“I’m back, you prawn-sucking bastards…”
It’s the first of a three-morning stretch of epic grunter fishing and I don’t even know it yet. All I know is that two weeks prior I had a small taste of things to come. A new fly pattern in hand, I knew I’d dialled their number. Now I wanted an answer.
“… are you?”
I peer through the mist covering the seemingly endless expanse of shallow water in front of me, looking for tailing fish. The mud flat I’m wading only has fishable water over the spring high tide. It hosts marsh crab, crown crab, sand prawn, various shrimps, amphipods, gobies, tiny soles, sea horses and, during its fortnightly flood, the prolific peppering of mud prawn holes get a proper flush. The restaurant opens for the estuary’s resident spotted grunter.
In the past, myself and friends have fished here with crab patterns, JAM flies, Charlies and surface flies. All had some, but very sporadic success. Besides surface flies, all were weighted and fished on the bottom. Now if I were to follow the rules set by two decades of increasing success with grunter among Western Cape fly fishers, that would still be the way to go. Perseverance is the key.
But the problem with fishing flies on the bottom in this place is that the areas over which the grunts feed are mostly covered in a thick mat of various weeds and algae. Dunking a weighted fly in the stuff has one guaranteed outcome: you use your fly in a hopeless attempt at ridding the flat of salad. Conversely, surface flies attract a strange reaction from the fish. Long story short, upon spying the fly cruising steadily in the surface, they invariably start pushing it around like a hockey puck, with their mouths well clear of the water and thus the fly.
The solution had to be somewhere in the middle. These couldn’t be the most selective grunter in the world. What if I had a fly with some basic characters of all the prey items found here? Over some seasons, I’d noticed that most types of grunter food can display surprising bursts of speed when evading danger, and all of them were adept midwater swimmers – even marsh crabs. What if I ditched the lead and the foam?
It would mean that as far as I knew them, I’d have to break the rules of fly fishing for grunter. But it would mean that I have a familiar looking snack that could be fished quickly in mid-water, avoiding the problems experienced with heavily weighted flies or surface models.
Enter Shawn: a simple unweighted fly with a look somewhere between a shrimp and a prawn, tied to sink slowly and horizontally, and to ride on a steady keel. It quickly becomes clear that the larger tailing fish are most susceptible to the presentation – and the sight-fishing hat trick of my life begins. If I stand quietly at any chosen location on the flat for long enough, some fish would invariably tail within casting distance. I ignore the smaller ones and only take shots at the biggest fish tailing near me. The objective is to get the fly right on top of the fish and to start stripping immediately; it should behave like any little critter would if suddenly caught in a mud storm. Provided I didn’t botch the shot, fish either take immediately or start following the fly and either spook at the sight of me or eat it before that happens.
After the first morning of the second spring tide of Shawn’s existence, I go back for two more consecutive dawn sessions, both with more or less the same result – I’m finally catching them. The key is not the pattern, it’s a mental gear shift towards taking the available evidence into account and recognising when the rules need breaking.
Soon after, I turn my attention to a sand flat closer to home, where a fairly standard game of grunter and angler had been underway for many seasons. The odd taste of success was there, but a consistent pattern? Not even close. I’d decided to find out if Shawn would do the trick here, but also pack a version of the fly designed to suggest sand prawn specifically. I achieve the odd follow and one missed eat on the original Shawn, whereas the brighter sand prawn model spooks the fish that don’t ignore it. I’d taken pains not to include things in the fly that can spook grunter – no flash, no fluorescent colours etc – and yet it would appear the fish simply do not recognise it as food. I fish it static, active, on the bottom and mid-water, all at sighted fish.
Disappointed, a vaguely troubling realisation hits me. The standard grunter foods are all visible to the fish at some point or another. Mud prawns get blown out of their holes and undertake migrations. Shrimps and smaller amphipods (important and overlooked grunter foods) are found throughout the water column and crabs are commonly seen scattering along the bottom. But not sand prawns. These get sucked straight out of their holes and down the gullet. As much as I’d like to argue it, odds are that most grunter have no clue what a sand prawn looks like. And if you believe sand prawn is all that is on the menu, what chance does a fly have? Add to that the clear reality that no two grunter fisheries seem to operate the same way, and the can is open – worms everywhere. Again.
Notwithstanding my shaken faith, I was looking forward to the next spring tide when South Africa went into Covid-19 lockdown. Chances are that I’ll have a whole lot of time to contemplate the rules and how to break them before next wading onto the flat. I’m all over it.