Sooty’s, short for Sooty Grunter are a small freshwater fish found in FNQ from about Mackay in QLD all the way up towards the tip of Cape York. Sooty’s only grow to about 50cm’s depending on their environment, they inhabit most NQ dams and freshwater streams. Although these fish aren’t huge, pound for pound they are one of the hardest fighting fish in their freshwater environment. Fighting like little bulldogs, they try their best to bust you off in any form of structure that gives them an opportunity to free themselves from the hooks whether it’s a snag or an undercut bank.
The first place you will find Sooty’s is in clear freshwater streams and rivers, unlike Jungle Perch they don’t need access to the salt so they are found in most northern freshwater rivers even if they are a few hundred kilometres inland from the coast.
Some of the best rivers I know of close to Cairns are the Barron River on the Atherton Tablelands, Johnston River and also the Tully River. The Barron is a great river if you are into kayak fishing and enjoy spending a full day on the water; it isn’t crystal clear like the other two rivers but can still fish well in the deeper holes with small hard bodies and vibes. The Johnstone is ideal for people that have big Canoes and want to float down for the day casting. Anything with a small profile casted at things that create cover for the Sooty’s like rocks and overhanging trees will get eaten as soon as it touches the water usually. The Tully can be walked and fishes exceptionally well just before winter, a fun way to fish it is with surface Poppers and Walkers, there’s nothing like a 40cm Sooty exploding on a surface lure.
Sooty’s are also found in many QLD impoundments, most of the stocked Barra dams all have Sooty’s in them and are a great by-catch while targeting Barra on light gear. There are a few dams that have more Sooty’s then anything else so you can go and target them properly.
The best one in my area and a well-known place for these fish is Koombooloomba Dam, situated about 3hrs drive south west of Cairns. One of the most effective ways to fish for them in most dams is down very deep in the thick timber; this offers ideal country for large schools of fish to stack up in structure and is the best way to get good numbers in a session.
The lures of choice for this sort of fishing is anything that can get right down deep in amongst them, like weedless soft plastics and hard bodies with bibs that are often bigger than the body of the lure. A fast aggressive retrieve works well to stir them up and sometimes there will even be three or four fish chasing after the one lure.
Fishing from a small boat for them in either big freshwater rivers or dams is excellent fun as it opens up so many options especially if you have a sounder. With a boat you can travel a lot quicker around the bigger waterways, search for decent structure or even find a school on the sounder and then sit on it with an electric motor. Also in a boat you aren’t just restricted to a couple of rods, you can have multiple rigged and ready to figure out a pattern and get them to feed. It is also easier to see every strike and sight cast at fish.
When a sooty is hooked it will often have half a dozen ‘mates’ come along with it so if there is another person in the boat they can usual pluck one off for some epic double hook ups.
Land based walking is totally different to fishing for Sooty’s from a boat. When walking for these fish its usually done up freshwater streams or gorges taking you into some pretty spectacular country that most people don’t get to experience. The trick to fishing while walking is to walk upstream so you are casting up to water that hasn’t been disturbed and is crystal clear. On these walks the Sooty’s love structure and shade, the best places to find them in streams is trees that are overhanging or have fallen into the water and in the gorges they will be deep along rock faces sitting in the shade.
The most effective way to fish for them is with surface lures, the explosions on the surface in a small stream from a sooty has to be seen to be believed how cool it is. They will then normally use the current to their advantage and wrap you up in anything they can find to free themselves.
The gear used for these Sooty Grunter has to be nothing but high end as they are renowned to destroy gear with their pure power and strength. A reel that has a strong silky smooth drag and a sturdy build body is essential, normally around the 2500 size is perfect like the new Stradic Ci4+ spin reels. The Ideal rods for to use for these fish is about 6’6 or 7’ long and about 2-5kg, the new TK3G range and Gloomis GL2’s are the perfect rods for these fish.
Line plays an important part in tangling with Sooty’s as half the fight is usually spent around structure anything from 4-10lb Power Pro braid is perfect depending on the area your fishing. The leader isn’t as important for these fish as it is for others but a fluro carbon in 10-15lb is great, use about 2m of it so you can pull the fish free from structure without it snapping from abrasion.
As for the lures anything that is smaller than about 80mm will get eaten, they aren’t a shy fish and love anything that hits the water.
Get out there and start catching them, they don’t always play the game but when they do you can catch 50-100 fish in a day between a couple mates.