The terms "Holy Grail" and "Fish of a thousand casts" have been flung around excessively in the world of fly fishing lately. So much so that it's almost hard to take them seriously…
When a group of accomplished anglers who are well respected spend an inordinate amount of time and effort to catch one species and they label said species as the "holy grail", rest assured that the label is authentic
There is a specific group of fly fishers, who thrive on targeting "hard to get" fish. They will spend a 12-hour day on the water and come back smiling because on that day the fish reacted a little different to their fly, excited regardless of the fact that the end result was a blank. For them, it is as much about the hunt as it is about the prize. It's safe to say that the Spotted Gunter has firmly cemented its place as a bucket list species and "holy grail" target in the South African fly fishing fraternity and a few hardcore anglers have pioneered techniques to successfully target this elusive quarry on fly.
The Breede River, Western Cape.
The species first peeked my interest about 3 years ago while on holiday in the Southern Cape. I found myself right in the middle of a group of tailing Grunter, ankles deep in mud casting a Chartreuse Clouser at pre-school Leeries (Garrick), chasing baby mullet in the shallows. Having read a few articles on Grunter I instantly recognized what the distinct white tails were but nothing could have prepared me for the visual and audible chaos that ensued.
I had an image in my head of what tailing fish looked like on a shallow sand or mud flat and I always imagined an attractive floor gymnast gracefully gliding along and slowly kicking up into a handstand, holding it perfectly for a brief second, followed by an easy dismount before carrying on without missing a beat. When the Grunter were tailing it was more like an angry water polo player trying to drown his opponent and quickly swimming away from the crime scene before the ref could spot him. Somehow I managed to tie on a small Mud Charlie while tails were thrashing around me, leaving clouds of mud as evidence that something was there and for the rest of that holiday I spent every incoming and dropping tide casting at those clouds with not even so much as a tug in the line. The easiest way to explain my experience with Grunter would be to compare it to a ninja bomb, you know the ones from those terrible 80's martial arts films. The ninja would kick the sh@t out of his opponent and then quickly disappear in a cloud of smoke leaving the victim dazed and confused. I was the victim in this story and oddly enough I wanted more.
I would have to wait 3 years before getting another shot at those elusive spotted flats ninjas but this time I had some expert hands to show me the ropes and to share the secrets of the Grunter clan. I was invited by Garden Route fly fishing legend Henkie Altena from Fly.Fish to spend a few days at a brand new fly fishing camp on the Breede River, a venture that he initiated with one of the local farmers in the area who happened to be fly fishing nut. So I jumped on a plane and made my way down to the Cape, with the idea to film a show on Grunter fishing for the WildFly fishing series. Crazy… I know.
Karoolskraal Fly Fishing Camp, Breede River.
The Karoolskraal Fly Fishing camp is situated right on the banks of the Breede River 15 minutes outside the town of Witsand. Attie Gunter is a 4th generation farmer who owns the farm on which the camp is built and fly fishing is as much a passion for him as it is for Henkie, together they have built something really special. Along with Henkie's right-hand man Bjorn you have the ultimate hosts and the friendliest down to earth bunch of guys I have come across. Henkie manages the day to day of the camp and guides the groups on the river, Bjorn, who is also keen fly fisher, prepares amazing meals and desserts from a small kitchen tent and kept us well fed while Attie always finds the time between his duties on the farm to pop in, share a few stories and cast a line. We were also joined by two pioneers of the Grunter game, protea angler MC Coetzer and Grunter legend Jannie Visser. To be honest, at first I was a little nervous to be fishing alongside the masters, being a complete Grunter novice, but they were more than willing to share their knowledge and I learned more in a couple of days than what I would have in years of trying to figure it out on my own.
The days were spent wading the mud flats looking for tailing fish, mud clouds or any other indication of Grunter feeding, when we spot any activity we would fish the area with floating prawn imitations, casting towards deeper water where mud clouds are visible, slowly retrieving the fly and keeping a sharp eye for rises or fish swirling underneath. From our first outing, it was apparent that this was going to be a patience game and that a few things would have to be executed perfectly along with a bit of luck if you are going to catch a Grunter on fly.
The night activities were entertaining, to say the least, Attie would come down and join us for the evening and after a few cold beverages around the roaring campfire, Attie and Henkie would decode Grunter on fly. Attie would kick things off by saying "vannaand gat ons hierdie Grunter ding uitsort" which loosely translate to "tonight we sort this Grunter thing, once and for all". Theories about Grunter behavior are thrown around camp, some are bizarre and others make more sense but it really makes no difference since no one keeps notes and the ideas and theories are thrown out with the empty bottles of whiskey and beer the next morning.
Sorting out the "Grunter Thing"
On day 3, armed with a little more confidence and lot more information I set out to "Die Plaat" a large mud flat just upstream from camp. The South Easter was blowing hard at our backs as we waded out to the edge of the flat. Immediately we spotted fish tailing a few hundred meters from us and slowly we worked our way to where the action was. I started making a few casts in the area where we had seen the fish earlier when Shaun (cameraman and editor at GT Productions) spotted a fish moving about 20 meters away from us. As I began my cast in the direction Shaun was pointing in, the fish started to tail hard in the deeper water kicking up puffs of mud around him. I landed a good cast in the area and started a slow double hand retrieve focusing on the floating prawn at the end of my 10lb tippet. It didn't take long for the prawn to get sucked up and my line to start peeling off my reel. It was an incredible feeling and I tried to savor the moment as much as possible, my first Grunter on fly.
My first Grunter on Fly.
I finally tailed the fish and could breathe a sigh of relieve. We took a few pics and quickly got the fish back in the water for a safe release. I managed to land another Grunter just before sunset to close out an incredible days fishing and one I will remember for a very long time. That night in camp I was privileged to take part in another Karooolskraal ritual. The honors board where anglers get to add a tag when they land a Grunter, Kob or 30cm + Garrick on fly is a permanent fixture right in the center of camp and after one season the boards are filling up with some amazing catches that include a Kob over a meter in length and the first ever grand slam, all three species in one day. The guys in camp were just as stoked as I was and after a few beers, I could add my own bit to sorting out the ongoing Grunter mystery.
Honored to have my name on the Board
I would like to thank Henkie, Attie and Bjorn for the amazing experience and the opportunity to fish such a magnificent piece of water for an incredible species as well as MC and Jannie for all the info and help. I will definitely be back next season.
Stay tuned for my next blog where I will share some insight from a rookie's perspective on what I have learned about targeting Grunter on Fly.