. Just to put things in perspective, this is the same size leader I run when chasing marlin and tuna …

The following day, Moli took me to a new location. The first stop was a fallen tree that sat on a point where it disrupted the current. Looking decidedly fishy, I wasted little time in firing a Scorpion in tight against the log for an immediate explosive response. I barely even cranked the handle before I got crunched. This time, I was going to stay attached no matter what and, clamping my thumb down on the spool, I dug in … holding on for grim life as the fish freight trained it back home. Charles reversed out at the same time, helping to physically drag the fish into the clear.

At the same time, Moli went to retrieve his lure only to get smashed by a second bass right at the boat. Instantly, he got railed as his fish charged off under the boat. It was short-lived, but it looked spectacular. Somehow, I managed to stay attached and up came one very unimpressed bass. Luckily, this time he stayed in the net and I had him – woohoo!

BYCATCH BARRA

While the trip was focused on the infamous black bass, we discovered an unbelievable bigbarramundi fishery as well. While fishing one of the river mouths, Moli commented that there was a good chance of some barra. Now, I naturally assumed he meant a standard 50 to 60cm barra like we get in Australia. However, minutes later, when Jason Jefferys (who was in the boat next to ours) hooked up, I was shocked when a 90cm-plus barra burst out of the water. Moli barely even gave it a second glance, commenting how common metre-long barra are there. Again, I thought he was joking, but moments later I watched Jas hook a metre-long fish.

This was the start of a hot little afternoon bite, with the barra snapping their heads off. Trolling over one particular snag, it was pretty much guaranteed we’d strike on every pass. The average-sized fish was in the 80cm range, with more than a few cracking the magic metre mark. I had heard about good barra fishing in PNG, but I always thought it was restricted to a few isolated systems further west, toward the border with Indonesia. I had never heard of rivers where barra and bass coexisted happily in large numbers … mind you, I never thought I would call metre barra ‘bycatch’ either!

A fish per cast was as good as it gets but, try as I might, I just couldn’t stay attached to a big one. Finally, I hooked up and it instantly came out of the water – it was a stomper. To be completely honest, I had never caught a big barra, so I was shaking from the moment I hooked up. Every time it came out of the water flaring its gills, I gritted my teeth but, somehow, it stayed attached and eventually we got it.

It wasn’t quite a metre, but it was damned close, and it was definitely a PB for me. I was stoked. Well, that was until Moli cracked an absolute stomper that stretched out to a whopping 1.07m on the very next run. My fish was good, but when the guide gets a PB, you know the fishing is really good.

In the space of a week, we caught more than 40 barra between three boats, 10 of which were over a metre and another 15 up in the high 90cm range. None were under 70cm.

PNG’s barra fishing is a hidden gem that has yet to be realised – where else you can catch that many metre-long barra? Jas managed four ‘metery’ barra and even cameraman Brad caught a decent one off the bank. World-class bycatch is an understatement!

BATTLING BASS, TAKE TWO

As the trip progressed, we continued to explore the maze of river systems and estuaries fed by the massive mountain ranges that dominate the horizon. The best bass fishing is traditionally in the upper reaches, however an unseasonal storm had flooded the rivers, effectively shutting that end of the deal. But with so many systems, there’s always somewhere to fish.

On the last day, Moli took us to one of the most beautiful systems I had ever seen. Flowing directly out of a swamp, as opposed to running out of the mountains like the other systems, this one remained clean. Flowing fresh straight into the ocean, the barra and bass happily mingled in the snags.

I found this out the hard way, getting absolutely cleaned up by a big, unstoppable bass in the first 10 minutes. I cannot describe the desperation you feel when you’re destroyed over and over again by these mongrel fish, with absolutely no hope of winning.

On the next run, I hooked a monster barra. I will never forget the moment when it came out of the water, its huge body glistening, with gills flaring as shook its head. Then, in a second, it was gone.

It’s not often a barra cuts you off on your 50kg leader with its gills … unless it’s really big. How big, I’ll never know … but it was a beast. If nothing else, at least I was consistent at losing everything!

After the initial excitement, things slowed, so we explored further upstream where we discovered another snag loaded with bass. Finding them isn’t the problem, as I knew all too well – getting them out of their lair was the real issue. The first few passes were standard hookups: destroyed in a nano second, re-rig, repeat. Then, finally, I got lucky and landed a 4kg fish. It amazes me that even a fish of this size was an accomplishment, despite fishing 50kg tackle.

As the day progressed, I had just about lost every lure and was wondering what on earth to do, when I spotted one of my lures drifting by. It sounds silly, but recycling lures is standard when bass fishing because, with the barbs pressed down, they tend to throw them easily. Seeing this as an omen, I re-tied it for one last-ditch effort. At least I knew the lure worked!

Trolling past a drowned tree, my recycled lure got hammered so hard I almost ended up in the drink. At first the fish came out, but then it turned around and stubbornly dragged me back. I tried to stop it with everything I had, but it was to no avail and, suddenly, I felt that sickening feeling as the line was dragged through the timber. In a last-ditch effort Moli yelled to drop the rod and put some side pressure on the fish. This, combined with the boat still running to the middle of the river, somehow pulled it free.

Out in the open, I finally got to see my first black bass for the day. At ‘just’ 8kg it wasn’t a monster but, after all those bust-offs, I was stoked to finally have a win.

My elation was short-lived, though, because on the very next pass I got annihilated. Again.

When it comes to sheer strength and brute force, PNG black bass have few rivals, and that’s exactly what makes them so irresistible to adventurous sports fishermen.

Getting to PNG is easy and the flight there takes just a few hours, making it really accessible. The best way to fish in Papua New Guinea safely is with local operators – such as Sportfishing PNG, which I think is one of the best. The crew runs the Wild Rivers Lodge on the Aramia River and also run the magnificent K20 mothership, which opens up a whole world of fishing opportunities.

You will need a visa, but that’s cheap and easy to obtain. When you arrive, Sportfishing PNG will greet you at the airport and take things from there, so it’s pretty much smooth sailing. Mind you, while the guys will look after all stops, the bass are mean beasts that love to destroy your tackle, steal all your lures, and basically decimate your confidence!


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