Six-spined, Chinaman, horseshoe, toothbrush and fanbellied are just a few of the species that comprise the large family of fish known as leatherjackets.
Some fishers class them as a pest. They are often difficult to hook and great at biting through line and even light gauge hooks. For me though, the trusty old leatherjacket is a great species that I love to target. They come in a huge array of colours, shapes and sizes and are generally quite challenging to catch. Best of all, leatherjackets of any species just taste great!
I suppose another thing that makes them so appealing is that they can be found in such a wide variety of locations, especially in the cooler temperate waters os southern Australia.
The species most commonly encountered by Victorian anglers are the Chinaman leatherjacket and the six-spined leatherjacket. The Chinaman is often quite large and aggressive, and tends to inhabit the deeper offshore reefs. The colourful six-spined leatherjacket can be found anywhere from the deep reefs to rocky coastline, and into bays and estuaries. It is not uncommon to catch Chinaman and six-spined ‘leatheries’, as well as several different species, on the same day, in the same location.
No matter what the species all leatherjackets have the same distinguishing features: a spike on top of their head and that famously rough sandpaper-like skin. Both these features offer protection from predators and the environment they live in.
Being built with a heavy armour-like skin, that even a sharp knife has to work to get through, enables leatherjackets to live and feed pretty much where ever they feel like. Their favourite locations, however, are areas of heavy rock or reef and around wharves and jetties.
The main feature that makes a location appealing to a leatherjacket is abundant growth in the form of weed and important food items such as barnacles, mussels and other shellfish. Other key areas for them are around wharves or piers, as the pylons tend to get good growth on them, creating a prime feeding area for the leatherjackets.
Asides from reefs and manmade locations, leatherjackets can also be found living around ribbon weedbeds, especially if they are in an area with a bit of tide flow.
As well as the spike on the head and the rough leather like skin, all leatherjackets are endowed with a small but very powerful mouth equipped with prominent and very sharp teeth. They use this dental gear for chopping food items from the rock and weed. These teeth also have no problem biting through heavy fishing line and even light gauge hooks.
With this mouth, leatherjackets are able to eat and live on a wide variety of food items, ranging from weed to crustaceans and molluscs. When choosing baits to target them, however, they show a distinct liking for baits such as prawns and Bass yabbies, as well as hard shell baits like pipis and mussels. While these baits are great, they are also very soft, which enables the leatherjackets to get them off the hook easily. To top it off, the bites you will feel while this is going on are usually very timid.
To combat these bait stealers, I always like to have some squid on hand. Leatherjackets love it, and because it is much tougher they have to work harder to get it off the hook. This gives you more time and a better chance to hook them.
Having a faint bite, you would think leatherjackets are a timid fish. To the contrary, they are quite aggressive and make short work of any available food.
What makes the leatherjacket such as good bait thief is their small mouth and sharp teeth, combined with an upper and lower fin toward the tail. In conjunction with their pectoral fins, these fins gives them an ability to swim forwards, backwards, and hold dead still just by using them rather than their tail. In turn, this allows them to quietly next to your bait while munching it from your hook. For this reason, areas with a bit of tide flow make it harder for them to sit still, so they will attack baits harder, making it easier to feel bites.
It’s no good just feeding leatherjackets because it’s you who wants the feed! Luckily by choosing the right rig and tackle you can have a high success rate at hooking them. Best of all, if you get one there are usually plenty more around.
On the offshore reefs, leatherjackets bite aggressively and are usually much bigger in size and easier to hook. For these fish, the standard offshore paternoster rig is ideal. If they are around in big numbers though, it can be worth changing to one of those commercially-available wire paternoster rigs, as it will save you from lots of bite offs (leatherjackets tend to bite at any scraps of bait anywhere on the line). Hook patterns for the bigger fish tend to be either longshank hooks in size 2/0–1, or circle patterns such as the Owner Mutu Light hook in sizes 1–4. Another top pattern is the Gamakatsu Shiner pattern in sizes 1–2.
On the inshore areas you will tend to find smaller fish, so hook size should be reduced. In this situation I favour a longshank pattern in size 6–8, or a circle or shiner style hook in a size 6. All of these hooks are great at preventing bite-offs and offer a good hook-up rate.
As for the rigs to use on the inshore areas, either in a boat or land-based there are two that work well. When there is a bit of tide, it’s hard to go past a paternoster rig with either one or two droppers. I do, however, like to keep the droppers short, around 5cm, as this gives you direct contact with your bait and helps you response to any bites.
The second rig that works well in no tide, from the rocks where the bottom is very snaggy, or dropping down against pylons, is a ball sinker running straight down to the hook.
While they wouldn’t be the toughest thing to ever be graced with fins, the old leatherjacket is a scrappy fighter that still puts up a decent struggle. They are often caught by accident as by-catch by anglers targeting species such as whiting, so rod and reel choice doesn’t have to too specific, just so long as it is light in action.
For land-based and inshore boat anglers targeting leatherjackets, a standard nibble tip outfit as used by Victorian anglers for whiting is perfect. The fine tip section is a great help for actually seeing the bites.
Rods should be matched to a small spinning reel loaded with either 6-10lb monfilament or, even better, 4lb braid. The braid’s lack of stretch makes it even easier to detect bites.
On the deep offshore reefs leatherjackets are even more of a by-catch, so tackle selection should be in line with whatever will suit the intended target species at the time.
If your wondering if it’s worth berleying for leatherjackets, the answer is a definite yes. They love a free feed and any fish in the nearby area will soon home in on the berley, often getting right in behind the pot if it is placed near the bottom.
When fishing directly below the boat or straight down against a pylon with a ball sinker straight to a hook, let it hit the bottom, then lift it up 30cm or so off the bottom, this way you will feel the bites and have more success with hooking leatherjackets.
Possibly one of the most under rated fish in the sea, leatherjackets make excellent eating, with very few bones and sweet delicate flesh. I personally like them best simply dusted in flour, then cooked in a pan with a little butter or olive oil.
For many people it seems they just don’t know how easy leatherjackets are to clean and prepare for eating. Trust me, once you see how you won’t be letting the bigger ones go. Just remember that with any leatherjacket you plan to keep, you will lose half of the fish in head and guts when you clean it, so it pays to only keep decent-sized ones.
Step 1. Make an incision behind the spike on top of their head. This is quite tough at the start and takes a bit of effort to get through, but then it gets easier.
Step 2. Cut until you reach the stomach of the fish then stop immediately
Step 3. This is the only messy bit but it’s very easy. Once you have made the cut, simply pull the head and body apart with a twisting tear. In one swift movement you will remove the head and all the stomach of the fish.
Step 4. This should leave you with a clean carcass that is ready for skinning.
Step 5. Next step is to remove the tough skin, which is the really easy part. Simply get your thumb in between the skin and the meat up near the top of the fish where you made the cut, then it’s simply a matter of grabbing the skin and pulling it back.
Step 6. Do a bit on each side – this will make the final process simple.
Step 7. Once you have done a bit down each side then grab the skin and pull it off the fish like a glove.
Step 8. There you have it, skin free sweet tasty meal. Leave the fins leave for cooking.
Williamstown (around the moored boats)
McHaffeys Reef (in Western Port).
Piers and wharves