Although they prefer rapidly flowing waters with a rocky bottom and sparse aquatic plant cover, it can be found in a variety of habitats including still waters which can be in turn either clear or turbid. The sooty grunter is endemic to northern Australia from the upper Burdekin River in Queensland across the “Top End” of the Northern Territory and into the Kimberly Region of Western Australia. Sooty grunters have been successfully stocked in Lake Tinaroo on the Atherton Tableland, with spectacular growth rates achieved as a result of the enormous amount of natural food occurring in the lake.
The sooty grunter is a relatively large species of grunter which is brownish-grey to sooty-black with darker scale margins, although some specimens may show golden blotches on the sides. The juveniles possess dark blotches on the anal fin and the soft-rayed part of the dorsal fin. There is a discontinuous lip fold on the ventral side of the lower mandible. As they grow some individuals develop thick, fleshy lips. They have a moderately deep body which is oblong to oval in shape, laterally compressed and a dorsal profile which bulges between the nape and the start of the dorsal fin. Like the barramundi they possess serrated edges on their gill plates that can easily cut the hands of unwary anglers.
It is an omnivorous species which has been recorded feeding on frogs, insects, worms, crustaceans, algae, plant roots and palm berries. They spawn during the summer as the water levels rise as a result of the monsoon.
Sooty grunter can grow to a maximum length of around 50cm and weigh as much as 4kg although most sooties encountered throughout northern Australia average around 30 – 40cm in length. World record fish have come from Lake Tinaroo but most river caught fish however, are in the one to two kilogram range.
The sooty grunter is an aggressive species that will take large lures meant for barramundi and are very strong fighters once hooked. Any fly designed for bass should prove irresistible to a sooty and, although a proven success, I am sure there are better flies than the ‘Koolatong Pandanus Special’ mentioned in the Editor’s Message.
A widely spread and abundant species in the “Top End”, the sooty is generally neglected by most local fishermen in favour of the more glamourous barramundi and saratoga. Southern visitors can find these fun fish in waters close to larger centres and easily accessed with a conventional vehicle.
The sooty has a lot to recommend it.