Gurnard are a gastronomic delight and fun to catch. Michael Parker shares his gems of wisdom gathered from 25yrs of chasing this fascinating fish.
I caught my first gurnard while fishing in the Kaipara Harbour using heavy sinkers and 15kg line. That day I discovered that; gurnard have very sharp spines around their heads, it can be very hard to detect their bites when using heavy gear and that they grunt like a frog with a sore throat when hauled on board.
If tuna are considered the chicken of the sea then surely gurnard are the frogs of the sea.
I’ve been lucky enough to fish with some of the best, including gurnard legend John Moran from whom I have learnt much from our experiences together. I’ve now been targeting gurnard for 25 years and by sharing my experiences with you, hopefully your gurnard catch will improve too.
The very first thing to know of course is that you have to fish where the fish are. With gurnard that usually means over a muddy or sandy sea floor that is home to small crabs, shrimps, worms and small fish such as juvenile flounder.
The North Island’s West Coast beaches and harbours are probably the most productive areas. While there are some East Coast beaches that also fish well, I have no need to go far from my home on the western side of the Manukau Harbour to catch gurnard.
Gurnard welcome winter
The winter months through to spring are best when fishing the Manukau Harbour with the fish often plentiful and in great condition.
I fish where the channels start to rise up, especially if there is a gut running up onto the muddy banks. Usually I’ll fish in water that is 2-10 m deep when I’m in the harbour.
On the West Coast they can be caught in any depth that is easily fishable but I much prefer to stay in close where the water is 12m deep or less. They can be the predominant catch in these habitats.
Outside of the harbours they are more of a year round prospect, holding their condition a little better through the summer.
Soft bait gear is perfect for gurnard and I use 4.5kg (10lb) braid simply because large rays and sharks are common in the areas I fish. Being thin and strong it means that braid is well suited to fishing the big tidal flows of the harbours and keeps smaller sinkers firmly on the sea floor where they should be.
While you can catch gurnard on heavy gear, your catch rate will improve on light line, particularly if it is matched to the rod and reel giving you the sensitivity you need to detect those bites.
There are a number of rigs that are suitable for gurnard and when it comes to improving your catch it is often the attention to detail that makes all the difference. Gurnard haven’t read any articles on how they should behave but I’m sharing with you what works for me, not hard and fast fishing rules.
Choosing an effective rig
I fish with at least two different rigs as on the day you may well find one will work better than the other. One of those will always be a dropper rig.
I tie them using 10k or 15kg trace around one metre long. The dropper loops are 100 to 150mm long and the top loop sits 400 to 500mm from the bottom of the rig. The bottom dropper is tied long enough so the hook sits on the sea bed with the sinker when the line is taut.
If the current is running hard I will also use a running rig, where a sinker slides onto a swivel. From the swivel I tie a trace of 10kg line approximately one metre long and halfway along that trace I’ll tie a 100mm dropper loop.
If there is little or no current I often use no trace and just tie a single hook directly to the mainline with a sinker just heavy enough to keep the bait on the bottom.
Flasher rigs are often regarded as the go to rig for catching gurnard, although I seldom use them. There are three reasons for that.
- They are more expensive than my standard dropper rigs
- They catch little kahawai like crazy
- They are usually assembled with three hooks. As I often fish local competitions we are only permitted to use two hook rigs.
The ‘secrets’ to catching gurnard
I regard how I attach, bait and set recurve hooks as one of the real ‘secrets’ to catching gurnard.
A recurve or circle hook has a turned in point that just doesn’t look right to some people. Recurve or circle hooks don’t work well if you don’t use them correctly. To use them effectively you need to understand how they work.
A recurve hook almost always catches a fish in the corner of the mouth. A big strike may work when using a conventional hook but often it won’t when using a recurve as the sharp bit is pointing back at itself, not at the fish. Because gurnard have very large mouths you have every chance of a standard hook not finding anything to hook onto either.
A gurnard bite is usually seen as a slow nodding on the end of the rod. Let the fish do that three or four times then lift firmly and wind in one motion and the chances are that the fish will be yours. Strike too fast and you will probably miss it.
An old saying goes that we can’t keep doing the same things and expect different results. When we start fishing we may try a type of bait that doesn’t work for us on the day and so we abandon it altogether.
One of my usual baits nowadays for gurnard is kahawai. Pilchard cubes can work well and I’ve had successful days using jack mackerel and koi carp. Mullet and skipjack are still my favourites though.
The key is to take a variety of baits as on the day one may work better than another. I prefer to keep bait sizes small, certainly no more than the size of a matchbox cut diagonally in half. I pass the hook through the bait once only from one end so it hangs down from the hook.
Gurnard respond well to burley but it needs to be used well. To work properly the burley bag needs to be set very close to the bottom as I’ve yet to see a gurnard swimming on the surface of its own free will. When the water is deep and the current is swift, the more important that becomes.
In shallow water I often use tennis ball sized burley ‘grenades’ that I have made. I add a stone when making them so they sink. At slack water I throw them around my boat and that draws fish in from a larger area once the current starts to flow.
Gurnard respond well to soft baits too, especially those with lots of action such as Gulp Crazy Legs. Colours such as new penny or pumpkin seed seem to work best.
Inchiku jigs can be gurnard magnets at times, but use a jig no heavier than what is needed to get to the bottom. When fishing off the West Coast I often throw an inchiku out the back, letting out plenty of line to ensure the jig is sitting behind the baits so it doesn’t tangle with the other lines before putting the rod in the rod holder.
Handling sea frogs successfully
Gurnard have sharp spines behind their heads and also on their dorsal fins. It’s best to handle them using a towel, as with most fish they usually hold still if you turn them upside down to remove the hook. I then iki it before putting the fish on ice. When you iki a gurnard make sure you place the fish down on a hard surface, I found out years ago that an iki spike can easily go through the fish and into your hand.
Several years ago size limits for gurnard were introduced and at the time of writing the minimum size limit for gurnard is 25cm, which is a very small fish. I seldom keep one unless it is closer to 35cm, while they can reach a length of over 50cm and weigh up to 2kg.
Gurnard are a favourite eating fish for many and as they don’t have scales I leave the skin on for frying or grilling. It does pay to leave the fillets in the fridge over night as they will curl up when cooked when they are very fresh. Small bite sized cubes coated in a seasoned breadcrumb mix also make a very tasty snack.
Most people only seem to land gurnard as a by-catch but try targeting them and you will be surprised at how your rate will improve. You will also be surprised at some of the other species of fish you may unintentionally land.
Like me, most people find them a fascinating fish and while gurnard may not have the same universal catch appeal as snapper or the raw energy that kahawai and kingfish have, I’ve yet to see anyone disappointed when they put one in the bin.
I still remember the first gurnard I caught 25 years ago. No doubt most first time catchers will also be amazed at their beauty and that croaky frog like noise they make. Sea frogs rule!