Words & Images: Kosta Linardos
Whether you’re targeting them for bait or food, garfish are a species that every angler should be competent in catching. They’re accessible in every state and can be caught land-based, in bays, estuaries and offshore. Every predatory species, from snapper to marlin, responds to them as a bait and let’s not forget they are one of the best eating fish in the world, albeit a little fiddly to clean if you’re a stickler about bones.
Garfish are essentially everywhere there is saltwater. Most of the time they’re right under your nose, but only a keen – or educated – eye will notice them. They congregate around piers, break walls and over rubble, weed and reef. They’re even out in deeper waters in huge numbers, but in most cases will be abundant in the shallows. Essentially, if you focus on fishing over weed, rubble or some kind of bottom feature, you’ll find garfish – just stay away from expanses of open sand. I generally try to focus on an incoming tide as it’s the most productive; however, you’ll catch garfish at all cycles of the tide, but an incoming is definitely best, especially when land-based.
One of the essential elements of attracting garfish to your boat and keeping them there is berley. There are many ingredients that can make up a good garfish berley but for me the most effective – and the one I have the most faith in – is a mix of the Stimulate brand ground berley mix, which I mix with tuna oil and saltwater. Some anglers will go to great lengths of mixing the Stimulate with boiling water at home then adding tuna oil. I don’t believe this is necessary – just mix the ground berley mix with the tuna oil, add some water and stir until you have a consistency that isn’t runny or too dry (it should have the consistency of wet sand). If it’s too runny, it disperses too quickly and is harder to throw; and if it’s too dry, the garfish will actually be able to eat and fill up, which you don’t want. The idea of this berley mix is that you can disperse it via a spade-like instrument, which enables you to control the distance it sits behind the boat, and it sends the fish into a feeding frenzy, but they can’t actually fill up on anything. You can use berley baskets hanging from the side of the boat, but I believe it isn’t as effective and you waste too much berley doing it this way. I just use a small child’s sand bucket and a full bucket will usually last me a session until I have my bag of fish. Mixing the berley is the first thing I do once I anchor, then throw a few scoops out behind the boat and then rig up and cast. A sign your berley is working is on a calm day you’ll start seeing the fish breaking the surface.
The popularity of lure fishing has rendered well-designed bait rods quite scarce in the Australian market. The most common rods you’ll find are usually fibreglass construction with slow tapers, thick EVA grips and average sensitivity. I prefer a rod that’s a good mix of carbon and glass construction as it offers more finesse and sensitivity and a superior action for both detecting bites and setting hooks. The rods I use for garfish and whiting are entry-level bream rods that I have had customised with longer butt sections, so they sit in snapper racks. Most local rod builders can do this for around 20-30 dollars. Most casting rods have short butts or split butts, which aren’t great for snapper racks and just generally aren’t great for bait fishing. I’m not suggesting you do this, but it does make for a great rod for both species if you can’t find anything off the shelf. A 1000 to 2000-size reel spooled with 6-8lb braid is the perfect size, but monofilament line is fine. Braid again offers better sensitivity, bite detection and transmission to your float’s behaviour. There are many entry level reels on the market from brands such as Shimano, Daiwa and Penn that are perfect for garfish. Spend as much as you can for longevity.
A garfish rig is relatively simple and consists of a 6-8lb leader. If you’re in an area that’s highly pressured, dropping to 6lb or even 3lb leader can prove to be effective, but in most cases 6-8lb is fine. I join my leader to braid via a join knot such as uni-to-uni or slim beauty, then tie a long leader of about one and a half rod lengths. This keeps my rig simple and allows me plenty of leader to work with, which enables you to adjust the distance between the float and the hook. The most important aspect of your rig is the float – garfish feed on or just under the surface and a quick look at their mouth (situated on top of the head, with a marlin-like bill under it) shows they are no bottom feeder. There are various floats on the market, but I like pencil floats as they are a little more finessed and offer better bite detection. I like about 50-80cm of leader between the float and the hook, depending on water depth, and if the fish are finicky I make my leader longer. Very small long shank or fly hooks are best for garfish and quality hooks that are needle-sharp are worth the extra few dollars. My favourite hook is the Gamakatsu S11S-4L in a size 12 (the Gamakatsu S10S in a 12 is a similar and excellent hook). About 30cm above the hook I add split shot for weight; if you put the weight too high, you’ll get tangles when casting and if you put it too low the fish may be turned off, so 30cm is the sweet spot. Good floats will state on the side how much weight is required, or it may be case of trial and error to get it sitting straight and visible above the water line. I try and use the lightest floats possible and therefore the smallest split shot. Wind will usually dictate how light you can go, and the windier it is, the more weight is needed for casting distance and to keep your float visible in the waves.
You can use maggots, silverfish, calamari, pipi, basically anything small and white. I use pipi as you get a lot of baits out of one pipi and you can easily refreeze them and use them again without too much mess. You just thread a small piece on the hook and cast out. If the fish are there but they’re not committing to the bait, try very slowly winding in the bait in small increments, or even a slight twitch, as this will often get them going. Keep distributing berley to keep the fish around the boat and in that frenzied mode and you should have a good amount of garfish relatively quickly.
A String to Your Bow
This technique is a little fiddly at first due to the light line and the float required, but it’s a skill you should have. You can apply this same technique to a multitude of species and the ability to catch garfish will not only provide you with some great fun and an amazing feed, but will also provide amazing baits for a variety of other species.