South African spotted grunter has been one of the most praised, loved, frustrating, and hated fish, all at once, by the greater community and even individuals (like me) targeting these fish on fly tackle. It is not a fish that many (if any?) have caught on their first try. The odds have changed slightly with the addition of the articulated floating prawn (tied by Ian Kitching; the fly is also known as the Turd Burger in Cape Town fishing circles) about six years or so ago to the ‘trusty’ JAM (developed by Jannie Visser, August Lohann and MC Coetzer) that’s been in saltwater fly boxes for more than a decade now.
It has been an epic journey from the start of the grunter craze and the design of the classic Grunter Charlie (tied by Doug Swannel who-knows-when), to the development of the much more effective JAM fly and now the articulated floating prawn, which is still not the be-all and end-all of grunter flies, no. Some people, like Peter Coetzee and his EP Prawn, have their own fly designs that have also fooled tailing grunter – even the good old trusty chartreuse and white Clouser Minnow has done some damage. Things will definitely still change in time and new effective flies will be produced by the ‘thinking’ guys that can tolerate a lot of rejection.
There is obviously a big difference in temperament between grunter from the Western Cape estuaries and those that live in Eastern Cape estuaries; such that flies that work well in the Eastern Cape mostly fail to catch fish in the Cape. It seems like the Eastern Cape fish are more aggressive and will eat Charlies, Clousers and crab patterns vs the imitative JAM, for instance. The floating flies have a wider appeal to fish though.
Then there are big grunter, not the fish that you’ll see schooling on sand flats or tailing in the inches of water stirring the shore of a mud flat. These big fish are mostly caught by rock and surf anglers and also by people fishing deep river channels with prawn or lures. I have never seen a big grunter (5-7 kg) in shallow water while harassing the many smaller ones feeding there. Fair enough, one could argue that I haven’t spent enough time in these areas as I’m not a grunter fanatic, but if it was a regular occurrence to make it a likely catch then I’m convinced that I would’ve at least spooked some trophy fish. It never happened.
What did happen, to my amazement, were two good fish (that I’m sure made most fly fishing Instagrammers jealous, including me) caught on large 4/0 ‘baitfish’ flies in a deep hole of a south-western Cape river. The lucky anglers were James Martin (of Lifeonfly) and Nick van Rensburg (of FlyBru) and these fish were stocky and notably bigger than the ‘average’ spotted grunter caught on fly. I wrote them off as a fluke by catch.
Not long thereafter Ewan Naude and I were fishing in the same area and what we thought was a good kob that I had hooked on a 3/0 Clouser, turned out to be another big grunter (see: Grunter Premonition). Three fish in a year on baitfish patterns (or flies that could have even resembled cuttlefish and/or big mud-prawns, as in my case) changed my thinking.
After giving it some thought, and remembering a story about a good grunter caught on a Clouser in the Keurbooms River mouth, it hit me that these fish do get caught but only occasionally, by reason of people fishing in the ‘wrong’ places for them. It makes sense that such large fish might have changed their diet after reaching a certain size or age – or they may even be bigger than others because they’re genetic freaks, such as the anadromous brown trout morph, and may have a preference for fish and whatever swims the deeper parts of the river (squid and migrating prawns); or lastly, they were the few opportunists that learnt how to find an easy meal and grew quicker and bigger compared to the majority, digging like slaves for burrowed prawns?
Whatever the reason for their superior size may be is unknown, but I believe that the best shot at such fish involves blind fishing with larger baitfish-type flies (like DMAs and Clousers) at a slower, more constant retrieve in deep water, the deepest channels you know of in your local estuary. So there are grunter that sip Turd Burgers from the surface on mudflats, grunter that suck up JAMs on sand flats and then those that will eat streamers and jig flies in deep channels. Those who enjoy targeting grunter on fly would do well to think through the relative merits of these contrasting approaches. Whether you’re fascinated by sight fishing to spooky grunter searching for sand prawns in knee deep, crystal clear water or if casting blind and retrieving a deer hair prawn over a mud flat is your thing, give the deeper water a shot with a weighted streamer, you may be pleasantly surprised.
Leonard, grunter most certainly eat fish. My Oldman used to catch the odd one on small mullet live-baits but the grunter particularly liked live halfbeaks, that was in the Kowie River. We catch loads of grunter (of all sizes) on bucktail jigs (and Clousers fished blind), especially around areas where there are concentrations of estuarine roundherring (Gilchristella sp.) or Cape silverside (Atherina sp.). Also, I understand that in certain Southern Cape estuaries, like the Groot or Kleinbrak, some locals fish with live “rockballies” (which I assume are prison gobies) purposefully targeting grunter. So for sure, the streamer thing is a go, but I’d keep those streamers sparse and transparent (i.e. Clouser-esque) in the lines of the roundherring/silverside theme, which I think are quite a delicacy for them grunts.
Thanks for your comments Edward; I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that most people, and I’m specifically referring to fly anglers in the Western Cape, associate grunter with flats and the methods that have been developed work particularly well on either sand and mud flats (the JAM being the exception, working on both mud and sand flats). People simply don’t spend time fishing the deeper channels in the Breede and elsewhere in the Western Cape to catch grunter on fly – the few that have been caught like that so far were considered a by-catch while fishing for kob with streamers (I know of one fish that was caught blind in a deep channel with a weighted JAM fly – Tim Leppan, the angler, specifically targeting grunter in deep water). However, as you rightly point out, grunter also eat fish and my theory enters a philosophical dream world to find reasons why especially big grunter (of which some actually looked like ‘young’ fish in good shape) are caught on flies resembling baitfish. It is beyond the common concept that bigger fish may change their diet and become mainly piscivorous as there is scientific proof that the genetic make-up of certain fish species (brown trout being a classic example) may determine behaviour, diet and growth/size (resulting in a large anadromous form of brown trout also called sea trout). In New Zealand your best chance to catch a truly big sea trout (15 – 20 lb brown trout) is to throw a streamer in estuaries and river mouths, or even the wave zone near the mouth, and not by floating dry and nymph rigs in the upper reaches of rivers (as most trout anglers do when visiting NZ). So if you had to continue throwing JAMs and turds at flats grunter, you may never actually find the opportunity to hook and land a genetic different ‘morph’, or just a large fish that changed its diet primarily to fish?
I have also caught a few Grunter on live mullet, but I’d say the most surprising one was when I fished for Cob and caught a 3.7kg Grunter on a whole, big octopus toe. I recon the grunter probably confused the dangling, red-ish Occy toe for a bloodworm. When I was younger I spent way more time targeting grunts on bait in the deeper channels, obviously the fish were bigger in there but they still prefer mud prawn, so a weighted JAM will probably get more consistent results than baitfish patterns in the deep water for Grunter. The problem is getting down to the bottom, in rivers like the Breede 4m or 6m water is flowing so strong, you’ll struggle too effectively work the bottom.
Thanks for the interesting article and comments. I consider myself still to be at the beginning of the grunter “learning phase” with only 39 so far. That said, I have caught grunter on articulated prawn flies, shrimp flies, clouser and a variety of small baitfish patterns. It will be interesting for someone to compile a list of all the “grunter flies”. Regarding size, I caught grunters of all sizes on small baitfish patterns. Also, I was lucky enough to catch a 78cm (12.6 lb) grunt on a articulated deer hair prawn fly in very shallow (waist deep) water. And, yes, it took off like a steam train. Now if I can just crack the slow cruising grunters over the sand in clear water. Or can that only be done with s shotgun (notice some have quite a few spots already)!