The Fish Butchery

THIS establishment is truly one of a kind. In the culinary world, Josh Niland (owner) and his team are highly regarded for their progressive techniques utilising tip-to-tail of their fish.

Among recreational fishos they may not be a household name. His books Take One Fish, The Whole Fish and Fish Butchery are all best sellers, but you don’t see them in your average tackle shop. The information in these books and what the Fish Butchery represents is everything that this series is trying to bring to the recreational angler. 

These resources provide a platform for anglers to implement easy techniques, ideas and recipes that can enhance yield from a single animal, improve flavour and texture and promote less popular cuts and species of fish. It is up to us to not just observe those paving the way but to learn and grow our capacity to reduce waste and focus on more abundant species. The bulk of work in fishing shouldn’t just be the preparation of lures and tackle, it needs to be balanced with understanding and strategy on how each fish taken can be maximised to feed as many mouths as possible with the best possible quality flesh.

The carefully considered practices of The Fish Butchery are the most progressive within the seafood industry. Fifty per cent of edible sustenance from fish is being discarded on commercial, and likely worse on recreational scales. The Fish Butchery endeavours to use over 90% of each animal that they process. The butchery has an array of charcuterie available that is cured and dry aged on-site. Reducing the need to eat a single fish in a narrow time frame.

The Fish Butchery is renowned for its unique offerings all made with seafood, from sausages, empanadas, burgers, fish fingers, pies, lasagna, gelato, dumplings, croquettes and wellington. The list goes on and is always being updated with inventive ideas. Going beyond using only the flesh with bones, offal, scales and even eyes being used to create delicacies that aren’t just a novelty, but genuinely outstanding food. The Fish Butchery works in tandem with Josh Niland’s other restaurants, the whole fish is used across a variety of recipes and dishes spread amongst venues.

Bosey McGee

Bosley is the senior butcher on site. He is both passionate and very talented in his role. Landing his dream job where he feeds his passion for the ocean with ethical and meaningful projects. He doesn’t shy away from educating those around him and is precise with his work, a perfect representative of the Fish Butchery brand. 

He orders all the fish to be cut and develops the skill set of those working at the butchery. After all, this is such a niche that anyone joining the team will need an open mind and willingness to learn. 

Bosley’s standards for purchasing fish off the auction floor are very particular. He has become an expert at observing fish on their individual merit. Diagnosing their health and treatment to ensure that only the best-kept fish are accepted into the butchery. People flock to the Fish Butchery and connected restaurants including the esteemed “Saint Peter” with the same expectation of unparalleled quality. They aren’t disappointed.

Bosley has developed key relationships with commercial operators using the best practices to produce high-quality results. He now purchases directly from their vessels in confidence that due processes regarding fish care have been strictly followed. He works with his commercial fishing partners tweaking and refining their practices to perfect the produce. This could include a minute single-degree change in the temperature of the ice slurry that the fish are kept that makes them just right. 

Bosley loves fishing! The week we headed out for our little mission he legged it up the coast for a land-based spinning mission. Landing a beautiful specimen of a longtail tuna from the stones. He decided to keep the fish, and ended his session immediately to avoid spoiling the meat. His concerns were met with the reality of most recreational fisherman, particularly landbased who do not have ice slurries on hand. He got to work, Ike Jime (brain spike) bleeding and marching back to his car where he had a large ice box waiting to cool the fish. He fished with heavy tackle restricting time spent angling the fish and the build-up of lactic acid. His circumstances weren’t ideal compared to the quality he was used to working with at the butchery. However, he was surprised at how well he had done. The fillets were exceptional which he put down to his willingness to leave a hot bite, short fight, Ike Jime, bleeding and rushing to get it on ice. He did the best with the situation he was faced with on a solo rock platform.

Our Mission

Our goal was to chase a species that is easily accessible, abundant, overlooked and delicious. The Fish Butchery has an amazing dish on the menu using reverse butterflied blue mackerel. Anglers call them “slimies”, probably not the most palatable title. Cooked over the coals they need no accoutrements to mask their sensational flavour profile. 

We wanted to highlight this dish from the Fish Butchery. Our idea was to relate it to situations where live baits are collected but unable to be converted into something more substantial. The bait is probably better tasting than anything you convert them into anyway. There is no need to go home empty-handed. Dispatch a few “slimies” before heading away from the bait grounds and place them on ice. Take them home and serve them as “blue mackerel” to the whole family.

So… In this case where anything we caught after our bait collection was a bonus we thought we would attempt a high-risk catch. We were planning to head out wide of Sydney towards Browns Mountain, a sea mountain roughly 22 nautical miles from Sydney Harbour. There had been a great eddy holding west of the shelf with a large sea surface temperature break right near the structure. Reports of wahoo, dolphin fish, tuna and marlin had us liking our lips at the prospect of a substantial catch.

We used the Gamakatsu Sabiki rigs with size 9 and 10 hooks. They work a treat, solid hooks and alluring attractants. Marking big balls of bait at numerous sites allowed us to drop right into the thick of them. We struggled to find anything else besides yellow tail “yakkas”. Even the technique of slowly dropping the jig to try and find the top of the school of fish where slimies are more likely to be holding did not prevail. Or looking for different visuals on the sounder, less dense or holding in different parts of the water column. We spent two hours trying to catch our goal, but had no luck. As many yakkas as we liked but not even one slimy for the grill. We were feeling quite defeated. The sun was well and truly up. We made the call to head wide using lures to see what we could muster.

On the way out we had a breather as it’s roughly an hour’s drive to the fishing grounds. Finding fish traps and the DPI deployed FADs to cast topwater lures for mahi mahi. We caught some smaller models on the ZipBait Monsoon breaker lures in 130mm.

We found the “good water” which had planned to intercept at 22 degrees celsius dead east of the harbour. We put the lures in and planned to troll to the temperature change which jumped up to 24 degrees. Using a variety of skirted lures rigged with SL-12s we fished 3 rods as we were on the centre console with only three of us. Shooting photos, driving, clearing the spread, angling and leadering the fish might not seem like much between three people. Those who have been marlin fishing, understand the potential chaos. 

I set the first rigger on the port side of the boat. The lure purposefully swimming in the middle of the second pressure wave of the boat’s wake. It was popping up with a strong bubble trail, swimming like a champion. Preparing the second lure for the starboard rigger, a scream of drag let off on the first rod, with no hookup. I quickly positioned the second rod and reset the port side rigger. This time the starboard side rachet let out a howl. We could see the beak of the marlin thrashing about in a ball of white water directly behind the vessel. Bosley grabbed the rod and by the time he took a few winds, it was all over, maybe within 30 seconds. We had only been fishing for under five minutes and had two bites! I had never experienced a bite like this off Sydney before. My confidence was at a premium. Even though I know that with these fish, sometimes you only get one or two chances if you are lucky. Bosley was particularly quiet.

We finally had all three lures in the water, our shotgun lure was way out the back. We were headed east to find the temperature break, however decided to hang in the 22 degree water with the action. Never leave a bite like this to find better water. There were no other boats around us and a lot were out wider and we still don’t know if they had success out there.

We had another bite. No hook up. 3-1-0. That is three bites, one hook up and zero fish landed in game fish jargon.

Too often have I seen marlin and other game fish killed for a photograph or to weigh at a competition then dumped out at sea. Refusal to bleed and gut the animal to gain a few extra kilos in a competition, spoiling the meat.

It didn’t take much longer before we were on again. This time we had a substantial bend in the rod, with an impressive marlin run jumping 100m out the back. A solid hook up. I cleared the reels starting with the port rigger, then moving to the shotgun. I saw a flash of light behind the shotgun upon retrieve so I started winding faster, BANG. We had a double hook up… 

The second fish was leaping only 20m from the boat in an aerobatic display. It looked larger than Bosyleys specimen and quickly took off in the opposite direction to his fish.

With both of us fighting, there wasn’t anyone to help out capturing the action for this article and to leader the fish. So I put mine back in the rod holder with line continuing to peel off. Focus on Bosley’s first marlin. Gee whiz, he put in a sterling effort. Great technique for his first time using a game reel. Spreading the line like a natural and keeping that rod tip up and bent. Always wind before dropping the rod tip to maintain tension in the line with each pump. 20 minutes of chasing and winding past, a quick wrap-up on the leader and Bosley was holding the beak of striped marlin. The colours were illuminated spectacularly with iridescent blue stripes running down the flank, the fish was in pristine condition weighing in at an estimated 60kgs. We had a huge decision to make. 

We had no slimies to cook. This is a catch-and-cook series. We thought that anything under 80-kg would be something we could consider bringing home for the table. We collectively agreed that this was a great opportunity to showcase the potential of such a large animal with the idea of minimal waste.

Too often have I seen marlin and other game fish killed for a photograph or to weigh at a competition then dumped out at sea. Refusal to bleed and gut the animal to gain a few extra kilos in a competition, spoiling the meat. It is easy to cut the shoulders off such a large animal and leave the rest at the boat ramp because there is already so much meat. 

We need to be responsible with apex predators that are removed. Fish of the magnitude we were about to take have the potential to feed a magnitude of people if time is taken and respect is given to the animal in maximising potential protein. We knew that we were prepared as best as possible to ensure our harvest was going to be cared for.

We still were hooked up to the other marlin. Bosley took over managing the treatment of the marlin whilst I jumped on the rod. There was a lot of line to catch up on. Time was of the essence as we wanted to get back to the wharf to unload the fish. Ryan called ahead to organise transport and fresh ice to meet us there upon arrival. This is where the hard yards pay off and organisation makes a huge difference. Ryan turned his boat to start collecting the large belly of line that had laid itself on the ocean. I started winding the 800m of line…

Meanwhile, Bosley turned to the striped marlin brain spiking it using an Ike Jime tool designed for game fish. Dispatching the fish as quickly as possible. He proceeded to make incisions in each side of the marlin’s gills to bleed the fish, throwing a few buckets of water over the fish to help promote blood loss. The guts were removed and felt warm after the fight. We had 10 bags of ice that he stuffed the gut cavity with and lined both sides of the fish’s exterior. A wet towel went over the bags of ice to lock them in place. The entire fish was covered with ice. 

By the time Bosley was happy, I yeld a few expletives after we dropped the hooks on the second fish. I had returned most of the line to the reel. But it wasn’t meant to be.

We could have stayed out chasing marlin all day. I am positive we would have had one of those day of days. Just like Bosley leaving his rock platform after catching his longtail, we now had a higher cause and commitment. Look after our catch, get back and get to work processing the fish.

In the end, we fished for 30 minutes chasing marlin and spent far more time trying to catch bait and travelling. Bosley’s introduction to game fishing may have been a little different to your average day out.

The Dry Ager

We were bombarded by people at the ferry wharf taking selfies with the marlin as we loaded the fish into the van with fresh ice. Driving straight to the Fish Butchery in Waterloo, the striped marlin was then moved into the walk-in cool room. The fans have been dialled in to create a dry ager. The fish hanging from the ceiling were immaculate. Perfect specimens from all over Australia. Bosley had removed the scales off a row of coral trout. His technique of cutting the scales off protects the skin and enhances longevity. 

All the fish were drying. And there was no evidence of a fishy smell despite the sheer quantities of fish hanging. Bosley explained how each fish is checked daily, not just based on the species, but on its own individual characteristics. To ensure that they are taken to the kitchen when they are at their peak. Even within a single species, there can be variance depending on the health of the fish. A fatter fish will age longer than a malnourished example. Blue Mackerel are fish that he says only need a day in the dry ager to help with crispy skin. Smaller fish seem to have less shelf life. 

The last thing people need to be doing is bragging over how long they have left their fish in the dry ager for before eating, then realise they have too much meat to eat before it goes off. Stay on top of the fish hanging and take a small sample to taste which side of the bell curve the fish sits. A fish will decline in quality faster than it takes to improve. Trial and error is something you may not be able to avoid at home, all part of the fun.

Processing the marlin

The fish was allowed to sit for around 5 hours in a cold environment. Bosley was impressed with the overall feel of the fish despite being used to specimens with firm flesh set over a few days. He did not waste time.

He slapped on some gloves to avoid contaminating the flesh. Grabbed his knife and cut straight down the lateral line below the gills. His first incision was straight down to the spine to determine the depth of the fillet. He then used both hands to pull the knife back towards the tail. He used a similar cut to remove the shoulder and belly fillets, following along the spine. He avoided taking multiple little slices to peel the fillet off the skeletal structure. This is a technique that I have seen on countless fishing shows. However, it does place the fillet at risk of damage.

All four fillets were removed. Quickly. They looked good. 

The fillets of this particular marlin were going to be made into marlin ham. Bosley portioned the fillets and pilled a salt and spice cure over them which would draw moisture out over the next week. After which they would be strung up in the dry ager for over a month. Then thinly sliced like prosciutto. I was lucky enough to try a finished product. Next-level stuff, the transparent slices were packed full of concentrated flavour from the cure with a gentle reminder of the fish coupling beautifully with the spices.

Bosley used a spoon to remove any leftover meat between the rib cage. This could be used to mince up for burger patties. There were one or two small sections towards the tail of the fillets that had not set to his liking for ham, he decided to add these to the mince pile.

Who knows, maybe a large fish gets tail-wrapped and comes up dead or maybe you are competing in a capture competition. Why not use the whole fish?

The cheek meat was removed. Similarly to land mammals, the cheeks are a highly prized cut in most fish. They are muscles rarely called upon to do intensive work, the fat content is saturated. In a marlin a single cheek is enough meat for a single meal, producing a steak that would comfortably sit in the palm of your hand.

The wings were taken off with an array of options for use. These were headed for the grill, each wing would be more than enough for a couple to digest with a nice Pinot Grigio.

The bones, fins and head were to be put in the oven to roast and then into a stock pot. Roasting the bones before adding them to the liquid medium creates a brown stock with a more robust flavour. Reduced to create a rich jus or gravy. Ideal for fish pies or a marlin bolognese. Moving into Cabernet Sauvignon territory.

I was in ore watching Bosley work through this fish. He did not have to dwell on coming up with a plan. He already had it ingrained into his mind. He knew the value of each section and what dishes and recipes could be used to enhance its qualities. It was like seeing a meat butcher break down a cow. Second nature, unlike any fisherman I had ever seen. Which means something, I was a member of a game club for over a decade. 

We are grateful for this fish. With many friends and families benefiting from a variety of unique dishes. Killing marlin isn’t something that I go and do regularly, in fact, I don’t see the need to do this personally again. However, I am glad I was given the opportunity to bring this to recreational audiences. Thanks to Bosley and the Fish Butchery, people who do go out chasing marlin and have read this article have the opportunity to make the most of their catch. Who knows, maybe a large fish gets tail-wrapped and comes up dead or maybe you are competing in a capture competition. Why not use the whole fish?

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