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Surgeon fish: The cutting edge
  |  First Published: October 2006



The Harbour has been producing some sensational surgeon fish action lately so I’ll take this opportunity to shed some light on this mystery fish.

Despite their abundance, surgeons are rarely seen by recreational fishos for a few reasons. They are weed-eaters, which limits their availability to only luderick anglers. They also have very robust grazing teeth which will nip easily through the light mono leaders used by luderick fishers. I estimate that half of the surgeons we hook nip straight through the leader virtually the second we put the pressure on.

To make matters worse, if they are lip-hooked and are unable to bite through the line, they are dirty fighters – as bad as any king or GT – and half of them will run you into the structure and bust you off. Id bet that most of the bust offs that luderick fishos attribute to drummer are actually surgeons.

They are rarely caught by ocean rock luderick fishers and seem to have a preference for the quieter waters of the harbours and bays. However, my friend Jack Hannan, who spends a lot of time snorkelling, tells me that they are common off the ocean rocks but are generally in deeper water out wide, putting them out reach of the average luderick rig.

Given that all the surgeons we have caught have been on standard luderick methods and baits with a few luderick mixed with the catches, it appears that it is very much a location thing.

I’ve pulled hundreds of luderick from Sow and Pigs, the Wedding Cakes and other locations without ever getting a stray surgeon. The only hint I can give you is to look for either white rock (bald sandstone boulders grazed clean by urchins) or vertical structures like sharp reef edges or deep-water jetties.

Surgeons are powerful fish, with kilo specimens a real challenge on standard blackfish gear. According to the Australian Museum website : “The sawtail surgeonfish (Prionurus microlepidotus ) can be recognised by its grey to brownish coloration and the row of five to six black scutes on the rear of the body. It grows to 70 cm. Adults are found mostly on coastal rocky reefs. Juveniles are usually seen in estuaries and coastal bays. This species occurs in tropical and warm temperate waters of the western Pacific. In Australia it is known from northern Queensland to southern New South Wales, plus Lord Howe Island.”

HANDLE WITH CARE

The tail scutes are scalpel-sharp which, I imagine, is where the name came from, and the flesh is pearl white and delicious. The dorsal and anal fin spines are hideously sharp and inflict painful wounds. The fish has a mouth almost identical to a luderick’s (even in tooth structure) and the skin is closer to shark skin than anything else.

As for catching them, all as I can say is that we did exactly what we normally do for luderick. You might consider upping the tackle a bit if you intend to fish specifically for surgeon and, as I said, they are location-specific.

Try No 6 long-shank hooks but make sure to cover the entire shank with weed. They are nowhere as abundant or wide spread as luderick but they obviously do mix together. When prospecting for them I strongly recommend fishing a cabbage bait close to the bottom (as well as your standard float rig) off a paternoster rig because they mostly sit deeper then luderick.

Surgeons can be caught in water as shallow as 3m but are much more common in 5.5m to 13m. Given that we rarely present weed baits in these sort of depths, it’s not surprising that surgeon fish are an uncommon capture. Who knows what else we might discover fishing deep weed baits? Red morwong and old maids (scats), both vegetarians, are two very real possibilities.

Although they are described as a tropical and warm-water fish, all the surgeons I have caught have been in Winter water temps of 17°. There is no size limit for surgeon but there is a bag limit of five, mainly to protect them from spearfishos.

Facts

MASSIVE JEWFISH

‘Jewie’ Jim Siarakas is a genuine jewfish master. His accuracy in predicting the fish’s movements is phenomenal to the point where he forecast the capture of a 24kg-plus fish down to three days in August and came through with a 31.7kg monster.

This wasn’t just a lucky call, either. Over three separate days fishing with Jim this Winter we caught four fish including 4kg, 10kg and 30kg specimens. Given that one of the days was a write-off due to atrocious weather, that adds up to a comfortable average.

I rang Jim back in April to see if he would help us with a jewfish segment on our new DVD with the tall order of a 50lb-plus fish. His reply was simple and straight to the point. He nominated a three-day period in August and said that we would most likely get the fish on the first day.

We arrived at the well-known Hawkesbury location at sunrise and within two hours had the 31.7kg monster by 8am. Ironically, I guided Jim to his first jewfish 10 years ago on one of my charters and now here I was being guided by him. That first fish back started him on the 10-year obsession required to achieve his level of success on one of angling’s most challenging species.

According to Jim, the first step is to throw out the window everything you thought you knew about jewfish, the first and biggest misconception being that they are a warm-season fish.

Big baits are Jim’s second hint – whole 1kg squid or mullet on the bottom. He is adamant about the use of cat food berley but it has to be on the bottom. “Burly doesn’t bring the jew but it brings the fish that they feed on,” he says.

He also looks for whitebait concentrations. In some situations mid-sized jew will gorge indiscriminately through white bait clouds. He has witnessed boated jewies coughing up handfuls of whitebait and while this isn’t in line with the big bait, big fish tip, it is certainly a crucial card for lure-throwers. See Jewie Jim in action on the Local Knowledge DVD out soon.

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