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Ronan's report

Sunday 29th August, 2010

Some time in the mid 80’s I did a road trip up the coast of Queensland with a couple of mates and a big clutch of fly rods. We caught black marlin on that trip and blew a cluster of sailfish through a combination of inexperience and inexperience. We spent a night in Cardwell and fished with the father of modern sport fishing in Australia Vic McCristal who had not had a lot to do with fly fishing but clearly understood what we were up to. We stopped at every road side waterhole and creek and fished for whatever swam. It was a great trip and we planned to do it again but time intervened and we went our own ways.

I can’t remember any of the conversation in the car, no doubt it was mostly about fly fishing with a little of the strange and wonderful ways of women thrown in. I do remember a snatch of a poem that was written on the road and it went like this;

Tarpon, barra, and little black tractors,

Leaping and diving are powerful factors,

For scrimping and saving and cutting on keep,

To get us all back to Cattle Creek.

The ‘little black tractors’ refers to sooty grunter, an endemic species throughout Australia’s tropical rivers and southern New Guinea. There’s at least half a dozen species of these very tough fish, and tough in this case covers just about the full gamut of the word, tough to get to eat a fly (sometimes), tough to land, tough to eat, and they are just bloody tough fish to survive in the world they live in.

Sooties don’t grow huge, 2 kilos would be a monster. In the 80’s we learned to breed them artificially and they were stocked into many manmade impoundments. It was pretty common knowledge that in these waterways they took up residence under those trees that were the favoured rookeries of the vast cormorant flocks that lived on the dams. These big sooties ate cormorant shit, they fought over that long white streak of excreta the instant it hit the water - it was best imitated with a long white deceiver. In the dams they grew to 5-6 kilos and at this size, pound for pound, there are few tougher fish swimming.

In the wild they live in a diversity of habitats from rainforest rivers where you can sight cast to schools of cruising fish over white sandbars under a dense forest canopy, through to the permanent waterholes of the floodplains right across the Top End. In the rivers in particular they will eat off the top with a strong preference for grasshopper patterns, dahlbergs and small pan fish style poppers, but make sure the hooks are strong. They smack a fly off the top with an audible pop and slurp. They really like the running water and the deep holes that are scoured out around snags.

However they do prefer a sunken fly. Like so many species in this part of the world they will head straight for cover when you hook them. In that little poem they weren’t referred to as ‘little black tractors’ for nothing. These things really pull for their size, just boring in for the nearest log- jam bending rods deep to the corks. There is one more really annoying yet endearing feature these fish have, you’ll very rarely catch them twice. I know of no other fish that wises up so quickly and that puts down its fellow inhabitants so immediately when you release them. You’ll pull one from a snag, maybe two but rarely anymore. Look them up if you’re down this way, you won’t be disappointed.

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