by Lee Brake
Sooty grunter are pound for pound the hardest fighting freshwater fish in the north of Australia - probably all of Australia. They hit a lure like they've just been fired from a cannonball and they'll turn around and brick you and your lure in a heartbeat.
Like many freshwater fish, sooty grunter are best enjoyed for their fighting prowess rather than their table quality.
Don't let their small size fool you (50cm is a trophy sooty grunter); these fish are awesome fun to catch and are not to be underestimated. They are every bit as thuggish and brutal as the prized mangrove jack.
They are also not that hard to catch, and catch in numbers. Sooty grunter are prized as a catch and release species and are rarely eaten (they are not great table fare) and because of this their populations are very healthy. You just have to know where to look!
In the impoundments these fish tend to grow larger and if you're after a 50cm football to brag about then dams like Eungella, Teemburra and Peter Faust are your best bests. Eungella Dam is widely regarded as the sooty grunter capital of the world, and if the turnout and results of the annual World Sooty Grunter Championships held there are anything to go by, it's earned it.
The author (rear) and Deion Capra work poppers for marauding sooty grunter in a freshwater stream. Note the deep channel Deion is falling into. Such drop-offs will often hold fish, especially if there is rock or fallen timber in the equation.
Sooty grunter impoundment tactics vary between deep water and shallow. In the early morning and dusk anglers tend to target fallen timber along the shallow banks of the old creek beds. This can either be done with small surface poppers, small snag-resistant minnows or by rolling spinnerbaits along the branches. As the day goes on, it's time to move into the deep, as that's where the sooties will hide. Try dropping heavier spinnerbaits and rattling vibes down the trunks of prominent trees. Using your sounder and looking for concentrations of bait will also assist you in your search.
Big, prominent fallen timber is prime sooty grunter habitat. They love to lie in ambush behind fallen logs.
In the wild, things are somewhat different. These fish love clean running water and can usually be found upstream in many of the major north Queensland and Northern Territory river systems where they can be targeted from the bank or in a canoe or small boat. They love structure and favour deep bends and rocky holes and drop-offs. Usually you'll find them hiding behind prominent rocks and fallen logs, waiting to ambush bait as it's swept past. For this reason snag resistance is crucial.
Spinnerbaits are an excellent sooty weapon. They love to crunch them as they helicopter down drop-offs and tree trunks.
Small minnows that dive quickly and bounce off structure are ideal as are small weighted soft plastics rigged weedless and spinnerbaits. Once you catch a fish from a spot, keep casting at it. Sooty are rarely alone.
Another top trick is to wait for rain. Sooty grunter, like barra, love run-off and will often push far upstream to breed and feed in the fast flowing headwaters. Look for small backwaters and eddies at the edges of the stream -- this is usually where these fish will wait in ambush.
Graham Brake with a nice little Central Queensland sooty grunter. This fish smashed a prototype Reidy's Little Lucifer near a rocky ledge.
Hooking a sooty grunter is just part of the challenge, as they will be headed straight back to the snag you tempted them from. For this reason, they can be somewhat of a specialist fish. You see, they have small mouths and don't take overly large lures, so you need light gear to cast for them accurately, however, if you go too light you stand no hope of landing any serious specimens. A good compromise is to go for a short tippy rod rather than a long fast tapered one. I like a two to four kilograms or two to five kilograms rod no longer than six feet. A small 50 size baitcaster or 2500 size spin reel with 15lb braid and 30lb leader will complete the outfit.
As a point worth noting, sooty grunter are rarely the only predator in an ecosystem. They share waters with jungle perch, saratoga, catfish, spangled perch, sleepy cod and they are one of the few fish tough enough to survive in areas stocked with high concentrations of big barramundi. This means that when chasing sooty grunter you never know what the next strike will bring. Also, most sooty grunter spots are scenic and pristine, so you can expect a day immersed in nature's beauty at the very least.
Fish hard and stay safe.