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Sooty Grunter on hard bodies

Quite recently I was lucky enough to experience an adventure quite unlike any I have had before. It all began with a call from Mick Hasset from ‘Mick’s Gone Fishing’ inviting me to come chase Sooty Grunter. For some reason, quite unknown to me, sooty grunter have always held great appeal and were on my bucket list of fish to catch. I think it has always been a combination of a couple of things that has drawn me towards this species. First of all, every bit of information I had heard, read and scavenged regarding sooty’s describes them as a hard hitting ferocious predator. Secondly, it provided me with an opportunity to do some serious hiking in spectacular terrain. In short, this trip offered me my two favourite elements of light line sports fishing! Mick added one more carrot to the mix that sealed the deal. He had, using a combination of hearsay and Google maps, discovered a stretch of river far off the beaten track that could possibly hold some big fish. I would never kid myself so far to believe that no one had ever fished this location, but with the hike required to reach fishable water, it was certainly reserved for a more intrepid, enthusiastic breed of angler.

Research and preparation
Despite my interest and appreciation of sooty grunter as a sports fish, I had actually never targeted them. sooty grunter are native to North Queensland and far beyond my usual fishing range. Some serious delving into their habits was required before even packing my tackle box. Now researching these fish was not nearly as easy I thought. My interest in them did not appear to be echoed by the North Queensland population of anglers, who have them on their door step. Compared to other river dwelling species such as Barramundi, and of course with the Great Barrier Reef an ever present and local reality, sooty grunter just don’t get a huge mention in a lot of the local press or online forums. This led me once again to pester my one solid contact, Mick Hassett, for some more info on what I might need. Mick offered two bits of advice which proved fundamental for what I was about to experience. Firstly, despite my love of using it, the advice was to leave the 4lb line and 1000 sized reels at home! Secondly, upgrade trebles to a stronger than standard hook as most standard hooks just will not cut it. By this stage I was literally thinking, “really”? The closest thing in my fishing experience I had to compare these fish to was probably Australian bass as a freshwater target.  When fishing for bass, I had certainly never upgraded beyond the stock standard owner or decoy trebles that most of the lures I use come with. Were sooty grunter really going to be that much more of a challenge than a solid Australian bass in a skinny water environment? We would just have to see!

The descent
To describe the location Mick had discovered as ‘off the beaten track’ would be a massive understatement. Upon arrival at the location, where we would leave the car, there was not a drop of water in site. In fact it felt as if we were very high above any bodies of water at all. From there it was a two hour slog down and then down and little bit further into some sensational gorge country straight out of a prehistoric picture book. If you are going to attempt this sort of journey yourself heed the advice to not do it alone, and to pack light. There were several times I had to carry my rod in my mouth as both hands were needed to scramble down near vertical drops or to hop over an inconveniently placed boulder. If I had been carrying any more than one rod and reel combo and a back pack with some carefully chosen hard bodied lures, this process could have become less achievable. Despite the difficulty of the descent I was filled with anticipation and high expectations of what was to come. At the forefront of my mind was the fact that this location would be as close to pristine as a walkable location can be. With the scenery already doing justice to the effort, it was with immense appreciation that I spied the first gleam of water. This water was the first leg of nearly 11kms of pristine, timber ridden, boulder strewn, and waterfall dotted wild river we would be exploring over the next few hours. With barely contained excitement, the last few hundred metres were covered at a bit of a half jog/half scramble and lures were being tied before breath was caught. Bring it on!
Fish and surprises
Within only several casts, the first few sooty’s were being hooked. I use the word ‘hooked’ intentionally to make a clear differentiation. My idea of high grade trebles were sadly not a sooty grunters idea of high grade trebles. The first several hits I had resulted in what I assumed were dropped fish only to find the trebles on those lures crushed at seemingly impossible angles! This was my first real learning curb and one I would urge all anglers who head into the North Queensland wilderness to observe. Sooty grunter mouths are like nothing I have ever encountered and the first hit on a larger specimen leaves Australian bass in the dust and even puts a mangrove jack to shame. Over the course of the fishing, even my upgraded higher gauge trebles were suffering serious damage and occasionally required some quick doctoring or outright replacement. My overall advice is to not underestimate these fish or you could suffer some humiliating defeats and wasted efforts.
It is not only trebles that suffer under the brute force and crunching nature of a sooty grunter’s initial hit. I would seriously recommend a split ring upgrade and would suggest taking a few of each favourite lure. During the session I had several split rings pulled right out of their “round” shape and turned into something better resembling an egg. In a couple of cases I also had hard bodied lures crushed beyond recognition, and the wiring pulled right out the back end of one. In short, sooty’s are going to punish you terminal tackle so make sure it’s up to scratch!
After a few initial terminal tackle malfunctions a general rhythm was found and the fish started coming in thick and fast. The location turned out to be everything we hoped, a rarely visited honey hole of fish that had no idea what a lure was. Without word of a lie, there was one instance where a school of sooty’s looked right at Mick as he backhand casted a lure into their midst. Upon landing, the lure was summarily set upon by a veritable hoard of black death. This initial willingness to ravenously destroy anything sent their way usually subsided after 3 or 4 fish per hole. These quick yet fruitful sessions kept us moving onwards throughout the gorge into some truly awe inspiring surrounds.

Gear choices
Due to the serious climb into our destination, I had opted for one rod and reel choice, at the suggestion of Mick my 6-12lb 6’6” rod and 2500 reel combo. The decision to opt for this over my 4-8lb rod and 1000 reel combo certainly saved me much grief as the day progressed. Although being an absolute advocate for ultra-light, finesse styles of fishing, I would suggest in the case that 6-12lb is finesse enough! In fact the 8-16lb rods used by other members of the group were by no means under gunned, being well and truly put to the test by some of the many larger models. Heavier leaders were also the name of the game with 20lb being about the average used. While several decent fish were landed on 12lb leader, several others were also lost on 40lb! In the tight, snag infused terrain we were exploring there was often a need to turn the fish and turn it quick using locked up drags and the full power of the rods. This insured that inadequate leader strengths (and needless to say poor knots) were just not going to have hold.
Successful lure choices were often dictated by more than my usual decision making considerations. Matching the hatch is always an important factor for me when fishing the vast majority of my usual haunts. However the only bait I witnessed the entire day was tiny fish species schooling (probably in permanent terror) in the shallows and around weed beds. So why not tie on a typical small minnow profile lure? Going back to the discussion on terminal tackle, smaller 35-55mm hard bodied lures can rarely, if ever support or even swim properly with most higher gauge hooks that were required targeting these sooty’s. This resulted in the use of larger than expected lures ranging from 60mm to 110mm. Shallow divers were preferred as many of the pools fished were less than 2 metres deep, and in the rare few that were deeper, the fish seemed happy to rise to intercept any perceived prey. Despite the larger than anticipated lure size the fish did not seem fazed. In fact I dare say had I thrown a 150mm lure, hits would have still been numerous. For those brief spurts of action upon arrival at each pool, the fish seemed totally unconcerned with size and after several experiments we expect also the colour of lures thrown. In fact on several occasions, action seemed to have little to do with it as well with lures being smashed aggressively before a jerk or crank of the reel had imparted any action whatsoever.
Fishing gear was not the only gear of importance. I believe the point has been emphasised sufficiently that the country these fish were located in was rugged and challenging in its own right. Large bottles of water were fully consumed by the end of the day and even good quality shoes copped a flogging. Leaches were also an ever present pest and if (when!) I return to this gorge, a pair of gaiters will be accompanying me. There were several climbs that required two hands to negotiate. While rods could be passed from angler to angler down these slopes, a centred backpack, as opposed to one of the typical side hanging tackle bags, was also a great asset for both comfort and safety.

Lessons learned and I will be back
Were sooty grunter everything I had hoped? They certainly were and so much more. Looking back I am still amazed at the sheer force of the hit of the Sooty Grunter and the girth of the average fish. Short of Australia’s species that grow over a metre in the freshwater (Barramundi and Murray Cod), I would easily rate these as the most challenging freshwater quarry I have encountered. Pound for pound, they are second to none. So do yourself a favour if you want a mind blowing fishing experience. Get online, research, research and then research some more and see if you can track down your very own sooty grunter gorge!
Good luck and good fishing!

What kind of locations should I be looking for to target Sooty Grunter?

Sooty Grunter in the wild river (as opposed to the numerous stocked impoundments) love skinny fast flowing water. Often they will wait right in the white water and rapids waiting for prey to rush past, ambushing it as it does.

Are they found in shallow water or deep?

Most rivers Sooty Grunter are found in are not deep by nature, often little more than a series of moutain pools interconnected by rapids. Sooty Grunter will often be sitting in less than 1 meter of water as prey swims between these pools.

How should I handle the fish in the fight?

Sooty Grunter need to be shown who is boss from the outset. As their home environments often feature numerous snaggy refuges for the fish to retreat into, there is little ability to “play” the fish out. Upon getting the fish to the bank a net, or a careful comfort lift around the belly is suggested. If you have seen in this article what a sooty can do to a lure, you will understand it when I say do not lip grip these fish!

What’s the best size line and leader I should use?

Due to the need to use a little drag as possible and essentially stop the fish dead in its tracks 20lb-25lb leader is best. Ideally this would be connected to between 12lb and 16lb braid. While appearing like a bit of overkill for a sub 50cm freshwater fish, you will often need every bit of this stopping power to best your opponent.

What kind of lures are best to use and how should I present them?

Due to Sooty Grunter being located in small bodies of water, shallow running crank baits are ideal. Using a twitchy retrieve you can keep the lure in the strike zone longer and give the Sooty (which can sometimes be a clumsy feeder) an optimum opportunity to hit successfully. In regards to size, I would not suggest anything under 60mm. Although Sooty Grunter will certainly hit smaller lures, the terminal tackle (split rings and trebles) you will need to upgrade to in order to consistently land these fish just wont work on smaller lures.

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