Environment: Sawtails

LAST month’s web piece took a look at the range of by-catch species encountered when luderick fishing. Two of the most welcome hookups are the rock blackfish, aka black drummer or pig, and the sawtail surgeonfish. I say “welcome”, because the fight from both is exceptional, even though on luderick tackle you lose a lot more than you land. And because rock blackfish are exceptional eating, and sawtails are pretty good.

Now while there have been hundreds of articles and thousands of words written about rock blackfish, hardly anything about sawtails appears in print. Craig McGill notes on his website that he targets them in Sydney Harbour, and they get the odd mention on luderick chat pages, but the only real article about them I can recall was in the old Fishing News weekly, which was a cheap-and-cheerful newspaper published weekly in Sydney in the 1960s and 70s. An old luderick fisherman who fished Mrs Macquarie’s Chair with mates sent in a letter describing a fish that they were generally unable to hold on light tackle, but he’d finally landed and photographed one and sent the shot in to be ID’ed. The editor described the sawtail surgeonfish and affirmed that they were almost impossible to land. Small mouths like a luderick and similar feeding habits meant they were only hooked on fine traces. But they had both an amazing turn of speed and the ability to find logs, piles or other structure to run over.

Funnily enough they’re easier to land in rock fishing locations than around wharves and still water spots. On the rocks they’re willing to move beyond structure to feed. In still water locations they’ll inevitably be under wharves or schooling around logs or wrecks, which scuba diving mates have confirmed. In some spots you just can’t land them. Years back it was legal to fish off the front of Manly Wharf and the 2kg sawtails in residence there were unstoppable. There was another spot we fished from a dinghy up in Pittwater: plenty of sawtails hooked near a big log…. not one ever landed.

When you hook one off the rocks, you often think you’ve connected to a big rock blackfish. But instead of heading for a ledge or cave, sawtails will generally run away from the rocks, and if they don’t connect with a reef or lump of kelp you’ve got a fair chance of landing them…at least the small versions, up to 2kg or so. For every 20 or so regular slate-grey sawtails landed, you might get one spotted version. I’ve always released the rarer spotted fish, but have occasionally skinned and filleted the more common cousin to make up a feed. Not bad at all.

In NSW, there’s a bag limit of five for the common variety (listed as Australian sawtail) but no minimum size limit. How big do they get? The textbooks suggest 70cm for the more common variety, and 50cm for the spotted, but I’ve never seen one remotely close to those sizes landed. Spearfishing records suggest maximum weights of about 10.4kg and 5.2kg respectively, truly unstoppable on light tackle.

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