Garfish in Georges Bay, St Helens
St Helen angler and tackle shop owner, Jamie Henderson looks at the garfish, one of Tasmania's favourite Winter fish.
With petrol prices rising, the cost of living ever increasing and the family purse strings being tightened it seems the pressure is on the avid angler to combine a fishing fix with bringing home a feed of fish.
It is with this in mind that our coastal estuary's are becoming more and more popular. Easy access is available for small craft, shelter from all but the worst weather and with inshore commercial netting no longer allowed the diversity and quality of fish is continuing to increase all the time.
I have seen Georges Bay improve with each new season and more species returning, and larger specimens being caught by the average angler. In particular there are HUGE Garfish; fish of 50cm and larger, being caught all around the bay. The humble old 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.
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.
Our east coast offers many locations for targeting garfish but by far Georges Bay at St Helens is a hot spot with big fat XOS sized examples weighing down the keeper nets of switched on anglers. When a hot garfish bite is on in Georges Bay dozens of boats line up to jostle for a position along the main channel leading out to the barway
Southern sea garfish
The particular species of garfish that is common to Tasmanian 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. They are predominantly a herbivore and feed mainly on varying species of seagrass, algal filaments and small amounts of crustaceans. They spawn in shallow seagrass 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 and have good seagrass beds, in Georges Bay the hot spot seems to be along the red channel markers leading out to the barway next to the shallow sandbank. 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 also 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 successful garfishing is the use of berley to attract the fish and keep them in the immediate vacinity of your boat. A berley mixture can be as simple as a can of catfood 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. Large pieces also attracts the birds. By far the most effective and lethal berley I have come across is the Stimulate Ultrabite range of berleys, in particular the Ground Berley. This is a premixed berley that is in a fine particle form that resembles breadcrumbs but has some added attractants mixed in for good measure. I mix about 2 handfuls of the berley mix and half a cupful 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 unweighted into the berley trail. 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 as some people like to call them-a bait not commonly used in Tassie waters, but very effective. 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 real maggots are not desirable then Berkley produce an artificial maggot in little jars that work very well as a substitute. 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 sits up when pulled under the water, is therefore less effected 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 flyfishing. Small soft plastics such as No.1 Squidgy Wrigglers in drop bear, gary glitter and silver fox are very effective as are 2" Berkeley Power grubs in pumpkinseed and bloodworm also 2" Ecogear Paramax in white. Used in conjunction with a small 1gm and 1.5gm squidgy jighead and worked erratically 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 Stimulate 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 Crazy Charlies and small minnow patterns in predominantly white colours 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. Tackle 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 4½" handcaster. 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, such as Shimano Spectrum and Technium combos, are fine for the job and are very affordable for the average family. 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. One of the new Shimano Taipan Extreme 7" 2 piece rods is an excellent choice. It has a soft action and a light tip to detect small bites and matched with a Shimano Sienna or Sahara 2500 reel would give good service for many years. Spool this up with some quality 4 or 6lb monofilament line, such as Platypus Platinum, for a dynamite garfish outfit.
For targeting garfish with soft plastics any outfit used for chasing Bream will be perfect for the job. Rods such as Shimano 7" Squidgy spin, 6'8" Rack raider or the new 7" Catana matched with reels like Shimano Sedona or Symetre 2500 and spooled up with 4lb Fireline and a 4lb leader make for a top class outfit and are great fun to use. Any fly rod outfit used for chasing trout will be more than enough for chasing Garfish. 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, this is when Georges Bay experiences a good run of large specimens to sink your teeth into. 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. So next time you are on the east coast take a trip to Georges Bay, grab the kids and try fishing for some super sized Southern Garfish, and don't forget to call in to St Helens Bait and Tackle and see Jamie, for all the tackle, advice and help you might need.