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How to Catch john dory, and why

27 April 2018
How to Catch john dory, and why

Dear John …Dory. Nothing personal. It’s not you, it’s me. I am in love with your friends, massive snapper and big kingfish. We can still be friends, hang out, and I know we can enjoy some amazing dinners together every now and then. Please don’t be offended when my heart races at the scream of the reel and bend of the rod when your friends arrive. Yours truly Every fisherman that loves great seafood and bent rods.

Poor old Johnny D is much underrated as a target species, undoubtedly due to the complete lack of resistance once hooked.

However, targeting John Dory is not only great fun, but can produce some of the best fishing ever with the ‘by-catch’ being potentially massive snapper, kingfish, or Hapuka.

There’s a lot going on here.  It’s like reverse psychology.  Don’t target big fish and you inevitably catch them.  If you don’t, but manage to score a few John Dory in the process, brilliant.

You will feel like mission-accomplished and have one of the greatest table fish in the country to look forward to.

In my book, john dory is superior to many other popular species including snapper when it comes to eating.

They are delicate, subtle in flavour, and despite their flat looking profile, a medium sized john dory will render a surprising amount of edible fillets.

They have no scales to speak of, so lend themselves spectacularly to being fried skin side down.

The secret to achieving perfect crispy skin dory is to dry the fillets out, skin side up, in the fridge for at least 2 hours prior to cooking.  Keep the pan super-hot, use oil, and fry skin down until the fillet is almost cooked through, then flip for a few seconds only to finish.

john dory are prolific around the NZ coastline.

You’ll find them floundering around in less than a metre of water, or out as deep as 150 metres plus.

They are voracious predators, with a characteristic telescoping mouth that shoots forward to engulf its staple prey, any small baitfish.

They are such suckers for a struggling fish, that this is their Achilles heel for fishermen to take advantage of.

John dory are commonly caught as welcome by-catch when soft baiting or lure fishing, but if you are serious about hunting them, you’ll be using live bait.

Dory are complete suckers for a livie, the best being small (five to seven inch) jack mackerel.

They also inhabit precisely the same terrain favoured by more popular species, snapper and kingfish.  To that end, you are just as likely to hook up into a really solid monster as you are to hook a john dory, so we gear up to cater for that opportunity, which is of course, total overkill for the fight a jd will offer.

The process

John dory generally favour the cover of weed and foul.  Any reef structure, pylons, or rocky features are likely to host them.

They don’t move around much, you’ll be able to find them all year round, day and night.

It can sometimes be harder to find live bait than it can to find fish to eat them.  This is when the ubiquitous sabiki rig plays its part, although sometimes baitfish seem to prefer a small piece of bait on a single tiny hook.  Mackerel can be demons at turning up their noses so sometimes very fine fluorocarbon and a light trout fly hook will be the only method that works.

If you are struggling to secure bait in the shallows (try around docks and wharves etc) then it may pay to cruise around very quietly a bit deeper looking for bait schools on the sounder.  Often s sabiki rig dropped into these will be hit more aggressively.

Occasionally only very small, light, fine rigs will work so be prepared to lose a few hooks in the pursuit of a tankful of wriggling gold.

Wriggling gold!  A lovely arsenal of mackerel on deck

Once you have secured livies, head for any likely looking structure or your favourite soft baiting spot.

I like the 30 -40 metre mark reefs and contours as it can be easier to get fish off the bottom and is not too far down to monitor the livies ‘enthusiasm’.

Live baits can be fished very successfully on the drift, or at anchor.    I’ve had the best luck drifting as you do cover more ground naturally, and big snapper and kingfish are more easily controlled if the boat is mobile immediately after a hook up.

A nice by-catch that was returned as it's eating qualities did not match the John Dory already on board


Ideally use a lighter weight jig rod.  These are ideal as they offer flex and sensitivity in the tip, but plenty of grunt when the bigger species front.

Around foul ground you will need at least 50lb braid and 60-80lb monofilament or fluorocarbon leader.  Go heavier if the grounds are notoriously rough or host really good sized kings.

A decent quality reel with a good strong drag is mandatory if you want to put the hurt on strong fish in shallow water.

The favoured rig is a running sinker on the main line, usually 1 to 4 oz depending on depth and current.  Use the smallest weight you can get away with that gets the bait down.

This attaches to a strong swivel, and then a metre and a half of trace.

Hook choice is determined by your live bait size.  Any specialist live bait hook around 5/0 - to 7/0 is usually ideal.

J hooks work best on jd’s as their odd mouth shape can make it tricky for circle hooks to find purchase.  If you prefer to release any big snapper or kings however, stick with the circle hook option.

Don’t fish more than two live baits simultaneously from your boat, or you will likely end up tangled.

Where to place the hook in live baits is open for debate.  All methods including through the nostrils, through the eye sockets, and just under the skin of the back will work.

Using circle hooks in these locations will commonly result in the hook point turning in to the bait which results in missed strikes.  Veery frustrating.

To avoid this try hooking the point in, and up through the roof of the baitfish’s mouth, which leaves the point swinging free of any soft flesh.

Swim the live bait down allowing it to pull the line as you thumb the spool.  Try to avoid the sinker overtaking the bait as this can result in the bait twisting around the main line.

Metred braid is excellent to ascertain how far down you have released the baitfish to the corresponding activity on your depth sounder.

Keep the baitfish just up out of the foul.  Braid line is excellent for detecting touches of weed and rocks so stay alert and active on the reel.  This is why holding the rod is always preferred to letting Rod Holder take control.

Hits from a john dory are generally a thump or steady weight coming on.  There’s no need to strike as this will possibly tear the hook out, just start smoothly winding the fish towards the boat, it will feel like it’s a children’s gumboot, bless.

Snapper and kingfish tend to take the bait and run harder.  Give them a few seconds, engage the reel, wait for the weight to come on and lean into it.

Often decent kingfish will be startled and you have that short moment to pump and wind some line in short hard bursts to turn its head and get it away from the foul.

Landing johnnies often requires a net, as their soft mouth membranes tear easily and the slightest lack of tension can see the hook just drop out.

Try targeting john dory for a change.  If you seek them out specifically, you’ll be surprised at how easy they are to actually find.

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