Sooty Slammin’ in North Queensland

Who am I? I’m a sweetwater angling adversary well known for my extreme aggression and exceptional fighting ability. Pound for pound, my mates and I (who incidentally look more like big black footballs than fish) would have to be one of the toughest freshwater brawlers swimming. We waste no time bending out an inferior treble hook or a split ring. If there is a single weak point in the leader we will find it and if an angler doesn’t have their wits about them 100% of the time they will be bricked without hesitation. Yes, I’m the sooty grunter. The thug of their own domain, ‘sootys’ have forged the respect of many piscatorial hunters in Queensland’s north. They should be a freshwater specimen on every angler’s radar and those who have not yet tangled with one definitely need to do so as soon as they possibly can.

Distribution and Habitat

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Luke Galea with a solid sooty grunter – one of his favourite sweet water species.

Sootys are predominately found in sweetwater watercourses in northern Queensland, but also span across the Gulf of Carpentaria and even into Papua New Guinea. Increasingly, captures are starting to emerge in the Mary River catchment. Unfortunately in the Mary, the species is not embraced due to the fact they have been translocated and are therefore non-indigenous to the system. Sootys compete indirectly for food and habitat with the endemic and endangered Mary River Cod and Lungfish. They also prey on the juveniles of these revered species. If found in this catchment, fisheries officers urge the public to not return them to the water but dispose of them humanely. The habitat in which sootys are found can be very diverse and extremely varied. My favourite haunts to target them are crystal clear rainforest streams complete with cascading waterfalls. These locations are so picturesque – it’s a pleasure to be out there immersed in the serenity and frankly speaking to catch a fish is a bonus!
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This fish only measured in the high 30’s but you can see the serious shoulders on this fish already. Sooty Grunter are extremely powerful species.

Sootys love flowing water and will often stack up at the base of the rapids looking to migrate upstream against the flow. A large boulder or small snag located at the base of a riffle zone, just to the edge of the faster flow, is a prime spot to fire in a cast. The other end of the spectrum are large, deep, stagnant waterholes containing an abundance of timbered debris. A kayak is essential for navigating this type of habitat. Not only is it quiet, therapeutic and good exercise, but kayaking up the middle of the channel and casting at the base of the structure on the banks is a very fruitful method of hooking sootys. I say hooking, because catching them amongst this harsh, wooded structure is not always easy and requires the angler to be very much on the ball. Generally, the largest and most dominant fish will often seek out the best ambush point within structure.

Time of year and time of day

Without doubt the best time of year to target sootys are the warmer, summer months. They migrate upstream with the first of the wet season rains during November and December. This voyage increases their appetite and willingness to eat. The cooler winter months often see the bite slow down, however, if you fish that shallower, warmer, rainforest streams, you may still have a decent session. Not only is the warmer water due to it being shallower, but the large boulders that dominate the structure in these streams, absorb the heat and transfers it to the water column. The deeper, stagnant waterholes are usually cooler through these months and should be avoided.
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Large timbered structure such as this is an absolute haven for sootys. The closer you can cast your lure to the structure, the greater the success. Luke7: A selection of a few of the authors favourite and most proven sooty weapons.

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A beautiful spin-caught sooty from one of the author’s favourite freshwater holes.

Although sootys can be caught all throughout the day, there are definitely times of the day where different methods should be utilised for best results. For example, the early morning and late afternoon crepuscular (low light) periods are the best times of the day to use surface lures such as poppers and stickbaits. A sooty’s eyes are quite large and with this, comes sensitivity to light (they are negatively photo-tactic). A sooty will avidly feed on the water’s surface during low light periods and then recede to deeper water as the sun rises. Soft plastics, vibes and diving hardbodied lures will work well in the middle of the day when the sun is high.

Essential Gear

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Although Luke prefers the use of spin gear when chasing sootys, light to medium bait casters as pictured here are also a popular choice. Here is a 4-10lb Samurai Reaction B251 baitcaster and Shimano Chronarch CI4+ rod.

Make no mistake … these fish fight extremely hard. You will need to be comfortable with your chosen rod and reel, your knots and the quality of your lures terminal tackle. Above all you have to be confident in your own ability. This is not the place for loose drags. I know people that use a 1000 sized reel, 1-3kg spin rod and 4lb braid, and to be honest, they lose more fish than they land (and lose plenty of lures as well). Even though I am a massive advocate of ‘going light to get the bite’, there is a time and place for that. And let me say that sooty fishing is not that place.
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A selection of lures suitable for sooty grunter.

A 2-5kg or 3-6kg spin stick matched with either a 2500 or 3000 Shimano reel will fit the bill perfectly. I opt to run a 6-12lb Samurai Reaction 302 Bluewater spin rod, matched with a Shimano Saros 3000FA spin reel. I also choose to use 10lb braid and leaders between 14lb and 20lb depending on where I am fishing and likely size of the fish that will be encountered. Poppers such as the Megabass Pop-X and Atomic Pop 50 and stickbaits such as the Atomic K9 Bulldog and Megabass Dog-X Jr have been my most successful sooty lures, however, the mandatory treble upgrade may be needed on some occasions (particularly on the Pop 50’s).
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Weedless plastics are excellent choices around harsh structure. A 3-inch Atomic Fat Grub rigged on a 2/0 Gamakatsu Worm hook is the authors first choice for this type of fishing.

Hooking your plastics weedless with a Gamakatsu Worm hook is also a popular option. Not only does it make your plastic almost 100% snag resistant, the unique shape of the hook also guarantees a neat jaw-hinge hook-up on the majority of occasions.

Go get ‘em

Next time you head to north Queensland, do yourselves a favour and commit some time to consciously targeting these fish. I am sure you will become addicted to these magnificent fish just as I have.  

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