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SPECIES GUIDES

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SOJOURN FOR SOOTIES

The sooty grunter (Hephaestus fuliginosus), also known by the name black bream, or I like black jack because of its obvious sport fishing ability, is a species of fish that inhabits coastal and inland freshwater creeks and rivers of primarily northern Australia, from the upper Burdekin River in Queensland to the Daly River in the Northern Territory.

They are also located in the western catchment of Central Qld from Mackay region south west to Rockhampton west and small isolated pockets further south west of the Bundaberg region.

For me just reading the above conjures images of pristine country of gin clear northern creeks entrenched in rainforest and tannin stained waters meandering through ginormous overhanging paperbarks and eucalyptus trees.

The truths about how the sooty grunter came to inhabit the lower regions are few and far between but enough digging around has found that when the new highway was constructed and rerouted along the coast large numbers of sooty grunter fingerlings were dispersed into the system, where they have flourished and are a regular and welcome by-catch when chasing wild southern saratoga that are native to the region. Further south, at about their most southern limit, the sooty grunter population is believed to have been established through flooding etc. from hatcheries and aquaculture facilities that were previously in the area.

Sooties now inhabit a large area of Queensland and love flowing freshwater streams; preferring rapidly flowing waters with a rocky sand bottom and limited aquatic plant cover. They will live side by side in the same water with JPs (jungle perch), mangrove jack and barramundi in the north, in clear rainforest streams, along with saratoga and bass to the south, adapting to slower moving water and more rock bar and typical wood snag waterways with ease.

Of course heavily timbered creeks, tributaries with limited flow or large periods of time cut off from flow will affect water quality dramatically over time. This alone inhibits the fish's ability to grow and spawn efficiently, even though it is one of our more tolerant Australian natives. The species can tolerate acidic water conditions to a pH of 4.0 and water temperatures between 12 and 34ºC.

That said, with favourable environmental conditions, our pristine northern waterways produce some outstanding wild fish. Broad shoulders and a powerful tail, built like a little football, weighing up to five kilograms and growing to a maximum length of around 55cm in the wild, along with some true stonkers caught in a few impoundments.

Although most specimen reach 25 to 30cm, in pristine conditions or with lack of accessibility from fishing pressure 35-45cm fish are easily achievable and are not uncommon. Coloration differences are also outstanding, with light brown sooties in the shallows or sandy areas through to the jet black models found in deeper holes and the timber. Coloration also changes once landed, but it's amazing the coloration variation from different depths and regions.

Slowly but surely the mighty sooty grunter is gaining more notoriety as a sweetwater gangster, with super-hard hook-ups and strikes, blistering runs, often back over sharp rock ledges or into the timber Meccano set they call home. I chase heaps of bass, but a sooty is a seriously underrated species of sportfish that will pull an Aussie bass backward and is definitely one of my highlights when traveling north.

How does all of the above help as an angler? Like any species, the more you know and learn about the targeted species, i.e. feeding patterns, locations, bite times etc. the better chance you have of successfully targeting them. Sooties feed mainly on invertebrates, especially freshwater shrimp, and small gudgeons and rainbow fish. Although this can vary when river flows and water levels fall, their diet then will include water weeds and falling figs, Pandanus nuts and anything unlucky enough to enter the water column. So to be successful we need to match the hatch so to speak.

Lures

A great sportfish, with a never say die attitude, makes for an ideal species to target. They have an aggressive nature and readiness to strike artificials, instantly engulfing surface poppers, hard bodies, soft plastics and spinnerbaits at will

The black bream is a favourite with our indigenous Australians and outback folk, with the fish's taste being superior to most other freshwater species.

By far the most effective sub surface presentation has been soft plastics and the ZMan 3" MinnowZ / TT 1/8oz HeadlockZ HD combo in a 3/0 is dynamite. It can be fished in most scenarios; fast flow, the deeper holes and snags, with the advantage of floating across the shallows or dropping slowing thru the strike zone.

My go-to is the Houdini or Pinfish colour, with Pearl, Motor Oil and Space Guppy always in my kit. The ZMan 2.5" GrubZ in Watermelon, Black and Motor Oil always seem to tag along too and are dangerous as on a hard sooty bite.

If you are partial to spinnerbaits or ChatterBaits, which I mainly fish in the deeper holes or pools below some fast flow, TT Vortex spinnerbaits, with their stinger hook account for their fair share and do snare the larger fish at times. In terms of weight 1/4 and 3/8oz are my preferred, with the purples, black red, blacks, brown most effective in the darker or tannin water and also any fluro green colours ideal in the clearer, normally faster water or around pressure rocks.

Like any species on the day it's good to mix it up, but the standard slow roll is a good start until you read the water. Being an opportunistic feeder casting accuracy is paramount, along with knowing where to cast and how to read the water and surroundings. Remember, what's above the ground normally continues below the waterline. Especially as a lot of the time you will be on foot or dragging a canoe or kayak so you won't have the luxury of a sounder.

As mentioned earlier casting accuracy is make or break, with pinpoint accuracy in the timber crucial, similar to when chasing barra and jacks.

The fast flow reminds me of trout fishing or chasing JPs, with an emphasis on reading the water and the rocks below for eddies, ledges and pressure points, where the sooties sit conserving their energy and waiting to ambush an easy meal.

Another bonus in sooty country, when fishing the western catchments, is by-catch. Besides the norm, like catties and 'toga, unfortunately introduced tilapia are also infiltrating our native waterways and if caught must be disposed of above the high water mark. They must be buried as being mouth brooders, birds and even recent rain can even help spread the pest further afield.

Other by-catch includes a few species of grunter endemic to particular streams within a catchment area. The spotted grunter and small headed grunter, or pot bellies as locals call them, are both great fighters... as good as a sooty and a little bonus that you can tick off your bucket list.

So next time you're heading north or planning an adventure, get onto Google Earth and plan a sooty mission, you won't be disappointed catching this great fish in great country.

How Goods Australia
Robbie Wells

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FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 2017