There is no doubt that family fishing is becoming more and more popular every season. Boat companies are now building small boats to suit estuary and coastal fishing that are more affordable than ever paving the way for the family man to include mum and the kids in his piscatorial adventures. Our coastal estuary’s are also becoming more and more popular with easy access for small craft, shelter from all but the worst weather and local governments and councils improving access all the time. Depending on where you live there is always a host of species available in any estuary environment but I doubt there would be water anywhere in the Southern half of Australia that doesn’t include a species of garfish. The Garfish would certainly have to be one of my personal favourite fish to catch, they can be caught by anglers young and old, novices and experienced alike and offer excellent sport on ultra light tackle, some would go as far as to call them the Mini Marlin of the estuary world.
Not only are they a staple catch but are a fine table fish to boot, just filleted straight up, battered and fried or even done as fish cakes they exhibit a sweet delicate flavour worthy of any fine dining experience.
Southern Sea Garfish
The particular species of garfish that is common to Australia’s southern waters is the Southern Sea Garfish or Hyporhamphus melanochir.
It is found in most Southern Australian states both out in the open ocean and throughout our estuary systems. Predominantly an herbivore the Garfish feed mainly on varying species of sea grass, algal filaments and small amounts of crustaceans. They spawn in shallow sea grass beds throughout the summer months, October to March, and the juveniles can stay in the shallow inshore waters for up to 2 years. They average in size between 30-40cm in and can grow up to 50-60cm, weighing up to 600gm and are 3-4 years old by this stage of their lives.
Garfish tend to favour areas that are shallow with good access to seagrass beds, usually areas surrounding channels in between sand bars and banks are the perfect environment where there is some broken weed beds. Here you have shallow water, plenty of seagrass and on the incoming tide some good current to carry your berley trail and keep the fish swimming behind your boat. I have found that the incoming tide from about half in to full tide is about the best time to chase the Gars. The garfish can often be seen swimming right up on the shallow sand flats and large schools of fish will jump out of the water as if they are being chased by something larger.
One of the most important factors to successfully catching Garfish is the use of berley to attract the fish and keep them in the immediate vicinity of your boat. A berley mixture can be as simple as a can of cat food mixed with some bread and thrown in handfuls over the side of the boat or as elaborate as a home made concoction of fish oils, fish scraps, breadcrumbs, meal, pollard, chicken pellets and some secret herbs and spices. One important point to be aware of with your berley is not to make the pieces too large as this will only serve to feed the fish and they will soon eat their fill and move on. Having large chunks of berley floating on the surface is not that desirable either as it serves to attract passing Sea Gulls and other birds, as soon as they fly over head the Garfish will spook easily and you will have to work that little bit harder to congregate the school again. Mix about 2 hand fulls of the berley mix and half a cup full of tuna oil to a berley pot and lower into the water over the side of the boat, this creates a cloud of fine particles in the water as well as an oil slick on the surface. As there are no large food items for the garfish to feed on they tend to swim around getting a good whiff of the berley and oil and become quite agitated and enter into a feeding frenzy. Provided you keep a continuous stream of this berley mixture in the water the fish will stay attracted to the area for long enough to catch your feed.
Once the garfish have been attracted by the berley the easiest and simplest method for capture is to use a small long shank hook, size 12 or 10 are perfect, with a small amount of bait thrown placed on the down over the barb. This rig is then thrown into the berley trail un weighted and left move about naturally. I have found that any white coloured flesh such as small pieces of squid or chicken skin work well and stay on the hook, as do maggots or gents. When using gents as bait, it is best to hook them through the tail end not the head end, this way they stay alive and wriggle longer.
If the garfish are high in the water column and are close to the waters surface than the use of a small float will aid in keeping your bait up in the strike zone. A small 1” bobber float, small blackfish float or my personal favourite a 20cm quill float will all do an adequate job of keeping your bait suspended about a foot or so under the water. I prefer the quill float to the others as it lays flat on the waters surface and only sit up when pulled under the water, is therefore less affected by wind and also offers little or no resistance to the fish as it pulls it under the water when taking the bait. This is important when targeting garfish as being a timid fish will often not take the bait properly if its feels too much resistance and cannot pull the float under the water.
There are two other techniques for catching garfish that are becoming more and more popular and offer great sport; these are soft plastics and fly-fishing.
Small soft plastics such as small Squidgy Wrigglers or any 2” Grub Tail plastic in white colour or as close to white as you can get. Used in conjunction with a small 1gm and 1.5gm jig head and worked erratically and constantly through the berley trail it is a dynamite technique and a lot of fun on light tackle. The garfish can get quite aggressive once fired up with the berley and will attack the plastic lure surprisingly hard.
For those looking for a bit more of a challenge a fly rod and small flies such as small minnow patterns in predominantly white colours or a fly that mimics a small maggot will also catch fish. I have found a few retrieval techniques work with the flies, either a slow draw and stop letting the fly rise and fall in the water column or if the fish are particularly aggressive short quick strips close to the surface will draw strikes.
Garfish are a great species to target to introduce kids to the wonderful world of fishing. They can be caught on a wide variety of tackle the cheapest being just a plain and simple 4 ½” hand line. These are available from most good tackle stores and come rigged with a small hook and sinker, with the addition of a small float can be dangled off the side of any boat or jetty.
Any good quality light spin outfit will work well for garfish, rods that are 6’6” with light tips and small reels are well suited. Longer rods with nibble style tips are about the best type of rod for the job, 7’ to 9’ with a soft action to so as not to pull the hooks from the fishes small mouths. Small 1000-2500 sized light spinning reels spooled up with some quality 4 or 6lb monofilament line make a dynamite garfish outfit.
For targeting Garfish with soft plastics any outfit used for chasing Bream will be perfect for the job. Rods in the 7’ to 7’6” range matched with 1000 size spinning reels, spooled up with 3-4lb braid and a 4lb leader make for a top class outfits and are great fun to use.
Any fly rod outfit used for chasing stream trout will be ideal for casting flies to Garfish, try to stay on the lighter side around a #4 weight should be more than enough for chasing Garfish.
There is no doubt that Garfish are one of the most succulent fish you will ever eat. The flesh is white, delicate and very sweet and requires very little messing with to create a fantastic meal. A good sized Garfish will yield a couple of decent sized fillets from each size, decent for such a skinny fish anyway, with a razor sharp knife a quick skin and de bone of the rib and pin bones will leave a couple of large fish finger sized fillets. A light crumb and shallow fry or a dip in some tempura batter and deep fried served with some sweet chili sauce and a side of chips is about as good a meal as any top class restaurant could serve up.
Garfish are a fantastic little species to get you back to fishing basics especially through the winter months when there is not much else happening, They are also a perfect species for kids to start their fishing adventures with as they are easy to catch and by using floats it’s a bit more visually stimulating. As a parent there is nothing more exciting than watching your child go wild when the little float disappears under the waters surface and they tighten up to a fish that performs some aerial antics.