Pioneer River

Catching a sooty grunter in the Pioneer River, Steve Cooper

Fishing from a canoe is one of the best ways to get close and personal with the environment. Even when the fish are small, catching them from a canoe is both challenging and rewarding.

With that in mind, I jumped at the opportunity to fish the Pioneer River with Mackay fishing guide Arthur Lovern. Arthur knew I was keen to catch ‘chimney sweeps’ (aka sooty grunter), and he said the Pioneer was ideal.

We launched the two-man canoe just out of Mirani, about a 40 min drive west of Mackay. Even though Teemburra Dam, about 15 km south, was down to about 20 per cent capacity, the Pioneer River was as high as Arthur had seen it other than in flood.

Access is easy. Drive over the bridge at Mirani, turn left at the first turn off and follow the track down to the river. Our launching place was just below the rail bridge, a popular area with swimmers.

The river has a good covering of lily pads in shallow areas, and even though the canoe had an electric motor on the stern, we paddled downstream for half a kilometre until we were out of the lilies and the water was deeper.

Arthur said the sooties school under the cover of cluster fig trees. These trees have an orange fruit that grows off the trunk. When the fruit fall into the river, the sooties devour them. We cast our poppers close to the timber and wound them back with a slow, jerky retrieve.

Sooties also hang under snags, particularly those popular with birds, because the fish feed on the bird droppings. We went downstream for about 5 km, casting lures at white-stained snags and under the overhanging cover provided by the branches of fig trees. The water was so clear the pebbles could be counted on the riverbed and turtles could be seen swimming beneath the canoe. In the clear areas between lily pads where the comb-crested jacanas were feeding, distinctive double bumps of platypus ruffled the surface. I counted at least 12 in the first hour.

However, there wasn’t much to see in the way of fish. We ventured up a small tributary called Macgregor Creek, a water Arthur optimistically said had never failed to produce sooties. It has now.

‘Let’s go upriver and see if we can catch a few in the pools above the bridge,’ Arthur suggested.

The high water hid large boulders that Arthur normally stood on to fish. A couple of times he got out of the canoe to push it through narrow ways over shallow water. He wore shoes to do this, explaining there was a fish in the river called a bullrout that can inflict a serious wound if you stand on it.

Fish life started to improve almost as soon as we passed the bridge. Schools of bony bream and banded grunter became apparent, and soon we were seeing large schools of sooties.

We trolled our minnow lures along the longer, deep stretches and when at last our first sooty came to the boat we both heaved a sigh of relief. Like any drought, once broken the rest is easy and more sooties joined the party.

Trolling was the easiest way to fish and we trolled small bibbed minnows that dived to a couple of metres. The lures were set about 20 m behind the canoe and towed a little slower than walking pace.

We paddled or motored our way several kilometres upriver until a wall of rock barred our progress. At this point, we got out of the canoe and proceeded to fish around the rock pools against a backdrop of running water, eucalypt-lined riverbanks and green mountain ranges, with azure kingfishers, swallows and sea-eagles adding to the experience. In the rock pools and riffles upstream, we cast small poppers across the runs, letting them drift downstream before retrieving. The biggest fish landed probably didn’t weigh more than a kilogram, but the fishing was stimulating and the surface strikes in the clear, shallow water were spectacular.

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