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Pearls to the Table

We love certain fish because of their fighting abilities, other fish because they look great or jump high. But some fish, like the pearl perch, earn our adoration because they just taste so damn fantastic! By DAVE RAE.

MOST anglers have a special fish; a species that lights their fire every time they catch it. I know that I have a couple of favourite fish but my local treasure is the pearl perch.
Pearlies are special and I love catching them. They don’t grow as big as a thumping great snapper. Nor do they fight like a marauding mangrove jack. No, the excitement of pearl perch comes because they are one of the best eating fish in the ocean; and there’s nothing as nice as the smile I see on my Loved One’s face when I lift a decent pearlie out of the icebox upon returning home.

The pearl perch gets its name from the mauve sheen found on the back of its head and shoulders when fresh out of the water.

It’s a solid but short fish that has a silvery body with bronzed spots on the scales and a white bony shield to the rear of the gill cover.

Any fish over three kilos is considered big and they max out around six kilos in weight. I can’t remember how it came up, but when I was told the story it certainly made an impression. Years ago, some of the local lads had a pearlie day to die for. It was at a time when hi-tech electronics and GPS were in the realm of James Bond and the Men in Black. Landmarks for productive pearlie reefs were worth their weight in gold and were only handed on to the trusted few, or procured through means of deviousness and deceit.

Drive-by GPS pirate raids were unknown, so anglers either stuck to the well-known reefs or put the time in to find their own; and often lost them when trees grew and the landscape changed.

Anyway, on this particular day three boats went out together and one boat ended up on a gigantic school of pearl perch. Each drop of the hand line was two fish, and after a time they went and got their mates into the action. They caught a heap of fish.

It’s an exploit of local notoriety that occurred years before I moved into the area, so I’ll take a guess and say it happened in the late 1970s or early ’80s. It was a time before bag limits, when anglers were less informed and when big catches were the aim of the game.

What’s so unusual about it is that pearl perch are usually much thinner on the ground than this tale indicates. I’ve only come across one school of pearl perch in all my years of bluewater fishing, and of the 50 or so we caught at least 40 went back to Mumma. They were all about 20cm in length, and it was only in the closing stages that we caught some bigger ones. All the fun ended as soon as a great white rolled underneath the boat and ate a hooked fish. The pearlies swiftly disappeared!

It was a funny scenario and one that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. These reef dwellers appeared on the sonar as a thin layer of fish 8m below the surface, when the bottom was a further 20m further down. We couldn’t see predators on the screen nor could we spot food. But there they were … at least until Jaws arrived.

In my mind it sounds a little odd when someone says they are going “pearlie fishing”, because in reality species such as snapper make up the majority of most reef fishing expeditions out from my local waters on the NSW North Coast. Queenslanders might add sweetlip to the list as well. We go pearlie fishing because we love to catch them; even though they can be akin to cobia in terms of predictability … which is why guys with large vocabularies call them an “enigmatic species”!

What’s the appeal?
Pearl perch (Glaucosoma scapulare) taste fantastic; they’re right up there with coral trout in terms of texture and flavour. WA dhufish enjoy an awesome culinary reputation as well, which is not surprising as they are another Glaucosma species … which would be a Latin word referring to both species’ overly large eye; at least that’s I think, but in truth I don’t speak much more Latin than “Numero Uno”!

A pearlie’s flesh is white in colour, and even whiter when captured fish are bled. The fillets are thick-shouldered with a delicate and sweet flavor. The fish tend to carry ribbons of fat in their gut cavity, so I assume the fat content of the flesh is high; perhaps in a similar way to the marbled fat found in wagyu beef. This might explain why this fish is pretty much “bad cook” proof.

Where to find them
Pearlies are a bottom dwelling reef fish that inhabit reef systems between Central Queensland (around Rockhampton) to the north and down to about Port Macquarie on the mid north coast of NSW to the south.

They prefer deepish water, with the 40-90m ranges being the most productive. Occasionally they venture closer to shore, coming into water as shallow as 15m, but this is only when water temperature reaches annual minimums. Your best bet on the pearlies is to target them in deeper water.

Speaking from personal experience only, the past five or so years have seen us bring home far more pearlies as by-catch from soft plastic snapper trips. I’m not sure if that’s a result of using plastics or if the fish are currently coming in closer. Time will tell …

There’s little doubt that pearl perch are far less common than snapper and other well-known table fish. They aggregate in smaller schools and there’s more distance between the schools. Which, for the angler, means that the key to catching pearlies lies in the finding.

Having quality electronics and the expertise to use this equipment efficiently is very important. Pearlies form tight little schools and tend to stack one on top of each other. If you think of a human pyramid as opposed to a scrum, you’ll have the picture. Pearlie schools can be so stacked that the sonar signature is a thickened vertical line, but more often it’s a narrow triangle. There’s no other option than to pull up and fish each school until you find pearlies. Teraglin schools appear similar in shape, but can be massive, and given that these mini-jewfish also taste pretty good, that’s not a huge problem to have.

Pearlies prefer rough reef if they can get it, and they also show an affinity to sunken man-made debris. Old snapper and lobster traps become prime pearlie real estate once they are colonised by algae and crustaceans.

To Drift or Not To Drift
If you’re a skilled boatie, one who can put your boat right over a small school of fish or knob of reef in deep water, then by all means drop the pick.

Many of us find it hard to pull such accurate anchoring off on a regular basis, so we prefer to drift, and that’s fine. By tracking drifts on a GPS unit you can target specific structures with a high degree of accuracy, as well as being able to prospect a wider area if there are no fish visible on the sonar.

If you transverse a known pearlie reef without finding fish, don’t despair, they might be there, but scattered and spread out instead of schooled up. By laying down drift patterns across the reef (work that out with your GPS), you will slowly but surely collect a feed if they’re playing the game. If not you can still hope for quality table species such as snapper, teraglin and tusk fish to name a few. Anglers further north can expect to add red throat and grassy sweetlip to the mix as well as snapper.

The Bait Option
Baitfishing is the most popular method of targeting pearl perch and it is the two–hook paternoster rig that is the most commonly seen.

Current, wind strength and wind direction are the factors that determine how effectively the deep water can be fished.

At times the current runs upwards of three knots, making effective fishing very difficult at best or even impossible. At other times it’s a total lack of current that puts fish off the bite; a gentle flow is the go, with a little movement going a long way.

Because pearl perch are opportunistic feeders which wait for prey to come to them, as opposed to tearing all over the place to run it down, it is crucial for the angler to put baits (and lures) in front of the fish’s nose.

Expect to use larger sinkers than you’re used to and put braid on your reels. Braided or gelspun lines have a radically finer diameter and stretch than equivalent monofilament, and require less lead to sink them … all of which adds up to superior bite transmission and hook setting.

Pearlies aren’t known for their fighting abilities. Simply put, pearlies don’t have the muscle to bust you up or reef you, and therefore 10-15kg mainline is easily adequate for the job.

Circle hooks are the go for pearlies (as well as most other deep water species) as the fish tend to hook themselves without needing the angler to strike.

Simply bait up your hooks, drop the rig to the bottom and lift it by a metre and you’re done. After a few spirited lunges towards the bottom you’ll have the pearlie coming, although they tend to open up their cavernous gobs, making the job of winding them up more difficult than it should be.

Although small livebaits are a very effective option, anglers generally fish for pearlies with WA pilchards, fish strips, squid and even prawns.

Luring Pearlies
As I mentioned earlier, pearlies are a regular bycatch when snapper fishing with soft plastics. I’ve found these fish respond positively to fish-shaped shads in white and blue tones when the lures are fished close to reef. I’m not saying that other colours don’t work – they do – but I’ve noticed a preference for the former.

Another interesting factor is that pearlies prefer a less vigorous lure action than commonly used with snapper. In fact, I’ll often fish with two rods when pearlies are around, and let the lures drift to the bottom with the rod in a holder. The action of the boat is all that’s required to tempt nearby pearl perch. It works for me, although you’ll snag up if the lure is left dragging across rough reef. Jigheads heavier than 14gm are the go, with 28gm heads being useful in 40m plus.

Pearlies aren’t slow to nail metal jigs either, but that’s a style of fishing that I’m not experienced with, although it seems obvious that a jig would be worked low in the water column in order to attract attention from a pearlie.

It’s criminal to kill table fish without going to the pains to get them onto the table in the best condition as possible, and to achieve that you MUST carry ice.

Saltwater ice slurries reach –4 degrees C and are the most effective cooling regime available on a recreational vessel. Simply lay dead fish in the slurry, without bringing the fish into contact with actual ice, as you’ll burn the flesh. My solution is to freeze saltwater in empty milk bottles and to place them, together with fresh saltwater, into a quality cooler. The plastic bottle prevents ice burn.

At this point I am in two minds as to what to suggest you do once a perch comes over the side. Do I tell you to ike jime (brain spike) prior to bleeding, or do I suggest a bled-out dispatch, given that the latter results in even whiter flesh? Perhaps Fisho’s marine biology editor Dr Ben Diggles can offer up some suggestions? (Editor’s note: I’ve put the question to Ben and will publish his response in an upcoming edition).

Once Home
Either way, I come home with chilled table fish that’s in fantastic condition. We have a little Ezivac machine to suck the air out of the plastic bag before heat-sealing it closed. I can’t recommend these little babies highly enough … now we can freeze fish for almost 12 months without losing appreciable flavour. They are brilliant!

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