Garfish are one of those forgotten, less glamorous fish that a lot of us cut our teeth on as kids. They can be about in plague proportions on occasions when the water is black, while at other times they are nowhere to be seen. They make great bait and do a lot better than you’d expect on the plate so, I’d like to take the time to give these mini billfish some of the exposure they deserve.
They are often found in bays, inlets, estuaries and harbours where there is little swell, current or white water. Larger gars can be caught off rock ledges along the Great Ocean Road and can approach 50cm and 500g.
It is noted in the Australian Fisheries Resource that a gar of 50cm could be around 10 years old! 22cm fish are thought to be about 18 months old and fish that reach three and a half years are about 30cm.
For land-based anglers, they are easy to target and can often be caught during gentlemen’s hours (not too late, not too early). More often than not, anglers catch garfish in the upper half of the water column and in relatively shallow water.
They are quite an aggressive fish and will gladly take just about anything small enough to fit in their mouths. Some of their favourites are pipis, mussels, pilchard pieces, sand fleas, bread squashed into dough balls, garden peas, sandworm, raw chicken and squid pieces. On one occasion I actually caught a gar off Curlewis that had a grasshopper in it!
Your bait should be cut into small pieces so it does not cover the small hook needed for this species. You can buy all of these baits except for sand fleas from your local bait shop, bakery or butcher. Sand fleas are easily found by lifting up dry kelp that has washed up on the beach. After you’ve found them though, you need the reflexes of a rabbit trap to catch them!
Liberal use of berley will increase your chances no end. They are real suckers for a slowly released cloud of chook pellets and tuna oil and are often seen bolting about in the berley, scoffing just about anything.
Gars are best taken using floating or unweighted rigs. This way, the bait stays off the bottom and in the area of the water column they’re most likely to be – the top third. The reason garfish are found here is obvious when you study the way they’re built. Their bottom jaw extends to the point where feeding below their eye line or belly would be quite difficult.
The easiest method to use would be the quill float, rigged ‘waggler’ style. This involves crimping on a split shot, threading your quill float on the line, crimping another split shot hard up against the float to hold it in position and adding more split shot down the leader to the hook. You need to add as many split shots as you can before the float sinks. If your float sinks without getting a bite, you have too much weight. If your float is getting bites but will not sink, you don’t have enough weight.
Hooks need to be ultra sharp. This is because garfish are a light fish and when you strike with a dull hook, you can actually move the whole fish without setting the hook properly. This is the opposite for heavier fish. Take a 1kg salmon for example. Little effort is required to set the hook because more effort is needed to move them through the water. For gars, the force required to set a dull hook into their bony mouths can be more than is required to pull the fish through the water.
Needle sharp hooks around size 8-12 are ideally suited to garfish. Long shank hooks are preferred by many as they are easy to remove and are less likely to gut hook fish.
For gar, you shouldn’t really use line any heavier than 4kg. Thicker line can make getting a float or bait to do what it is supposed to difficult. Smaller hooks also have smaller eyes, so trying to squash 4kg line through a #12 long shank hook can require good eyesight and a bit of patience.
2-3kg line is ideal and the suppleness helps to make your bait sink at a more natural rate. Lighter line also assists with casting your light quill float any sort of distance. Wind in your face is the greatest enemy when float fishing for gars as it makes casting light baits and floats almost impossible; keeping them in one spot can be like trying to nail jelly to the roof. Dead calm days are the best for float fishing and if you are determined to fish for them in windy conditions, try to find a place that has the wind at your back.
Longer rods help a great deal as you will often have to set your float deeper than 1m. A rod of around 2.7m will cast a float with a 1.5m dropper a heck of a lot better than your standard 2m trout or whiting gear. Nibble tip rods make things considerably more difficult than they need to be when using light floats so give them a miss.
Finding a reel to suit is possibly the easiest task, as you will most likely never hear the scream of the drag when gar fishing, unless you hook something you weren’t intending to capture. An eggbeater or threadline style reel capable of holding 200-250m of 2kg line would do the job nicely.
Garfish are great to eat but can quickly overcook and dry out quite easily. Grilling can dry them out more quickly than most methods, so instead, try baking them in a dish covered with foil or totally wrapping them in foil, as this will help keep them moist.
They are also laced with fine hair-like bones that can drive some people crazy. The best way to eat them is to pull the fillet away perpendicular from the lateral line, as this tends to leave the bones behind. If you rake your fork from head to tail, you’re sure to bring all the bones with the next mouthful. After you’ve eaten one side, the backbone and rib bones can be easily lifted off the remaining fillet.
They have a light flavour so a simple splash of lemon juice and a pinch of salt and pepper is the best way to eat them.
The beauty of garfish is that you are in with a fairly good shot at them on just about any pier or rock wall in saltwater. Like most fish, they can be there one day and gone the next, but if you take along plenty of berley and have your rigs right, you’ll be in with a good chance of tangling with a few.
The cheap and easy way to make berley is with stale bread. This is ideal garfish bait because it floats like a cork, bringing them to the surface. Just crumble it up and spread it out around the floats when fishing for gars.
Next in line are chook pellets and tuna oil. Chook pellets are available from most farm produce outlets or pet supplies and are relatively cheap. You can buy tuna oil from most fishing tackle stores and it too is relatively cheap. There are two ways to mix up this berley – lumpy and sloppy. In both cases it is best to add the water before the tuna oil as this helps distribute the flavour more evenly than pouring it onto the chook pellets first up.
Add enough water to cover the chook pellets plus about 50mm over the top of them – this will soak in. Add the tuna oil next, mix it up and let it stand to soak in. This is the stage where you decide the consistency of your berley.
Lumpy berley needs only enough water to absorb into the chook pellets so they stick together in large clumps. This is ideal for bottom dwelling species such as whiting because it sinks and breaks up when it hits the bottom.
Sloppy berley is best for surface or mid-water species such as garfish, salmon and trevally. Just keep adding water to the chook pellet and tuna oil mixture until it is the consistency of thick soup. It is best to fling this out with an old soup ladle as the hands get a tad smelly after a few berley sessions.
This berley spreads out evenly when it hits the water and does not really provide the fish with a meal. It just flavours the water and has the fish looking eagerly for a feed!
Deano McDonald showed me one of the best berleys. It’s a heck of a lot of work but the results are outstanding.
He keeps all his fish frames and often calls by the local fish co-op to grab some of their off-cuts too. Deano then invites a few mates around for one of his ‘berley days’. The frames and off-cuts are dropped into his industrial mincer and the product is loaded into a large plastic bin. The product is then moved into the ‘loading area’ (his carport) where a few more mates load 2L milk cartons using a bass yabby pump. These cartons are then placed in the deep freeze.
A frozen 2L block of minced up fish will last about 1 hour in 18 or 19 degree water. The cloud of tasty treats that pours out of your berley bucket without ‘punching the pot’ nearly brings a tear to your eye it’s so good!
Using Garfish for Bait (to accompany rigged garfish diagram)
Garfish are great bait for snapper, big flathead, kingfish, salmon and jewfish. They can be slow trolled or cast and retrieved around structure. They can also be fished static under balloons or anchored to the bottom with a sinker.