Roadtrip Sooties

John Haenke explores tropical North Queensland in search of sooty grunter

Looking out over a perfect stretch of fly-water, I stopped to think how fortunate I was to have the time and mobility to find this isolated headwater stream in tropical North Queensland. It was indeed ideal — clear shallow water running over sand, deeper holes with backwaters and eddies, structure for sooty grunter to hide in, not much vegetation to hinder casting, and all day to explore it. My idea of heaven.
Life until recently had been work, work and more work… but a neighbour from hell had been making life intolerable for my wife Peta and I, so a lifestyle change was needed. Peta suggested we buy a decent camper and live on the road, travelling wherever and whenever we wanted.
I thought she was joking, but 15 months later we’d sold the house and business, picked up the camper and here we are, living the dream of semi-retirement, travelling around comfortably in a rig that cost the price of a small house, and having time to relax and do what we enjoy… for me that’s fly fishing.
I’ve been putting a lot of time into finding streams like this. It doesn’t just happen. It requires quite a bit of homework: interrogating locals, driving around checking out possible waterways and access points, and often meeting dead ends.
I’m very much old school when it comes to most things, but some new technology can be very useful, especially Google Earth. But be aware, satellite images are often dated, and the time of year and fluctuating water levels can mean the waterway is disappointing in real life. Sometimes, like today, I strike gold.
I don’t want to spend all day walking long stretches of unproductive water, so when I’m searching online I’m looking for deeper, fish-holding holes in close proximity to each other. They may only be a metre or even less in extra depth, but that can make a big difference in these shallow streams.
If these deeper holes have structure in the form of a rock bar, boulders, a dead tree, or overhanging foliage with shade, you can just about guarantee sooties. These are places to concentrate on and fish thoroughly. On bright sunny days sooties will sit close to, or in structure. The closer your fly is to it, the better your chances are of getting that unmistakable aggressive tug. It’s a very distinctive bite.
Those 40+ cm fish that can really test the limits of a 5 or 6 weight rod are lurking in this back country as well. It’s just a matter of locating them. Most of the larger fish I’ve caught have been at the head of the hole, especially if there is a rock bar with water flowing over it. No surprise really that the drop-off where the water is flowing in with all that food is the prime spot.
These honey holes can sometimes be a couple of metres deep, and during the day trophy fish may be down close to the bottom, behind or near a submerged rock, usually with quite a bit of current flow around it. Unless you can get your fly down there, that big thumper will probably stay where it feels safe, and you might end up landing only smaller fish.
There is a fly that I always have in my box, specifically tied for these places. It’s basically a small version of Chris Beech’s Barra Bunny, although Chris would probably shake his head if he saw my flies. I use a #2 hook, with bead chain or small dumbbell eyes. The body is wire brush, with a rabbit fur tail and a weed guard. I have found dark colours like black or purple work well, so I tend to stick to them. The larger hook, combined with the eyes and wire brush give it the weight to get down deeper, and the weed guard helps stop it snagging on submerged structure. Using dumbbell eyes, the hook point will ride up, which also helps with snag proofing.
It’s simply a case of casting into the current, give it time to sink, start stripping and hang on! Often it will get eaten on the drop before you even start stripping. At times you will get dusted, but the end result is usually a large black sooty in hand, with a black or purple moustache.
Some of the streams in the lower country run through agricultural land and have sandy sections interspersed with gravelly runs. During the low light period later in the day when the shadows are growing, it is possible to sight-fish big black sooties cruising over sand and gravel flats — really exciting stuff, especially targeting them with surface flies.
To me, fishing these headwaters is as much about getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, being in tune with the stream and in touch with the natural world, as it is about catching fish — although I do enjoy pitting my wits against sooties, and you can find them in a surprising number of waterways.
They are common in coastal and inland freshwater rivers and streams in tropical northern Australia, from the Kimberley (FL#100) through the Northern Territory and Queensland (FL#11, FL#86), as well as southern Papua New Guinea. I have been very lucky to fish for them in all of these areas.
Sooty grunter are tough, they have to be in the environment they live in. They are pugnacious, aggressive and competitive, especially in a school. Having said that though, they also learn very quickly, so your first presentation should be a good one. If it isn’t, they can become wary and refuse to bite — you may not get a second chance.
Fisheries scientist Alf Hogan has probably done more research on sooties than anyone else, and some of his studies reveal that they communicate with each other by grunting — hence the name. I have no doubt they send warning signals to others in their group — they are very social creatures and are usually found in schools. If an angler makes a careless approach, it can be enough to spook them. I’ve also found that when a fish is caught and released it often goes straight back to the school to tell its mates all about it, which can also shut them down. So they are wary and can be challenging at times.
Sooties have a varied diet including frogs, insects, worms, crustaceans, algae, plant roots and berries. They are opportunistic feeders, certainly not too fussy, and will therefore take a variety of surface and sub-surface flies. Fish that live in the fast water in the higher sections of the rivers and streams are quick to pounce on any floating or sub-surface fly that comes near them. Food is less plentiful here, and they only have a split second to decide to eat it or not.
Even though they don’t attain the sizes of some of our better known sport fish, they can reach a length of 52 cm to the fork, and a sooty this size could be around 5–6 kg. In the upper sections of these streams, an average fish is more likely to be between 25 and 40 cm. They are tough little fighters and a lot of fun on a 6-weight
fly rod.
My preferred time of year to fish these streams is towards the end of the dry season when the water levels are low — September and October are prime time. November can be a good month too, if there hasn’t been any rain to cause flooding.
You need to keep in mind that high water levels can affect accessibility in a number of ways. Getting there can be more difficult, and stronger currents and deeper water make wading and crossing more difficult too. Water clarity isn’t as much of an issue, as the headwaters tend to clear in a few days.
Summer wet season flooding events scour the riverbed, removing vegetation. This often leaves plenty of room for long back casts from sand or gravel banks to reach deeper sections on the far side. However, some of the heavy bankside vegetation is tropical jungle and you can’t physically walk through it, which means you will have to get in and wade upstream. Being able to roll cast on these small streams is a big advantage as well.
There are similarities here with freestone trout streams, and southern trout anglers would feel at home with a 5- or 6-weight rod, casting large dry flies. The main difference is where the fish hold — sooties are very structure oriented — and of course, maximum mid-winter air temperatures in North Queensland are approximately 23 to 26°C — very balmy indeed. You can wear board shorts and wading boots, no waders or thermals required.
Some of the upper sections and gorges I fish are seriously isolated. Depending on how far you are willing to walk, much of it is in and around state forests and national parks. You need to be the judge of your own fitness, and how far you are capable of travelling in a given time frame, taking into account the difficulty of the terrain, and fishing time.
As much as I love walking these streams, there are safety concerns to think about. Obviously, in tropical streams saltwater crocodiles are something to consider. Always check with knowledgeable locals, because crocs can be much further upstream than you think. If in doubt, stay out.
Snakes are something to be aware of, and I’m sure most of us are. I always carry a pressure bandage and think it’s imperative to know what to do if you are bitten, because time is of the essence. It’s especially a concern on remote streams like these where it’s unlikely you’ll have mobile phone reception.
The next bit of kit I’m going to buy is a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). They’re not too expensive and could save your life — some even have the ability to send text messages. The other thing I’ve been considering is a satellite sleeve for my iPhone, also not an overly expensive option, and one I’ll be looking into.
I do recommend going with a mate if you’re walking these streams, though sometimes it’s not possible. I often go on my own, but Peta knows where I will be parking the car and fishing, and we have an agreed time I have to be back by. If I’m not back, she’ll call the cavalry!
On reflection, some of my most memorable days fly fishing in fresh water have been when chasing sooty grunter — a wonderful sport fish that has flown under the radar for a long time. Perhaps it’s partly because they don’t grow as large and flashy as some of our more sought-after species. When you weigh up everything though, the size of the fish is relative to the gear you are using, and they put up a dogged fight on light fly gear.
Suitable coastal rivers and streams in North Queensland are not that hard to find, or to access. Even an old dog like me, with the help of a little bit of modern technology, combined with some old-world streamcraft, can get into some fantastic backcountry that most fly anglers would regard as an exceptional experience.
With overseas travel being questionable in the future, sometimes it’s a case of looking in your own backyard. For some of us lucky enough to live in NQ, it’s right under our nose…

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