The grunter has for a long while been a much sought-after fish. I remember that, back in the beach-driving era, we would make the 600-odd kilometre journey from Johannesburg to Saint Lucia in order to target this awesome fish around the river mouth. Unfortunately, this trip is no longer possible; now we have to rely on catching these fish in other areas – around river mouths and in estuaries along the East Coast. The spotted grunter is a fish that can cause all kinds of frustration, due to its shy feeding habits. I have given some information about it below, hoping that it can help you successfully catch one of these beautiful fish.
The grunter has a very distinct shape that can only be described as oblong; its head has a long sloping forehead and a rather pointed snout, and the body appears brilliant silver with a mother-of-pearl haze.
The most distinguishing feature of the grunter is the rows of small dark brown to black spots that cover the upper half of the body, extending onto the dorsal fin.
The head, however, is not spotted; a large black spot is also present on the gill covers. Distinct thick lips surround the small mouth, and strong pharyngeal teeth can be found on the muscular pads in the esophagus. This fish has an extremely sharp gill, otherwise known as the preoper-culum, which can easily slice your hands to pieces, so take extra care when handling it.
Grunter seem to enjoy shallow coastal areas, where they usually feed in huge shoals. During August and September, Saint Lucia on the Zululand coast used to experience an annual grunter run – literally thousands of grunter would congregate, attracting anglers from all over the country to have their piece of the action. Since the mouth closed, this phenomenon has been absent.
wLet’s hope that the rains soon come and cause the opening of the mouth that will (hopefully) bring this amazing occurrence back.
The grunter enjoy feeding on sea lice, prawns, cracker shrimps, mud prawns and many other crustations. These fish reach maturity at around 40cm, when they are approximately three years old.
The spotted grunter is found along the entire East Coast; although predominantly a summer fish, it is abundant in the Cape once the summer water temperatures rise.
It feeds in the surf zone as well as in estuaries where one can often witness this fish ‘blowing’ sand prawns out of their burrows – also known as tailing. Grunters have the ability to force a jet of water through their mouths in order to dislodge food items from their hiding place.
Being nutrient-rich and full of the grunter’s favorite food items, estuaries are used by these fish as huge feeding grounds, this being very common in most of the estuaries along the east coast, especially the estuaries of the Eastern Cape and Western Cape.
Early morning and late afternoon are top times to target this species in the surf zone; in estuaries, their feeding patterns are very much tide-dependant. With them usually feeding on the shallow prawn banks at high tide, a high tide corresponding with either late afternoon or early morning is probably the most ideal time as this is when they feed most actively.
In the surf zone, these fish enjoy river mouths where they feed as they are entering or leaving the estuary as the tide pushes and drops. Shallow isolated banks are also very good areas to target them. In the estuaries, shallow prawn-filled sandbanks, particularly on the high tide, are tops, especially on a pushing tide corresponding with the onset of darkness. Best bait types for the spotted grunter would be sea lice, chokka blob baits, prawns, chokka sardine combination bait, sand prawns and – last, but definitely not least – thin sardine bait. In the estuaries, the best bait would be sand prawns followed by mud prawns.
Grunter are extremely skittish so light tackle is of utmost importance when specifically targeting them; in the surf zone, a medium to light rod would be best with .40mm mainline, or even going as light as .35mm. Leaders should be very light but preferably have good abrasion resistance as the grunter has extremely sharp gill plates.
Considering that one usually targets this fish on the sand, there is no need to worry about being cut off on rocks – a leader of .57mm to .65mm works very well. Reels also need not be too big as these fish very rarely exceed 5kg, with an exceptional fish being over 7kg (most are in the region of 1.5kg to 3kg). A good drag is essential as this fish is a strong fighter and can part line as it darts off, particularly if the drag is sticky.
In estuaries, the lighter one fishes, the better your results; here, a light to medium spinning rod is ideal with mainline between 6lb and 12lb. I enjoy using a light Siglon Fluorocarbon line of around 15lb as a leader, for protection from those sharp gills.
This fish can at times be extremely wary, feeding very softly and often removing bait from your hook without even a faint movement on the line; at other times, it gives a little tap-tap, then grabs your bait and tears off; once hooked, it fights very hard, darting from side to side and often taking a last strong run just as you think the fight is over.
This is where many are lost as the hook pulls out if too much pressure is applied. In the estuary these fish give a light tap-tap and suck the bait in, racing off as you set the hook. Usually, one would be using smaller hooks and lighter line so not too much pressure should be applied, especially once close to the boat or shore.
Traces are not as important as hook size when specifically targeting these fish, as they have a small mouth, thus small hooks are recommended; as they are shy feeders, one has to use much lighter hook snoods. I enjoy using ,57 fluoro-carbon as my hook snood, approximately 700 mm long and attached to a small No. 5 power swivel, preferably with a 3/0 to 4/0 chemically sharpened hook on the business end. The sinker line should be slightly longer than the hook line to facilitate casting. I personally prefer using a cone sinker if conditions allow; if the bait moves a little, hopefully rolling around and covering more water, grapnel sinkers also work.
As for estuary fishing – a 1/0 to 4/0 hook can be used with a light hook snood. Here I prefer a sliding set-up with approximately 700mm to 800mm of 15lb line as a hook snood – sometimes lighter if the grunter are really skittish – a 2/0 chemically sharpened hook with a tiny No. 6 swivel and above this a sliding barrel sinker with a small bead to protect the knot from the sinker damaging it during the cast. Another very successful trace is, in fact, no trace at all, only a hook on the end of your main line – usually 6lb line with a Daiichi-DH55 hook, with a single sand prawn hooked through the tail.
I use this when the grunter are very shy, in clean water, drifting it over shallow prawn banks inbetween tailing grunter. With this light set-up you will lose a few fish by being cut off on their gills but the number of bites will make up for these losses. Traces vary slightly: when using this tiny hook, be very careful not to apply too much pressure. We have landed some very good fish using this method – I’ve seen one of around 4kg being landed on this tiny hook.
These fish are often present in estuaries so silting, dredging and pollution plays a huge role in the survival of this species. Regulation size limits are 400mm and the restriction on bag is five fish per person per day.