SOOTY grunter, or ‘sooties’ as they are affectionately known, are one of the most obliging species available to northern anglers. Bibbed minnows, surface lures, fly, jigs – you name it, sooties eat it.
Of course, there are times when they can be a bit more difficult to tempt with an artificial. Being a tropical species this is most likely to occur during the cooler months, as proven on a recent trip north to Townsville. While the weather was gloriously warm for a Brisbanite used to chilly winter westerlies, a week of gusty southeasterly winds had the locals reaching for their flannelette pyjamas and the tropical finned inhabitants sulking in disgust. Numerous trips resulted in a few fish, but nothing like the energetic activity and willingness to eat lures I’d encountered many times before. The lures I was using definitely work – a distinct lack of paint on them proves that. So what was going on? Had the fish just disappeared, or had they recently been hit by some other crazed angler willing to trudge his way through ankle-deep sand and waist-deep chilly mountain water? Unlikely!
The fish were still there, I was sure of that – I just needed a different approach to get them to bite. I opted for something that I could present and hang right in their face. If there’s one thing you can be sure of, if you stick a lure in a sooty’s face for long enough, regardless of how cold the water is, the personality of the fish will eventually see it have a go at it.
And have a go they did! A stretch of water that only the week before turned up half a dozen fish, on this day and with the new approach produced 21 sooties and one lonely jungle perch. Talk about a turnaround!
Read on to see how it all happened…
The skinny little creek I was fishing was one of the all too regular tributaries of the Herbert you come across as you drive through the cane fields west of Ingham. This shallow, free-flowing body of water (and others like it) was easily accessed by scrambling down the bankside track that ran adjacent to the road bridge that crossed it.
In all but the heaviest of rain these streams run clear, and in most cases are easily traversable by foot. This day I just followed the creek upstream as it wound its way up into the mountains. While the terrain was trickier than a leisurely stroll through the grass, I didn’t have to battle my way through the bankside vegetation, dealing with the possibilities of mozzies, leaches and my most dreaded adversary – the snake! Instead I simply waded and walked my up the creek, alternating between the sanded bed and the amply flowing water.
Fish-holding structures regularly presented themselves and varied in their form, from fast-flowing undercut banks to heavily timbered and cluttered bends and straights, along with rock based bottlenecks and junctions. A pattern soon emerged as to which of these fished best: maximum water flow combined with the best timber structure produced the most consistent strikes and the biggest fish.
In my past visits the sooties didn’t hesitate to come out and belt any lure that wandered into close vicinity. In many cases the fish darted out to greet the lure as they saw it swimming towards them in the current. Not so this time, so I decided to change my approach.
To tempt the reluctant fish I decided to rig a small soft plastic that I could get down and hang in front of their faces. I threaded a 2 1/2” paddle-tail soft plastic onto a purpose-built 1/16oz jighead that enabled me to rig it so it was virtually weedless. This allowed me to float it right into the snag with the current, tormenting any fish that was in there sulking away.
Success was almost instantaneous, with the second snag producing a sooty that grabbed the plastic as it disappeared from my sight and into the snag. Getting the strike was easy – the hard part was trying to get the fish out of the timber. Considering where the lure was when he took it, and the fact that I had to get him to come out of the twisted structure and pull him into a pretty fierce current, it was no easy task.
A ‘suck it and see’ approach, and some flat sticking and red lining of the outfit soon had a cranky (and I think surprised) fish flapping and spiralling towards the sandy bank. Unfortunately, when you’re fishing in cover that tight and in such close proximity to the structure you’re targeting, the fish come to hand fairly green and in a real hurry to get back to their snag.
What a rush! I was stoked that the experiment had worked just as I’d pictured it would.
This technique isn’t a new one, but it was a new one to me when it came to chasing sooties. In the past I’d never had to resort to anything other than aggressive presentations with surface lures and the standard slow roll retrieve you use with a bibbed hard-bodied lure. I had used the soft plastic technique with some of the more finicky species such as bream, and to a lesser degree Australian bass, but not on a species that can be as suicidal in their behaviour as sooties.
After the first sooty a continual stream of fish eagerly inhaled the plastic as it either wiggled past their snag or hung there in front of them. The occasional fish performed in ways that I was more accustomed to, bolting out and intercepting retrieves that I didn’t get as close to the snags as I would have liked. But in most cases it was the slow, ‘in your face’ presentation that was their undoing.
The size of the fish varied from little fellas that would have been perfect to put in a tank, to larger models that were as black as night and almost impossible to stop – and there were some that I couldn’t. Thankfully though, in many cases I could wade out to the snag and manhandle the fish back out through the timber, or at least get my plastic and jighead back when it spat the lure.
Most of the time I felt I was more than well equipped with the gear I was using, which was the same that I’d been using a week earlier to catch bream on soft plastics. The 2-4kg, 7ft rod provided me with a bit more length to manoeuvre the fish away from the snags, and also allowed me to pitch the plastics as far back into the shade and under the overhanging foliage as I wanted.
Of course, using a lure as light as I was, the outfit was of the spin variety, with reel loaded up with 4lb gelspun line. Perhaps a bit light, but when you’re only risking losing a lure that cost you $1 rather than $10-15 you’ll gladly accept the risks to receive the benefits. Attached to the end of this cotton thin mainline was the ever-present length of fluorocarbon, 10lb in strength. Loop knotted to the end of this was the 1/16oz jighead that proved ideal in giving the plastic enough weight to get down into the strike zone, yet not so much that it presented the lure in an unnatural manner.
And while the day provided spectacular fishing, the best thing about it was that I was challenged in the approach that I usually take. You often learn more about fishing when you have a bad day rather than a good one, and my week of under-average results made me rethink my tactics, with the change in technique paying off and making me a better angler. And if there’s one thing we all want other than catching a lot of fish, it’s to become better at doing it.
1) Small streams like this one allow easy access across the exposed creek bed.
2) Although full of healthy sooties, cold snaps sometimes makes the bite a lot tougher.
3) In cold weather weedless-rigged soft plastics often prove irresistible to the fish.
4) Ecogear’s Skip-In-The-Shade jigheads and Grass Minnows were an ideal combination.Reads: 869