Offshore menu: Top eating sportfish

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AT this time of year the water is warm and the current is blue. A lot of the bottom fishing options for tasty species such as snapper are now off the menu as the hard running current makes it difficult to fish the deeper layers, but most of us still want fresh fish in the refrigerator to put on the table.

The following is a guide to some common species encountered in the warmer months, with a few tips on how to process these fish and prepare them for the table. While a lot of my fishing is aimed at targeting marlin, there are a lot of other species that turn up as marlin bycatch. These are worthy targets in their own right. By changing your tactics slightly and working with different lures and methods it is usually fairly easy to catch a feed of high quality fish.

A major factor in the eating quality of your fish relates to how you look after them once you've caught them. The important factor is ice. The eating quality of common species such as striped tuna is infinitely better if you bleed and clean the fish as soon as you have caught it, and get it on ice as soon as possible.

Yellowfin tuna require careful processing for best possible table quality. Image: Chris Cleaver

TUNA
There are a wide variety of tuna species caught off the Australian coastline. These include yellowfin tuna, longtail tuna, mackerel tuna, skipjack or striped tuna and big eyed tuna. Most of these fish are caught by trolling or casting artificial lures.

In my local waters, off the Gold Coast, we regularly encounter yellowfin, mackerel and striped tuna when we are trolling skirted lures on the inshore grounds in summer and autumn. Tuna love small shiny skirted lures and fast running minnows, such as Halco Laser Pros or Rapala X-Raps. They can also be caught casting metal lures to breaking schools feeding on baitfish on the surface.

Most of the yellowfin we catch in summer and autumn are smaller fish from around 5 to 10 kilos, although bigger fish turn up at times. Mackerel tuna respond to the same methods but are the poorest eating quality of the locally encountered species. We generally use them for mud crab bait, for which they are superb. Striped tuna respond to slightly smaller lures, are great fighters on a pound for pound basis, and are surprisingly good eating when cleaned and put on ice. After the fish has been cleaned, bled and chilled on ice for at least an hour (or kept overnight in the fridge) I fillet the fish.

With big yellowfin you may have to fillet the fish after catching so it fits in your esky or ice box. Turn the fillet so it lays skin side down. There is a central section of red meat that is poor eating quality, with two sections of pink or white meat above and below the lateral line. Cut these away from the red meat and trim any fibrous tissue away from that section.

With even a small striped tuna you will be left with four boneless white sections of meat that you can prepare in a number of ways, from sashimi through to smoking. Tuna has quite a strong taste and isn't suited to the more traditional "fish and chips" cooking methods.

If you are using it for sashimi, make sure you dry the fillets out on a paper towel and store it in blocks for a day or so prior to cutting, drying it repeatedly prior to cutting it across the grain with a sharp knife. I find that cutting the fish up a couple of days after capture produces the nicest sashimi.

The firmness of the flesh makes tuna fantastic for fish curries and seafood chowders. The key is all in looking after the flesh immediately after you catch the fish.

Wahoo are great on the plate! Image: Scott Thomas

SPANISH AND SPOTTED MACKEREL AND WAHOO
All of these species are great to catch and fantastic to eat. At this time of year spotted and Spanish mackerel move well down the NSW coast from Queensland, and are a common target species in my local area.

These species inhabit the inshore grounds, while wahoo are a more pelagic species that tend to roam the ocean currents from the continental shelf through to inshore reefs and pinnacles. Spotted mackerel tend to turn up at the same places each season, and when the spotties move into an area they often stay for months. In my local waters at places like Palm Beach Reef, it is not uncommon to see more than 50 boats anchored up or trolling for spotties and Spanish mackerel when the fish are around.

The humble pilchard drifted down or fished under a float accounts for thousands of these fish every season. Most spotted mackerel are between 4 and 8 kilos. The larger Spanish mackerel will respond to the same methods as are used for spotties, but can be targeted using bigger baits and lures. Trolled dead baits such as tailor and bonito, or small live baits such as slimy mackerel trolled from a down rigger are very effective on Spanish mackerel. Both species also respond to cast metal lures and stick baits.

Wahoo are one of my favourite fish to catch. While we get a few as bycatch when marlin fishing, they can be specifically targeted by high speed trolling with metal headed lures, or slow trolling using small live tuna as bait. All of the above species have line cutting teeth and if you are specifically targeting them wire definitely helps reduce your lure losses.

When you catch a mackerel it is important to kill it quickly with a club to the head and get it on ice as soon as possible. I like to bleed and then trunk the fish, removing the head, tail and gut cavity and placing the fish on ice so the flesh firms. Wahoo are covered with a sheen of tiny scales that can dirty your fillets. I always scrub them with a scrubbing brush prior to putting them on ice.

Spanish mackerel have sharp teeth. Image: Patrick Linehan

Every wahoo carries a number of parasites behind the pectoral fin and in the stomach cavity. Don't be alarmed by these, they make no difference to the flesh. Once I've scrubbed down my Wahoo I cut the head and tail off and section the body so it fits in the esky. Wahoo are my favourite eating fish of all the mackerel species. If you trunk the fish rather than fillet it immediately it gives you the option of either steaking or filleting the fish later.

My favourite way to eat all types of mackerel is to cut the fillet into small thin sections and shallow fry in rice bran oil after coating the fish in flour, egg wash and Panko bread crumbs. These Japanese bread crumbs are crunchy and delicious. These fish are very versatile, and can be eaten in a wide variety of ways. They also freeze well and can be enjoyed for a few months after capture.

When you fillet the fish leave a bit of meat on the backbone, and cut the back bone sections into lengths about 15cm long. Cover these sections in flour and a bit of sweet chilli sauce and cook quickly on a hot barbecue plate. If you are steaking the fish, which is a great method with larger Spanish mackerel and big wahoo, cook them the same way. Mackerel steaks are great alternatives to beef!

Mahi mahi or dolphinfish fight hard and look great! Image: Patrick Linehan

MAHI MAHI (DOLPHIN FISH)
These fish are one of the most amazing creatures in the ocean. Their brilliant colours, great fighting ability and superb eating qualities make them a great target for those who love their fish from the strike right through to the plate. They tend to accumulate in big schools around offshore buoys, floating objects and FADS. They grow extremely fast, reaching around 8 to 10 kilos in their first year of life.

Mahi Mahi respond to a wide variety of methods. Most of the fish we catch fall to small to medium sized skirted lures, although they are also voracious eaters of both live baits and pilchards. Once hooked, they jump repeatedly and fight hard. They are very difficult to control once you bring them aboard, and it is important to stop them thrashing on the deck from both a safety perspective and also to protect their delicious flesh from being bruised. In many areas they are known as the chicken of the sea, which reflects their worldwide reputation as a great eating fish.

When I gaff a big mahi mahi and bring it aboard I try to grab the fish by the tail and fold it into a semi-circle, placing a barbless hook in its mouth that is attached to a stout cord. I then tie the tail tightly so the fish is controlled. Once settled, I bleed and clean the fish before trunking it, removing the head and tail and cutting the body into sections so it fits in the esky. I then fillet the fish after it has firmed from being on ice for a few hours.

Mahi mahi are fairly thin fish across the body. There is a small section of red meat in the centre of the fillet that needs to be cut away and the tail section can be quite fibrous and may need trimming. I find that bigger specimens over about 8 kilos make much better eating.

These fish are also very versatile. One way to prepare them is to cut the fish into thin chunks and place in a mix of lime juice, lemon, coconut milk and finely chopped chilli and refrigerate overnight. Served with red onion, olives and a nice green salad and a bit of pepper, this makes a superb meal and is a common method used in many of the Pacific Islands where Mahi Mahi are abundant. They are also excellent in Panko crumbs when pan fried in oil, and are a great fish for traditional "fish and chip" methods. The flesh is sweet and has quite a distinct flavour that can be used in almost any fish dish.

COBIA
Cobia are an unusual fish that often turn up in summer and autumn. While we catch the odd fish on trolled lures, most fall to live baits or soft plastics fished around structure.

These fish migrate as far south as Sydney at times, but are much more common from the Mid North Coast of NSW through to the entire coastline of Queensland. They fight hard and are mentioned here due to their superb eating qualities. If you catch a cobia, you have a protein feast on your hands!

Cobia have thick fillets and very firm flesh that tolerates freezing well. They have only recently become popular as a food fish and have been the subject of quite a few successful aquaculture trials in North Queensland. Over the years I've eaten a lot of cobia (they tend to come in big packages!) and they are great either crumbed and shallow fried, smoked after marinating in brown sugar and salt, in chowders or curries and they make great sashimi.

Some say that the great eating qualities are due to the large amount of crabs and crustaceans in their diets. If you are lucky enough to catch a cobia look after it carefully. Few fish taste as good as these strange shark like creatures.

BONITO
Bonito are commonly encountered on the inshore grounds and from the rocks are if looked after properly make great eating. They are very popular in Asian markets. The flesh is soft and they need to be iced down immediately after capture.

Bonito are often shunned by anglers as a poor eating fish, but if you poach the fillets in olive oil they are superb. Heat the oil till it bubbles, immerse the fillets and then turn off the heat. Remove when cool and serve as a warm fish salad. Once you've tried this you will be converted.

I hope the above guide generates a bit of interest amongst anglers to try a few different methods that enhance the fishing journey from the capture through to the plate. I enjoy my fishing from the hook-up through to the cooking, and all of the above species make a great meal.

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