Bush Tucker

Craig Rist fishes Queensland’s Tully River for sooty grunter and jungle perch

Standing on the banks of the Tully River with my 6-weight in hand, floating fly line and a big buggy looking dry fly, it was easy to imagine I was on any number of beautiful trout streams in New Zealand or Tasmania. The similarities were amazing. Fortunately, evolution must have had the fly fisher in mind, as the sooty grunter and jungle perch are opportunistic feeders, eating both aquatic and terrestrial food. However, the sooty grunter had to go one better again, by adding wild berries to their diet. Yes, fruit — would you believe it — now that really was a different fly to tie. TULLY RIVER The Tully is just one of many rivers in Far North Queensland which support good populations of grunter and perch. The river flows down from the Cardwell Ranges into Lake Koombooloomba and then down through the Tully Valley to the sea. Through the middle and upper reaches the scenery is spectacular and the boulder-strewn river has a real tropical jungle feel. During a road trip to Cape York many years ago, I crossed paths with Roly Newton in the town of Tully when we called in to his Tackle World Store for some advice on catching sooties on fly. It was obvious that Roly was as passionate about fly fishing as I was, and we’ve been friends ever since. From that first introduction I was hooked on the whole jungle river experience and I have always tried to incorporate a river session into subsequent visits to northern Queensland. On a recent trip, Roly and I fished the middle reaches of the river in the Tully Valley. The water was running clear and low enough to comfortably wade and fish our way upstream. With the hot morning sun at our backs, the forest was already alive with the unmistakable sound of cicadas — an instant reminder of the New Zealand backcountry. Roly had tied on a size 6 Chernobyl Ant and I was using a size 4 Muddler drenched in Frogs Fanny floatant to make the deer hair ride high and dry. This meant that I could pull the Muddler under and then let it float back up to the surface, leaving no doubt that it was meant to be a living insect, fish or frog, and a potential meal for any hungry sooty or JP. When the sun is high these dark fish really stand out against the rocky bottom, making sight fishing an exciting alternative to blind searching the whole river from start to finish. Rising fish are also a common sight and a fly that is cast ahead of a riser will certainly get some attention. I could see that Roly was already enjoying the day, delivering the creative casts and mends needed to work the floating fly and catch fish on a large river such as this. Roll casts, bow-and-arrow casts and single handed Spey casts were all used to get our flies onto the water wherever trees prevented a clear back-cast. JUNGLE BERRIES We soon came to a large pool with a very special feature. On the deepest side stood a huge wild berry tree. We’d fished here before and knew what to expect if the berries were ripe enough to be falling into the water. With no fish rising, my first thought was that the berries might have finished falling and it wasn’t going to happen. Then, after a sudden gust of wind, something dropped into the water and a rise immediately followed. Another gust dislodged more berries, triggering a series of multiple rises. That was all I needed to change to the red berry fly I’d tied the night before. Large, still pools like this always make me a little nervous, as I’m fully aware that these tropical freshwater rivers are home to some very large saltwater crocodiles, and there had been some recent sightings. So with that sobering thought in the back of our minds, we stood in waist deep water in the middle of this pool, casting flies towards an even deeper shaded area under this tree. The things we do! All thoughts of being eaten by a croc disappeared the moment the fly was ambushed by a pack of sooties. I set the hook and fought a strong fish back to where I was standing. As it came within three or four metres I could see there were at least ten others following the hooked fish. Roly continued to use his Chernobyl Ant for a while, but the berry fly was definitely getting more hook-ups under the tree, so he soon changed to a berry imitation. With so many fish fighting over my fly, I began to use a strip strike instead of the traditional trout set. This kept the fly in the water to be quickly eaten again if my first strike missed its mark. SNAKES ALIVE Having worked my way across the pool until I was directly under the tree, I heard a sudden disturbance and a distressed birdcall from high above. Broken branches, berries and leaves started falling all around me. I looked up to see a very large snake wrapping itself around a bird that had just flown into the tree. I watched in amazement as this four-metre-plus snake consumed the bird and then silently made its way down the branch and disappeared into the mass of thick vines interwoven around the trunk. After all that excitement we left the berry-eating sooties and got back to fishing the ripples and runs where the fish would be looking for insects and frogs instead of jungle berries. Throughout the day we caught some nice jungle perch in amongst the sooties. Some were caught on a dead drift, but more often they were hooked on a fly that was stripped back with a popping action. Roly was quick to point out that not every day is like this. He was right of course, as I too had experienced far fewer fish on previous trips, but they’ve all been every bit as enjoyable. Tully Gorge Further upstream the river flows down through the Tully Gorge, which is also a popular whitewater rafting destination. During times of low flows in the dry season, water is periodically released from the dam to coincide with commercial rafting tours. This can quickly raise the water level in the gorge, leaving you stranded on the wrong side of the river until the water subsides. The gorge offers a different style of fishing, with boulders and a faster flowing river to contend with. As in the lower section, jungle perch like to ambush their food at the heads of the pools and can also be found in smaller numbers in the side channels and tributaries, living alongside the healthy population of sooty grunters. Due to the thick and sometimes impenetrable tropical forest, the best points of access are where the road swings in close to the river, and at the launching and retrieval sites for the whitewater rafters. Fishing this part of the river can be tough, with large round boulders under foot and deep water limiting the places where you can cross to reach some of the better back eddies and side waters. I recall spending a lot of time walking up and down the river one day to find a suitable place to reach a tempting side channel on the other side. I started to cross the river above a large rapid and was halfway there when I looked across to see six sooties in the backwater that I needed to wade through to get out of the river. Not wanting to spook these fish, I wedged my feet against two large slippery boulders and leaned into the flow of the river to hold my position. I pulled some line from the reel and waited for a clean shot at one of the larger fish that was milling around in the shallows. When the one I was after was far enough away from its smaller mates, I dropped my blue foam bug in its path. The big sooty sensed the fly landing and accelerated towards it with two of the smaller fish hot on its tail. The larger fish must have known it had competition because it hit the fly so hard it sent a shower of water across the backwater and literally hooked itself, sending shock waves up the fly line into my fully loaded rod. As always, the sooty put up a solid fight right to the end, until it rolled onto its side ready to be released. Having walked down the river so as to fish my way back up, I found more sooties holding in the side waters and was treated to some superb sight fishing. I also tempted a few jungle perch by using a steady popping action on the fly to fire them up. At times they would follow the blooping fly right back to within a couple of metres of the rod tip, leaving a last minute swing of the rod to finally get the take at very close range. Exciting, and very visual fishing. When I returned to cross the river I could see the water level was much higher — my waist deep crossing was now neck deep. I found a stick to use as a wading staff and made my way across to within a rod’s length of the far bank. Suddenly I had nothing to stand on and instantly began to float down the river towards an ominous set of rapids. My feet briefly found the bottom, allowing me to push towards the bank where I managed to grab hold of an overhanging branch and climb out of the river with my rod still in hand. Luckily my camera was still dry, even though my hip pack had been fully submerged. After that bit of a scare, I made a mental note to bring a life vest or an inflatable boat on my next visit to this spectacular gorge.

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