Sizeable, visible, and seemingly impossible, there are few fish as infuriating as spotted grunter. As much as anyone can figure them out, a select few like Jannie Visser have. Listen up. From pancakes and prawns, JAM and turds, these are his pearls of grunter wisdom.
As pin-ups on the res walls of Stellenbosch University students in the ‘90s went, it was unusual. Forget Cindy Crawford or Claudia Schiffer, my friend Alastair Kilpin sported a photograph of a spotted grunter on his wall. I can’t lie. It did something for me.
A Grabouw local, my interest in fly fishing only started in my teens. While diving for alikreukel at Strand, I found a fly line that someone had lost. Attached to a sinker and two flies, it was a bizarre rig. I figured some Vaalie had gone there, cast off with the sinker and lost his entire makeshift setup. The first fly line I ever owned, it lay dormant for years. My fishing progressed from bass fishing in the dams to anything on worms or lures. Then when I was at varsity, A River Runs Through It came out, and like thousands of others I decided to make like Brad Pitt and get into fly fishing.
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As a student I did not have the bucks to get the right gear. So, I made a plan by repositioning the handle on one of my old bass rods to the butt section of the rod and rigging it with one of those old Bakelite centrepin reels and that old, salvaged fly line. Using that setup I caught my first trout on the Eerste River. From that start and with enough longing glances at Alastair Kilpin’s grunter poster, the seed was planted for me to set off down a saltwater fly-fishing journey of obsession, madness and only a little success.
The pin-up grunter that started it all had been caught by Alastair at his family’s spot at De Mond. One weekend we went down to their place and caught grunter with live prawns. Growing up, fishing consisted of lobbing your bait into the water and waiting. Here we were casting to fish we could see. It was amazing. I then decided that, having read fly-fishing articles on sight fishing for bonefish and other tropical species, I wanted to catch a grunter on fly. Fly fishing for grunter? At that stage everyone said that it would be impossible. To me it made sense. If they eat a prawn that you sight cast to them, then why would they not eat a fly that looks like a prawn? If only I had known what I was getting myself into.
“One constant has been the pursuit of spotted grunter and other Western Cape saltwater species on fly”
Life took some inevitable turns. I moved overseas and moved back, got married, had kids, klapped the nine-to-five and got older. One constant has been the pursuit of grunter and other Western Cape saltwater species on fly. But grunter have always been my favourite. The journey towards figuring them out has been one of tail and error, massive failure, a modicum of success, persistence in spades, foolhardy fortitude and the kind of mental obsession and stamina usually reserved for chess grandmasters, marathon runners and the mentally insane.
Why do we do it? For me it’s the tease that keeps me coming back. Grunter are not so much flirtatious fish as they are outright forward. They slap their tails on the shallow water surface of the mud flats and drive you nuts with expectation while making suggestive swirls behind your fly. Then they switch off as suddenly as Eskom, leaving you cold, dark and alone, perfect conditions for coming to grips with your failure.
THE IMITATION GAME
At the risk of sounding like a classic “back when we”, catching grunter on fly used to be considered something of a coup. Some considered it to be a near impossible achievement, a more challenging feat than pinning a permit on a well-presented merkin. Many guys spent years chasing these enigmatic fish before catching their first one, while others never managed it. Today, it’s not that hard to catch a grunter on fly. You can take a segmented deer-hair prawn aka floating turd fly, aka turdburger, cast it out and wait while a member of this usually spooky species abandons all caution and impales itself from below.
I’m not a purist. I have happily participated in the turd swinging. But somehow this development in fly fishing for grunter leaves me feeling a bit cheated. It’s like finally dating the girl of your dreams, only to realise that your entire circle of friends has dated her before you. The approach can be both fun and effective, but (and I realise this is a weird saltwater/freshwater inversion) like a dry-fly purist, I prefer sight fishing to going blind. Each to their own. You don’t have to choose, depending on the conditions often only one is a viable option…
Read the rest of Jannie’s spotted grunter piece in The Mission Issue 02 below, or buy the print edition online (we ship worldwide).