For many years, I had heard anglers talk enthusiastically about sooty grunter, describing them as feisty, dogged and determined fighters. However, it wasn’t until I hooked my first sooty in Teemburra Dam that I realised they are a sportfish of the highest order.
A sooty of around 48cm gave me the impression that I’d scored a good-sized barra on my 10wt outfit and it was only when it splashed on the surface in a brick-red flash that I realised I had hit the sooty grunter jackpot.
From then on I was an unashamed convert. I’ve taken a lot of different fish on fly and these blokes are, pound for pound, the strongest. Best of all, they are not exactly pushovers to hook either. When they are in the right mood, with a storm brewing nearby, sooties go off their heads. However, on a lot of occasions they will keep to themselves and ignore a fly, and for that matter, a lure.
Sooty grunter are found throughout the Burdekin and Dawson river systems and further north. While definitely a fish of the north, sooties are capable of surviving further south as well. There are recorded captures of sooty grunter in the Kolan River in the upper area of Monduran Dam. That said, you are much more likely to catch them the further north you travel. On a recent visit to the Mackay area I found that the Pioneer River system and its tributaries hold good numbers of the grunter family, with sooties found right throughout the fresh water reaches. Their size varies, with a 2.5kg fish considered a real horse by experienced sooty anglers.
Characteristically pugnacious, they are ridiculously easy to take on a piece of steak or liver on a bait hook but can be cautious to the point of frustration when it comes to flies or lures. The secret is to fish when there is a change of light or in shaded areas around cover, which they stick to like glue. The shaded side of a lily clump, a small group of trees standing together or an overhanging clump of foliage are good places to lob a fly.
It’s necessary to be extremely stealthy in your approach because the sight of an angler or a boat will make them take cover quick smart. Leader tips should be strong enough to hold a fish from cover, but not thick enough to attract attention. You’ll need a length of 6-10kg line as leader tippet, depending on how heavily fished the area is and how wary the sooties are.
In streams, sooty grunter tend to tuck discreetly away for most of the day. They venture out towards sunset to take up positions at heads of runs or side waters just off main current lines (so long as cover is not far away). When they are in these feeding positions, success with the fly line is almost assured. The sooties are on the lookout for food, with almost everything from fruit to insects on the menu. Once a sooty has made up its mind to grab a fly, it acts with great speed. Without warning the fly will be engulfed and ripped straight back to where the fish was holding, and if it darts back behind cover, it is going to be mighty hard to extract.
Fish that attack with great speed and determination are the stuff of fly anglers’ dreams. Popper-style flies, such as the Dahlberg Diver, Gartside Gurgler or larger Muddler Minnow will provide terrific surface fishing fun. Remember that sooties have small mouths though, and flies should be tied on hooks no larger than size 1/0. Small wet flies such as Woolly Buggers, Crazy Charlies and Clousers will work fine. Colours should be combinations of dark contrasts: I have had success using red/black, green/black and purple/green flies, with the darker colour on the lower section of the fly.
When thinking about tackle for sooty grunter, remember that they are an ultra-strong, blocky fish with a big tail and heart to match. In streams, they do their best to get back to the weed beds or other cover, while in a dam with timber handy they just won’t give up fighting until a net is under them. Because of this, I favour an 8wt rod for most sooty fishing, and my choice of fly line depends on whether I am stream or dam fishing. In streams, a floating line is best, while in impoundments, where you’ll be searching for sooties around standing timber, an intermediate sinking fly line is ideal.
After you’ve caught your first sooty on fly, you might understand why some anglers choose to target them over barramundi in impoundments where they live side by side. Sooty grunter on fly may be a challenge, but it is definitely one worth taking.
Denise Kampe looks pretty pleased with her Teemburra Dam sooty.Reads: 2944