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.