Species Guide: Garfish
The good old garfish is a readily accessible pocket rocket which is fun to catch, good to eat and effective as bait on much bigger fish. ALLAN HUTCHINS extols the virtues of the humble gar. Pictures by Allan Hutchins and April Blair.
THE strike was little more than a subtle suck and take. But on feeling the steel the sinuous body came bursting from the water to tail walk the surface. The fish writhed in rapid serpentine contortions and it slashed savagely at the air with its bill trying to dislodge the hook.
The angler dropped the rod tip and simultaneously rolled it to the left to bring the fish back into the water on his terms. A wide smile creased his face as the fish began a rapid zigzag away from the transom of the boat. But this was no grander – it wasn’t even a baby 100 pounder; in fact, the fish would be lucky to tip the scales at 200 grams. That was irrelevant to this eight-year-old angler – for all intents and purposes this mini marlin was as good as the real deal. I know because although it was many years ago, I was the eight-year-old.
You’ve just gotta love garfish. While I still haven’t tangled with a marlin, the above is my earliest clear memory of the sort of antics that are epitomised by the garfish’s much larger blue water look alike, the rampaging blue, black or striped marlin. Relatively speaking, the fun factor is just as high and the hit to the hip pocket is significantly less painful.
A fish for all
Garfish often aren’t given the respect they deserve. In some areas they are treated with almost total disregard. You’ve probably all heard the “garfish, only good for bait” comment at some point. In other camps they are treated as small and insignificant, not worthy of the effort required to catch them and too puny to be treated as a serious sportfish. Among this fraternity, it’s somehow regarded as uncool to say “I caught a couple of dozen nice gar” as opposed to “I nailed a good coral trout or a jewie”. With these folk it’s as if catching garfish is like scratching in the chook yard when you could be flying with the regular birds. Finally there’s the “what, garfish, fiddly bloody things, no meat on ’em and too many damn bones” clan. For this group, garfish are just a waste of time where the returns, measured strictly in terms of a feed, don’t justify the effort required to catch or clean them. While I acknowledge the right to differing opinions, all of the above are short sighted and blinkered views. Let’s take a look at what the humble garfish has to offer.
According to the website www.fish.gov.au, garfish are represented by 18 family members in Australian waters. About five of these are common and jointly their distribution covers the whole of the Australian coastline. More importantly, they can be found across all environments ranging from the upper freshwater reaches of some rivers, down into the estuaries, bays and harbours, through to inshore reefs and the upper levels of offshore waters. This is their first big plus. While there is some seasonality attached to peak numbers they are, at some point or other, available to just about all anglers.
Gar are a schooling fish and can occur in prolific numbers. With the judicious use of berley they can be held in a given area for a lengthy period, meaning even the most inexperienced angler is odds on to secure a catch. With the correct gear and right approach they can sometimes be ridiculously easy to catch and they give a very determined account of themselves.
This makes them an ideal fish for junior anglers. In fact, with the possible exception of whiting, they have to be the ultimate kid friendly species. They don’t have sharp teeth, spiky fins or gill rakers and the bill, despite its sword-like appearance, is harmless. They won’t pull a little tacker into the water and they aren’t ugly enough to frighten the living bejeezes out of anyone. I have yet to see a youngster want to go home because “I’m bored” when the gar are on the chew. Their determined jinking runs and not infrequent aerial antics make the whole fishing experience fun whether you’re six or 60. I certainly wasn’t the first to have a smile on the dial with a garfish on the line and I sure won’t be the last. I’m convinced that many juniors who develop a lifelong passion for fishing do so because of early experiences with garfish.
The operative verse in the paragraph before last is “can sometimes be”. There are times when garfish are anything but easy to catch. They may be visible in good numbers but seem to be afflicted with a severe case of lockjaw and this makes them seriously frustrating. However, I also regard this as a plus. Because of this attribute the species maintains a bit of mystery. They become a bit of a puzzle worth cracking and better than anything else they teach the difference between fishing and catching. Just as the best sailors learn their craft in stormy seas, the most successful fisherfolk learn their skills by cracking the code on the tough days. The reason I love the garfish as teachers is that they won’t break your heart. By that I mean, an unsuccessful trip should never leave a hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach because a garfish is unlikely to ever be regarded as the fish of a lifetime.
They can also be caught by a number of different methods. In addition to a variety of baits, they also respond to very small flies for those who like to wave the long wand. Lately, I have discovered that they will avidly chase and take lightly weighted, very small soft plastics, but more on that later.
In southern states a popular summer time activity is to dab for garfish at night, hand netting them while held in the beam of a spotlight either from a boat or by wading. Even the “only good for bait” brigade can get them easily by cast netting (where legal) meaning they have more time for what they consider more productive forms of fishing. Surely, that alone is reason enough for greater respect, but if that’s not enough they also taste great.
Wharves and jetties are gar hotspots. Pencil floats are a popular choice for gar specialists.
Light lines & omnivores
No variety of garfish grows to humungous proportions but that said they provide zippy, blistering runs and a very feisty fight. To get the very best enjoyment out of them, the use of lightweight rods, small threadline reels and light lines is the go. Anything else is just cracking a walnut with a steamroller, but without being anywhere near as effective. Two to four kilo spin sticks in the region of 2-2.1m are ideal.
They will take a wide range of baits. Slivers of squid, prawn, yabbies, bloodworm, strips of bacon, cheese, pipi, bread, dough and maggots (gents) can all be successful. If you are into using the new generation of scented soft plastics, hang onto a few of those that are too damaged for normal use. I’m not sure if it’s colour or scent or both but a small piece of this on the hook can revive a shutdown or slow session.
A word of warning though, garfish can also be very finicky. What works fine one day can be right off the menu the following day. It can, therefore, pay to take a couple of different bait options with you as back up, just in case, and even then there are no guarantees. As with all things bait, the fresher it is the better.
Garfish tend to occupy the surface layers and float fishing is generally the norm. They tend to feed on weed beds during sunlight days and on zooplankton on overcast days or at night. As a result, deeper bait presentations are required on calm sunlit days while shallow(er) presentations prevail in lower light and more disturbed surface conditions. Finding the optimal depth on any given day or even having to adjust the depth of baits because of changing conditions can become tedious. For this reason I like an easily adjustable running rig and have a strong preference for quill and pencil float rigs. I also believe the skinny profiles of these floats provide less water resistance than bobby corks and bubble floats and that subtle bites therefore register more clearly when the gar are in a timid mood. Check out the illustrations opposite for popular rigging techniques.
Berley will soon attract garfish if they are in the area and it doesn’t need to be complex. Something as simple as a couple of pieces of bread well soaked in tuna oil and presented in a nylon mesh bag works very well. This type of berley works primarily on scent rather than dispersing a steady trail of food. To keep them interested I prefer to sparingly salt the water with handfuls of oil enriched bran and pollard or crushed Weetbix flakes only as often as is needed to fire up their feeding activity when it begins to wane.
At times, in jetty fishing situations, I do not use berley at all. There can be so much berley in the water from other fishos that the addition of mine just gives them more food to fill up on more quickly, resulting in an early shutdown. In cases like this I simply check the current direction and position myself on the down current end of the existing berley trail exposing my bait to the newcomers as they come to check it out.
If I had been told that garfish could be caught on soft plastics I would not have believed it, but quite by chance, I discovered that they most certainly could. While luring for flathead off the beach on a falling tide I repeatedly felt small but definite taps on a large curl tailed Fat Grub every time I got to the end of the retrieve and recovered the last 4-6m of line at speed. As the plastic got to the point of almost surface skipping the taps would come and no amount of striking produced a hook up. After some trial and error I finally saw several garfish planing down the face of a small inshore wave repeatedly striking at the plastic just before the wave broke on the shore. At that time I just dismissed them as nuisance value.
Some time later, boredom had set in on a very fruitless day; the only interest I was receiving in any quarter was from the garfish so I decided to experiment. My first efforts were on a conventional 1.7gm (1/16oz) jig head mated to a size four hook, which was the smallest I could find, pushed into a two inch curl tailed grub. Occasionally I would snag a gar but they would only last as long as it took for the first aerial flick. I finally landed one on a 0.9gm (1/32oz) head on a size six hook many sessions later after countless dropped fish, having learned only that they are strongly orientated towards red, gold, chartreuse or bloodworm colourations.
The penny finally dropped, however, with that first capture. It was barely pinned through the top jaw and the size six hook was clearly too big with the bulk of the plastic underneath it as well. Clearly they were hitting the plastic from underneath. Success finally came after manufacturing my own crude jig heads by bending long shanked size eight hooks to give a downward hook exposure in the plastic and crimping a small split shot to the bend for weight.
Hook up rates have improved but admittedly are still not good. This has more to do with my ability to maintain contact with the very light plastic while working it through various wave patterns. Nonetheless I have now caught enough to know that it’s no fluke. The sight of garfish surfing down the face of a small sunlit wave to hit a worked soft plastic has added a new dimension to beach fishing for me in recent times.
The visual aspect combined with wave action, their aerobatics and light line is a real buzz. They may not be a glamour fish but they have their own challenges and appeal.
Given all that they offer perhaps you can now see why you’ve gotta love garfish and why I reckon they’ve received a raw deal.
So go on, get your nose out of this magazine and go and get your own mini marlin.