Head for grunter waters – with a Z Claw
Curt Coetzee is reportedly the first angler to have successfully and consistently targeted grunter on topwater lures. We asked him to tell us a little about it.
How did grunter on topwater come about? Do you remember your first?
I remember the first grunter like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning at Swartkops River in Port Elizabeth, and I was fishing, unsuccessfully, for leerie. I noticed a swirl behind the Z Claw and immediately cast back to the same spot. Bang! It was on. It was only when I landed it that I realised what it was.
The general impression I got from the fishing forums and other anglers was that it was a fluke, something that can happen, but hardly ever does – definitely not a recognised way to fish for grunter.
At the time, I had only just started lure-fishing. I was fishing alone most days, and spent a lot of time on the internet reading up on and researching different retrieving techniques. I remember being quite prepared to part with heaps of cash just to be sure my action was correct. I found very little information locally, and much of what I tried, I learnt from overseas bass sites. Topwater fishing appealed to me, and I ended up fishing them almost exclusively. Based on what I was seeing overseas, I ended up fishing a little more slowly than I think would be considered normal.
I came across a picture of a Z Claw deep in a fish’s mouth and, after some reading, I wanted one immediately. I also liked the idea of throwing a topwater that wouldn’t be in every else’s bag, and the Z Claw certainly looked the real deal. This led me to Rolfe, who was importing them, and a bunch of other fantastic lures, at the time. The Z Claw was a hit straightaway at Swartkops, with the leerie.
Because lure-fishing was still very new to me, I had no pre-conceived ideas about grunter and, truthfully, had no idea they were not supposed to be targeted with topwaters. Luckily, I was blissfully unaware that what I was doing would be considered lunacy by most. However, it wasn’t long after the first one that I caught a second and a third. At the time, I definitely wasn’t targeting them, and was just happy to be fishing and catching. As I was fishing alone, there was no one around to say “don’t be stupid; you can’t catch grunter that way”.
A bit of luck led to the next few. I had just bought a boat and was on the river when the light started fading a little. I headed towards the club and anchored about 100m away at an arbitrary spot, chosen for no reason other than, from there, I could quickly get onto the slipway before the light faded completely. I had about 20 minutes before dark and, with pretty much the first cast, I caught a grunter. Within a few minutes I had five more. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew for sure it was no longer a fluke. These Swartkops River grunter were Z Claw-eaters. This specific spot became my first and last stop for pretty much every trip I did on the boat for the next two years. It seldom disappointed.
From the side, I found another good grunter area, again by accident. This spot used to be known for another Swartkops favourite, the skippy, and it was these that I was targeting when grunter after grunter swirled after and took the Z Claw. It was a massive learning curve at the time, as there was no one to bounce ideas off. Asking around was actually pointless, as everyone’s view seemed to be that it can’t be done.
One of the initial issues was converting the swirls into solid hook-ups. I tried a lot of different things, including changing leader lines, drag settings, swivels, assist hooks, single hooks and teasers. Ultimately, though, a stock-standard Z Claw or similar topwater, out of the box, works perfectly. Way more important turned out to be a variety of retrieves.
The next few years were spent targeting grunter on topwater almost exclusively. Along the way I met some insanely good lure fishermen, and many a day was spent exploring new grunter areas.
So you were successful because you didn’t know that grunters don’t eat topwaters! So how do you go about finding grunter?
This is the easy bit. Prawns generally equal grunter. On a low tide, their blowholes are easy to see. Once the tide starts pushing, they can be seen tailing, and in deeper water you can look for the tell-tale swirls of mud. Each river may have its own specific patterns; for example, in one specific river the grunter tend to feed in deeper water during the day, and to find them, you look for the mud swirls. Then as the light fades, they move into the shallower water and can be seen tailing all over the show. As you get to know your river, you can effectively go straight to your favourite spot and be almost guaranteed success.
Is there a particular water depth you tend to target?
There is no specific depth to focus on exclusively. It also varies from river to river and from spot to spot. Grunter will chase a topwater lure in a few centimetres of water, 8m metres and everything in between. In clean, deeper water, you can see them clearly in schools, almost always the biggest right in front, facing against the tide. They spend a surprising amount of time high up in the water column, no more than a foot from the surface. When you find them like this, six or more fish will chase your lure down at a time. In shallower water, they often chase a lure right up to your feet. Shy, my foot!
What other topwater lures have you found work for grunter?
The lure that has been the most successful for me is the Z Claw. It’s 10cm long and weighs 20g. I choose colours that I like and can see, but ultimately as far as grunter are concerned, I wouldn’t spend too much time focusing on colour. A lot of other lures also work, including the Xorus Patchinko, Rapala X-Rap, Mirrolure Top Dog, Storm Chug Bugs, to name a few (even a bit of foam, a hook and fly rod works, as a mate of mine will confirm).
Smaller lures (3cm to 5cm) work, but they cast terribly and often do not cause enough noise on the water to draw a grunter’s attention, particularly the bigger grunter. The bigger 9cm to 11cm lures are by far the most productive. On days when the water is clear, you can drift until you see a monster, flip the Z Claw next to or behind him, then watch how he turns to investigate the noise. Sometimes they will come flying from easily 10m away. Alternatively, once you have found a productive depth, you can cast a mile along that line and stay in the productive zone the whole retrieve, rather than the 20m to 30m cast a smaller lure allows.
Small lures can also be harder to work properly in rough and windy conditions, making them unnecessarily limiting. I have caught grunter on lures from 3cm up to 14cm long, but what has consistently worked best for me, in all conditions, is the Z Claw, and more recently the new Zombie lures (Z Killers).
What retrieves do you use?
The retrieve that seems to have become the most popular lately is the first one that worked for me: cast, then a sort of slow-twitch retrieve. This generally leads to a lot of interest and swirls, but can be the least effective in terms of hook-ups. The best is to vary it. When the grunter are around, you can use at least five different retrieve types and speeds, and when you find what works on the day, you will have many hours of fantastic fun ahead. The next day, though, be ready to change it up again.
How do grunter take the lures?
Grunter, like most fish I guess, are not the same every day. When you find them in schools, they can be a lot more aggressive. Here you can fish for them as if they were leerie, and the smash and take is incredible. On other days, you will hardly feel anything and, when you look again, the grunter is on. Sometimes the lure just gently and silently disappears from sight as the grunter takes it underwater.
Generally, though, the thing to watch for is swirls behind the lure. These become easier to see as you get to know what to look for. But there is many a day when grunter are anything but the shy prawn-eaters they are reputed to be. The take can be explosive, with grunter launching themselves at the lure in ways that would make a leerie and skippy envious.
They are definitely very inquisitive, and I have spent hours sight-casting at grunter, especially the bigger ones, and watching how they react. Sometimes they will come right up to the lure, with their heads mostly out of the water, nudge it a few times, move away, come back for a few more nudges, then either move away or suddenly just hammer it. I have told this story many times over a few beers at braais, and generally get the same “ja, ja what a nut” response, until the next day when we hop on the boat and there it is.
Grunter fight aggressively when taken on lure. A 30cm grunter often feels like one quite a bit bigger, and the 70cm to 80cm fork-length ones are a ballgame all on their own. My smallest was probably around 10cm. When they are taking sneakily, they often have no idea initially that they are hooked. Many of the smaller grunter, up to 40cm, will swim towards you at pace after snatching the lure, and keeping them hooked can be tricky.
How do tides affect your approach?
Grunter can be caught on both a pushing and dropping tide. If you are fishing the prawn banks, as soon as they are covered you can move in. In deeper water you can have fun regardless of the tide.
Can you summarise the things that have worked for you?
Looking for obvious signs of grunter.
Ensuring that my leaders, swivels, etc, don’t interfere with the lure’s action.
Trying to be extremely observant – at times their interest is very subtle.
Knowing exactly what my Z Claw looks like when retrieved in flat and rougher conditions; if anything looks even slightly different, most likely a grunter is there.
Finding some clean water and sight-fishing for them – doing this will help to dispel a lot of what is said about grunter being shy prawn-eaters. Seeing exactly how they react when they see/become aware of the lure will speed up the learning curve enormously and, most important, will get you away from using just the one retrieve for all situations.
Why the Z Claw in particular?
The Z Claw is simply a fantastic lure. Compared to other popular local topwater favourites, the Z Claw is expensive, but worth every cent. It can be retrieved slowly, medium-speed, flat-out, trolled, and it can also be made to dog-walk under the water – the kind of lure you can put on in the morning and cast all day with great success. There is hardly a river species that will not chase it down, and I have caught leerie, skippies, cob, kingies, bream, mullet and pick handles with it.
Memorable catches include a 10kg cob and metre-long skippies. More recently, Rolfe sent me a new lure called the Z Killer, which has been sourced as an alternative to the Z Claw. I was lucky enough to be involved in some of the early testing, and the final Z Killer range is simply incredible, a lure I think will end up being a must for every lure box.
Tell us about some memorable days. And is the grunter on topwater just a Swartkops thing?
There have been many, both in Port Elizabeth and East London. Days I remember well were the early days, standing with a mate in hectic rain, not a soul anywhere near the river, catching grunter after grunter on topwater. The excitement and fun, despite the conditions, were fantastic. There was a lot to learn, many new areas to fish and each session brought new things to light. There is genuinely little better than figuring something out completely on your own or with close mates.
No matter how strong the wind or whatever the conditions, there was always a new area to try. The same spot could be fished on a howling west comfortably from the one side today, and from the other the next day on a strong east. Then the days when it seemed practically every cast was a fish, anywhere from 50 to 80 fish in a session. One of these days was captured on GoPro and, watching it afterwards, you’d think it was two kids on the boat, with all the laughing and screaming. It’s also the day I learnt just how much I swear while fishing.
Nothing beats topwater fishing, in my book, and, in particular, topwater grunter fishing. It’s definitely not just a Swartkops River thing; it has worked for me on easily 10 different rivers.
Topwater is an incredible way to target this amazing species. In the past few years, I have caught and released well over 1 000 topwater-caught grunter, and encourage all lure-anglers to do the same.