Fish for the dish: Catch and cook your own fish!
THE idea of hunting fish for the table is as old as the hills. Analysis of the remains of a 40,000-year-old Asian man reveals that freshwater fish was a regular part of his diet. Ancient art and writings found beside the Nile River, depicts the use of nets, harpoons, traps and hook and line to catch eels and catfish. And whilst not as life-determining as it once might have been, fishing for food remains relevant to many.
Eating your catch is satisfying, healthy and provides purpose for sustainable angling rather than a licence for abuse. Unfortunately, rednecks remain alive and well, continuing to exceed bag limits, use illegal methods (nets, traps etc) and sell fish on the black market, and some of these characters are not nice people. So, rather than put yourself at risk of personal injury, get on the phone (perhaps a fisheries officer is nearby) or take sneaky pics with your phone (faces and rego numbers).
That said, adding fish to the larder is only as complex as you make it. Simple options include fishing charters or simple shore-fishing using bait you've made or collected yourself. Shore-based angling is great fun and there are options in any region of Australia you choose to fish from. You don't need a boat to "catch a feed" as there's plenty of shore-based options available in estuarine, coastal rock, river and dam locations, and as the name suggests, beach fishing is all from the beach.
With simplicity in mind, Fisho has compiled a list of species that can be caught from the shore from each region in Australia. Due to the inherent dangers to the inexperienced angler, we have not included ocean rock options. Be aware though, as simple as these fishing scenarios are, there will be more days (or nights) of famine than feast. That's fishing though, sometimes they bite and sometimes they don't. So, if you realise that effort is required and don't expect fish to jump on your hook each time, fishing for the table is a heap of fun! Catch rates will increase when the importance of locations fished and the effects of tide, moon, baits and suitable gear, is applied correctly. In general, avoid the middle of the day by fishing very early or at dusk and after dark. Fresh bait is best but live bait is better and learn to use the right lure the correct way. Make use of the massive pool of tips and techniques that can be found on the Fishing World website!
Nothing fancy is required with much of the land-based options involving smaller species, although quality gear makes fishing more pleasant and in the case of hard or dirty fighting fish, more productive. Handlines are fine, and possibly best, when fishing amongst the pylons of wharves and jetties, whilst a rod and reel is essential for situations that require a longer cast. It's important to use as light a line (and hence rod) as is practical for successfully landing the target species. For example, a 3-5 kg line would be ideal for garfish and mullet but suicidal for barramundi and mangrove jacks. So, do some research in order to match the outfit to the species and terrain being fished.
Barramundi: Probably the most-prized species, can be hard to find and often difficult to land from the shore, but they are there to be caught. Live bait such as mullet or herring provide the most reliable fishing baits and the bottom of large tides are considered to offer the best fishing in many spots. Barra bite best during warmer months. But no matter when you fish, ALWAYS watch out for crocs!
Mangrove jack/Fingermark: Both taste fantastic and both are caught around structure, so use heavy gear and be ready to go from 0-to-100 the second they hit, otherwise you'll be holding a limp line. Try live baits, fish flesh and lures around rocky foreshores and jetty pylons. Fish at first and last light or through the night with bait if you can find a possie that's safe from crocs, never fish on the shoreline in low or no light in croc country!
Threadfin salmon: Arguably the tastiest fish in the north, threadfin can be caught from the shore early or late in the day as they feed on the flats. Easy to spot when they are in the shallows ploughing for prey. An accurate cast to put your bait or lure in front of their nose is best. But, stay well back from the shore and NEVER wade into the water to reach a fish.
Mackerel: Spanish mackerel and smaller spotted mackerel are legit land-based species from coastal headlands. Look for clear water and cast chromed slices, swimbaits or surface lures. Be warned, their teeth are razor-sharp and can cause serious injury, particularly when first landed, so stay clear and always fish with a 30—50 cm long wire trace.
Old faithfuls: Whiting, bream and flathead are up north, ready to be caught.
TEMPERATE AND SOUTHERN SPECIES
Bream: A highly prized table fish that are found just about everywhere. Yellowfin bream are a marine fish that inhabit all temperate and warmer tidal and inshore waters. Commonly caught from estuaries and beaches on bait and small lures. Black Bream live further south than the yellowfin species, but fishing tactics remain the same. They are a wonderful table species with moist white flesh that can be enjoyed fresh or after defrosting.
Flathead: Another great species to chase from the beach or riverbank, these wonderful fish are found on the east coast (larger dusky flathead) as well as down south (southern blue-spot flathead). In summer the water is never to shallow and great results can be achieved when wading across shallow flats casting ahead with lures and bait. Also found in deeper channels, where small live mullet put fish in the bag. Beautiful to eat, if a little tricky to fillet. Be warned however, you'll be very unpopular if you keep duskier over 65 cm!
Whiting: Sand whiting are found everywhere whilst larger King George whiting are restricted to southern waters. Sand whiting as the name suggests, inhabit shallow sandy regions and are caught using worms or saltwater yabbies (pink nippers). King George whiting are found over shallow sand, weed and rocky areas off the coast as well as in bays and estuaries, preferring tenderised squid and cockle baits. A paternoster rig with a sinker large enough to cast to the desired area is a good start. Both are delectable eating having sweet white flesh.
Garfish: Schools are most prolific in the warmer months and are most active early/late in the day. Shallow flats of sand interspersed with weed are the places to look with anglers using light outfits, floats and small hooks. In northern regions they are targeted with bread and dough baits whilst maggots (gentles) are used down south. Bread/bran/fish oil berley is essential and from the shore, effectively delivered with berley floats. Very sweet on the palette with many eating them bones and all.
Mullet: Availability is seasonal and varies with regions, but these hard fighting scrappers taste better than many would believe, and they are great bait for bigger critters as well. Gar fishing techniques apply when fishing the shallows, but they can be caught from beaches as well using a sinker and trace with baits such as prawn, squid and the clear segment of a pipi. Don't forget that mullet was very popular during the depression and the BBQ mullet/beer meal was a back of the pub regular a few decades ago.
Tailor and Australian salmon: Wintertime sport and food and when on the chew, are caught quickly. Beach fishing is very popular, entailing long beach rods, hefty ball sinkers and 30cm traces securing 3 — 4 ganged hooks. WA pilchards are a favourite bait for both, but fishing techniques differ between the two. Fish holes and gutters early or late in the day but learn to distinguish between a tailor bite and a salmon bite. Tailor bites are rapid fire, 'type-writer' bites, and a slow retrieve is used to hook fish i.e. DO NOT strike. Salmon bite a bait like most fish, so strike. Both can be caught on lures, but metal slices, being easier to cast, are more popular. Retrieve very slowly for tailor and erratically for salmon. Best eaten fresh after bleeding upon capture, with salmon being popular for Thai fish cakes and other Asian recipes.
Mulloway: Beach and estuary dream fish for southern anglers. Large mulloway can reach well over 30kg in weight and are fished for with large dead or live baits and big lures. Fish the tides and expect a great deal of effort before landing one. Smaller school fish (10kg or less) are far more common and a more realistic target for filling the freezer. Mulloway are ambush predators that hold very tight against submerged structure, only leaving to feed during periods of slack water, so get good at reading tide charts, learn to love foul weather and have fun.
Snook: Southern snook are a larger version of eastern pike and are commonly targeted for the table. In S.A., snook are caught under jetty lights at night using lures and flesh baits. Perhaps not the best-eating fish, but they do have a following when eaten fresh or smoked.
Tommy ruff: South Australian angler's love these little herring, catching them on gents, soft fish and squid fished with berley at night. Not considered by everyone as a first-rate table fish, "tommies" taste great char grilled or smoked.
Ice is the main essential to ensure that fish reach the table in the best possible condition. Fortunately, great quantities are not required as its heavy stuff to lug around whilst fishing. This isn't a problem if a vehicle is nearby but becomes increasingly difficult as the amount of walking increases.
The most effective means of looking after fish is to immerse them in an ice slurry, say a 1:1 mix of ice and saltwater – so much better than bare ice! In mobile situations, chilled water (meaning less ice) works a treat short term and then placed into an esky of ice slurry for the trip home.
In addition, all table fish should be killed immediately and humanely upon capture and then bled. Spiking the brain with a sharp, pointed object (ike jime), results in instantaneous death and minimises stress to the animal and the acid build up resulting from that stress. Bleeding further enhances the table quality of fish and is achieved by cutting the arteries found under the gill covers and immersing the fish until blood flow ceases.
Whether or not fish are eaten whole or as fillets (skinned or not), is a matter of personal preference. However, in the case of saltwater species, the use of freshwater during cleaning or as a final flesh wash is to be avoided at all costs as it detracts upon their taste on the table. For fish being frozen prior to eating, a small cryvac machine is worth its weight in gold. They operate by creating a vacuum that sucks all the air out of the cryvac bag, into which the fish have been placed, and heat sealing the bag before air can return. Cryvacced fish lasts for a week or two in the fridge, depending on the temperature setting, and months in the freezer.
Remember, that fresh fish taste great, so why not bring a few home and feast away. Similarly, correctly frozen fish are a game changer, so put some away for a rainy day but stay within the possession limits within the appropriate state and territory. P.S. Fishing is a great way to beat the Covid-19 virus. Keep your distance and feast away!