Nine to five. That’s how long I worked that flat today. The blazing sun burned me right through my shirt: I now look like a tomato with vitiligo. Also, I missed an appointment. Within an hour or two of fishing I felt as though I had a steel rod in my back, and it was trying to kill me. My left shoulder is still smarting from my arm just hanging from it all day. Your arms want to do things, but when waiting, waiting and waiting for a shot at a grunter, the left arm tends to just hang there. For hours. Ouch.*
Upon my arrival, the flat is alive with grunter. Tails everywhere. Every man’s dream. I have a favourite little section where, on my previous visit, I stuck a 62cm model first cast. I ended with a grunter for each of the three hours I spent fishing. Naturally I head there first, brimming with confidence. I approach my spot painfully slowly. It’s an enormous flat. We’re talking sixty hectares as a conservative estimate, and that’s just the part of it I have covered. By the time I reach my station, the grunts have all but disappeared. What? No worries, it happens.
Except that this time it happened all day. No matter where on the flat you are, usually you won’t wait long for a fish to cruise by. But today I stand for half an hour here, forty minutes there. Nothing. Repeat. Nothing. Karmically, I suppose I had it coming, but the day, no doubt, serves a purpose. You can never stop learning about spotted grunter.
I blanked really fricking hard. Now that hurts, but honestly, I just drew the short straw. Today just wasn’t my day, except if you count the observations, realisations and confirmations I walk away with …
When you fish for grunter, presentation is everything. Mostly that’s up to you, but sometimes the fish just make it impossible. Today, the few grunters that I encountered within casting range, and I mean every last one, was facing away from me. “He’ll turn any second now.” Haha no, he won’t. Not today. So here’s a tip that might come in handy, save some frustration (yeah right) and all that.
You can’t cast a fly at a grunter facing away from you. I mean you can, but you don’t want to. Every grunter that serves you a middle finger will chip away at your confidence. So that’s reason one but it’s cause and effect at play here. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
You can get the sweetest possible presentation, landing the fly like gossamer down, exactly where you want it. That’s fine, good job, I’m a fan. But here’s the thing. Predators know that their prey items, given half a chance, will try to escape. So what’s a grunter to do when a tiny prawn or shrimp apparently has the balls to shunt his would-be eater right out of the way? Cause and effect. He’s gonna fuck off.
If it isn’t clear, that’s what happens when you cast at or past a grunter facing away from you. The fly has to move towards the fish, and grunter in all their wisdom (see part 2.1 of this series) know that this just isn’t how it works. Such a confident little prawn is clearly bad news. If you can’t quarter or lead a grunter, don’t waste your cast. Let your arm hang there a little more. The ideal scenario is one where a grunter cruises past you, moving across your field of view. They’re catchable, but so are fish moving towards you. I catch most of my grunter as they cruise directly at me. The biggest issue with that is judging distance and leading the fish with the fly. If it cruises past you, you can quarter the fish, and you have some time because you can cast the fly well past and ahead of it, and time your retrieve so the fish and fly intercept each other. But when a fish is coming at you, the ‘strike zone’ is drastically shorter, the challenge is two-fold: You need to lead the fish by at least a two or three metres or you’ll spook it when the fly lands, then you need to convince it to follow and eat before it inevitably sees you. So, given the fact that this scenario normally plays out on a relatively short (10m or less) cast, you have to get stuff done pretty quickly or it’s game over. It’s hard but as long as that fly is not moving directly towards the fish, you’re in with a shot.
I had none of that awesomeness today. It just plain didn’t happen. Short straw.
I’ve heard, as I’m almost sure you have, that your best shot at a spotted grunter is on an overcast day, with a bit of colour in the water. I think the former is wrong, and the latter also wrong. Well, mostly. If all the grunter fishing you do is based on surface fishing, my condolences, but the above holds true. I caught my PB in the pouring rain. (As an aside, surface fishing for grunter is mostly a blind fishing affair, but in my limited experience, targeting tailers directly with surface flies increases the odds in your favour.)
I look for bright, cloudless days and almost exclusively fish in clear water. I’ve caught a few fish on glassy calm days, but a breeze can be very helpful. While I didn’t catch a fish today, sight-fishing conditions were perfect. Ironically, the breeze both helped and sabotaged my efforts. Wind, if you’ll forgive me stating the obvious, influences fly fishing success in several ways. First and most obvious in this case is that the chop on the water helps to conceal your cast. The fly landing on the water is much less obvious, as is the line lying on the water. The chop breaks up the line’s shadow, which in glassy conditions can be a presentation killer.
Secondly, said chop does not affect sighting opportunities as negatively as you might imagine, and in fact can provide a window through the surface even on days with scattered cloud. Clouds can destroy visibility, but, chop** on the water means that at least the white reflection on the surface is broken. You can see through the surface as though spying on your secretary through your office window blinds. Useful, because you can’t only fish on perfect days. You’d fish twice a year, all things considered..
Another thing I had more than enough time to ponder today is the angle of approach. In good conditions, and by that I mean clear skies, you’ll have good visibility all around you at lunch time. But outside of that time, you will invariably find that visibility is best to one side of you. Focussing your sight fishing efforts there is rather an obvious thing, but you’ll need some nerve to ignore what’s going on everywhere else. Fish tailing or otherwise making their presence known outside of your window of ideal visibility can drive you nuts. But it is so often too late to dig your feet out of the sand, turn around and get a good presentation, and we all know how much use it is to chase after grunter. And yet, even if you stick to the rules, you can run into problems. Today, my window of visibility in the afternoon just happened to be in the same direction the wind was blowing from, all 30km/h of it. Attempting to make a fifteen foot leader with a weightless fly turn over into that is enough to make you weewee in your waders.
The best advice I can give is to take note (this may take a few sessions on the water, because it does vary with varying conditions,) of how the angle of the sun influences that shifting window of visibility at different times of the day. On the flat in question, visibility is best north to west in the morning, 360 degrees at midday, and south-east in the afternoon (come to think of it, logic suggests that this will be the same everywhere, although I still suggest you see for yourself). Now this may sound silly, because you must fish when you can, you can’t always predict these things accurately, and sometimes you’re surprised to find that visibility is so awesome that it’s the last thing to worry about. But given the above ideas, it does become possible to choose a day where you could cast with the wind, into your visibility window. Too much time on weather apps? Maybe, but doing whatever it takes has never hurt a grunter fisher, especially if he or she is open to accepting a helping hand. Like I would have been today.
Lastly, an observation from my previous session, when everything worked out fine compared to today. In early 2020, when I first tested Shawn (my favourite dodgy grunter pattern,) I found the fish very responsive to a simple, steady retrieve made up of short, sharp strips. But in 2021 and ’22, I’ve had to get a bit more creative. Why, I don’t know, but I really enjoy how it worked out. The straight retrieve got lots of interest, but few eats. I realised: “You are not trying hard enough to tell that fish what to do.” Since then, I have tried to bring some intuition to the game. It’s all reactionary, cause and effect. I now pay closer attention than ever to the fish’s reaction to the fly, to which I then make the fly react. A fish that turns away from a straight retrieve gets himself a little pause. This will often make him look, if not eat. Best have your gorgeous falcon eyes sharp when you do this, because a grunt eating a fly on the pause is very easy to miss. It’s all body language, and you just have to learn it. Look at fin movement, a sudden stop, or a flash of lips. I’ll just leave it at that because I’m not paying your dues for you. You can’t take pants from a hobo. Anyway, if the pause doesn’t do the trick but the fish doesn’t bolt, I give that fly a short, sharp strip, imitating the caradoid reflex (fancy talk for a shrimp or prawn stripping his moer, or having the fright of his life, resulting in a sharp kick of the tail in an effort to escape.) That last little jerk on the line has resulted in a few crazy eats, with fish turning around in their tracks and murdering the fly.
I can see that by the end of this series we’ll have bruised more sacred cows than a Delhi taxi driver, but that’s where it’s at for me. I try to approach things scientifically, but not quite in the way you may think. I think it’s Tom Sutcliffe who said or quoted, and I paraphrase, that you should never be too adamant about anything related to fishing. I don’t know if he realised at the time, but that right there is a mantra to live by, the very essence of scientific thinking. The point is that science knows that it isn’t infallible. It is absolutely required that it remains falsifiable: open to peer review, and ready to stand corrected when needs be. In that vein, I will spend some time over my next few sessions testing sand prawn patterns. I have in the past suggested that grunter don’t have a visual search image for sand prawns, given the way that they eat them. But I’d love to be wrong about that. The problem with that is, a fish eating a sand prawn fly is mere evidence – not conclusive proof – that they know what sand prawns look like. Consistent, repeatable results are proof, and on sand that is hard to obtain. But I’ll take what I can get. Always expect the unexpected, and remember that grunter gotta eat, even if nobody pays them to eat our flies. Today sucked. Or did it?
*If you’re twenty four and you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ve been there, spring chicken.
**Never thought I’d write anything containing the word “chop” so many times, but here we are.
P.S. Next time we’ll talk flies, I promise-ish.