The Catch

Win­ter gurnard

Boating NZ - - Contents - BY JOHN EICHELSHEIM

The red gurnard or ‘car­rot’ ( Che­li­donichthys kumu) is a highly un­der­rated species, both as a sport fish­ing propo­si­tion and on the din­ing ta­ble. It’s true that gurnard are not es­pe­cially strong fight­ers on the line, but on suit­ably light tackle they give a de­cent ac­count for them­selves, and any­way, they more than make up for their non-sport­ing na­ture on the plate – gurnard can be pre­pared in so many ways, all of them de­li­cious.

Gurnard are quite long-lived and tend to school in age groups where all the fish are of sim­i­lar size. They ma­ture at around three years and 23cm, still un­der the le­gal min­i­mum size limit of 25cm, and may live for up to 16 years. Ju­ve­niles tend to be found closer in­shore. Max­i­mum size is around 55cm (per­haps 3kg), but I have never seen a gurnard any­where near that big.

You can catch red gurnard in 50m of wa­ter and more, but you will also catch them in very shal­low wa­ter, as surf cast­ers can at­test. They are well-adapted to life over soft sed­i­ments, shell and gravel bot­toms. They have large, box-like heads and cylin­dri­cal bod­ies that taper towards a small­ish tail. As noted, they are not strong swim­mers, though they can sprint in short bursts. Most of the fish I catch on east coast weigh no more than a kilo, but west coast fish may be twice that size.

Gurnard use mod­i­fied fin rays to probe the bot­tom sed­i­ment, dis­lodg­ing small fish, crus­taceans and in­ver­te­brates. They have large, bony mouths and strong jaws with small sand­pa­per-like teeth to hold their prey.

A gurnard’s salient fea­ture is a pair large, brightly-coloured pec­toral fins, usu­ally re­ferred to as ‘wings’. No-one quite knows their pur­pose. They could be im­por­tant dur­ing courtship or a means to star­tle preda­tors. There is spec­u­la­tion they might also be used to pro­vide shel­ter for fright­ened prey an­i­mals, which can then be snapped up by the jaws. When hooked, gurnard use their pec­toral fins to re­sist being pulled to the sur­face.

Gurnard are mostly a com­mer­cial by­catch species, ac­ci­den­tally caught by bot­tom trawl­ing. Because they live close to the sea bed and are rel­a­tively poor swim­mers, gurnard sel­dom es­cape ap­proach­ing trawl nets. They make up a sig­nif­i­cant part of the com­mer­cial catch in the Hau­raki Gulf and on the west coast. In some ar­eas com­mer­cial fish­ers also specif­i­cally tar­get gurnard.

Most of my fish­ing is con­ducted in the Hau­raki Gulf – off East Coast Bays, the rocky shore­lines of the Whanga­paraoa Peninsula and around the is­lands and head­lands to the north. Snap­per is the usual catch, but dur­ing the cooler months gurnard also fea­ture.

Gurnard like ar­eas where the seafloor is sand, shell or mud, which de­scribes most of the Hau­raki Gulf, as well as the large har­bours and shal­low in­shore habi­tats of the North Is­land’s west coast. Gurnard seem to be mak­ing some­thing of a come­back in­side the Hau­raki Gulf, where they were once much more abun­dant, per­haps because trawl­ing is banned in the in­ner Gulf.

In re­cent years I’ve no­ticed more and more gurnard, es­pe­cially off East Coast Bays, where they seem to favour cer­tain worm beds, as well as spe­cific soft sed­i­ment ar­eas quite close to shore. They can be caught on bait or lures and there are a few hotspots, closely guarded by those in the know, where gurnard fish­ing is much bet­ter than else­where.

Red gurnard can be dif­fi­cult to pick up on the sounder, but they are a le­git­i­mate tar­get for lure fish­ers pre­pared to make long drifts un­til they come across fish. Once you hook a gurnard, fix­ing a way­point on the chart-plot­ter will al­low you to mo­tor back up the drift line to re­lo­cate the school. Gurnard don’t move

In re­cent years I’ve no­ticed more and more gurnard, es­pe­cially off East Coast Bays...

es­pe­cially quickly, so you can some­times re-es­tab­lish con­tact with the fish over many drifts.

I’ve caught gurnard on all sorts of lures, in­clud­ing salt­wa­ter flies, but some of the more con­sis­tent types in­clude inchiku jigs, es­pe­cially smaller ones, small slid­ers, mi­cro-jigs and soft plas­tics. Three or four-inch soft plas­tics are hard to beat, but whichever lure you use, it must be fished right on the bot­tom.

In the case of plas­tics, gurnard read­ily bite lures dragged across the seabed so that they send up puffs of sed­i­ment. The same holds true for inchiku jigs. And while gurnard will some­times move a short dis­tance off the seabed to bite a lure, they won’t come up as far as snap­per, so there’s lit­tle point in con­tin­u­ing a ver­ti­cal re­trieve for more than a me­tre or two above the sea floor.

Tip­ping the hooks of an inchiku or slider jig with a cou­ple of squid ten­ta­cles can re­ally im­prove your gurnard catch rate, but the lure must still be on or very close to the bot­tom to get bites. Choos­ing the right weight of lure for the depth and drift speed is im­por­tant: too small/light and you’ll lose con­tact with the bot­tom; too big/heavy and gurnard won’t bite.

If I want to specif­i­cally tar­get gurnard, I’ll fish the Kaipara Har­bour where they, along with ka­hawai, are pro­lific dur­ing win­ter. Lure fish­ing works in the Kaipara Har­bour, but fish­ing from an an­chored boat with bait is more con­sis­tently suc­cess­ful.

This is shal­low wa­ter fish­ing with some of the best spots the edges of chan­nels, chan­nel in­ter­sec­tions, and de­pres­sions, in­lets and holes in mud banks cov­ered by two or three me­tres of wa­ter at low tide. You can fish rel­a­tively light tackle, which makes the most of the gurnard’s mod­est fight­ing abil­ity; braided lines are a good choice in higher cur­rent ar­eas.

Gurnard fish­ing on the Kaipara on a nice day in win­ter can be very re­lax­ing. There’s usu­ally no need to travel far from the boat ramp and you can al­ways find some­where to fish away from the crowds. Gurnard come and go with the tides, mov­ing along the chan­nels, but avoid­ing the worst of the cur­rent. An­chor­ing on the edge of a bank where it drops into deeper wa­ter and berley­ing is a good ploy. Gurnard will swim past at some point and when they do berley serves to hold them close. Cast your baits down-cur­rent well away from the boat and wait. Gurnard are usu­ally pos­i­tive biters, so they of­ten hook them­selves, es­pe­cially if you use cir­cle hooks.

The best baits for gurnard fish­ing in­clude salted skip­jack (bonito), prawns (de­frosted from the su­per­mar­ket) and fish baits such as mul­let and pilchard, although oily baits also at­tract the small sharks pre­sent in plague pro­por­tions in the Kaipara and Manukau har­bours dur­ing win­ter. Squid can be good bait too, but not al­ways, and while I’ve tried crabs (a sta­ple of the gurnard’s diet) on a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions, the suc­cess rate was barely worth the ef­fort of gather­ing them.

The trick to catch­ing gurnard is to pre­sent baits close to the bot­tom. Most an­glers use ledger or drop­per rigs but keep the dis­tance between the hooks and the sinker short. Cast­ing well away from the boat al­lows the baits to lie on or near the bot­tom, which is where gurnard will find them. An­other rig­ging op­tion is an ex­tra-long bot­tom drop­per that ex­tends be­low the sinker. Pre-tied flasher rigs work quite well, but make sure there’s not too much dis­tance between the bot­tom bait and the sinker. BNZ

FAR RIGHT Mark Kit­teridge with a win­ter gurnard from the Kaipara Har­bour. RIGHT Gurnard love soft plas­tics. BE­LOW The red gurnard’s salient fea­ture is its brightly coloured wings.

ABOVE Gurnard of­ten hook them­selves if you use cir­cle hooks. RIGHT Sam Moss­man with a fat gurnard that ate a soft plas­tic crab. Real crabs are an im­por­tant food source for gurnard.

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