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.