Garfish - mini marlin of the estuaries

Tasmania has an abundance of southern sea garfish. They are a prime winter fish that probably grow bigger in Tasmania than anywhere else. Garfish are relatively easy to catch, and as well as being good to eat they make great bait as well.

Garfish are a great little fish. They are easy to catch, a lot of fun and can be found all around Tasmania. The fish we catch in Tasmania is the southern sea garfish which has a distribution from halfway up the West Australian coast, all across southern Australia and into the bottom part of New South Wales. Sea garfish live in sheltered bays, clear coastal waters and virtually all of Tasmania's estuaries.

The Derwent River, Tamar River, all the east coast estuaries - including Little Swanport, Swan River, Georges bay, plus all along the north coast, to Duck Bay you'll find these great little fish. Garfish are most abundant in water less than 20 meters deep. They are schooling fish that come to the surface at night and live close to the seabed and seagrass during the day.

One of the great aspects of fishing for garfish is that they are easily coaxed to the surface during the day with some berley. Pretty much anywhere there is good seagrass beds in Tasmania you should find garfish. You'll find them all year round, but the bigger specimens are particularly prevalent during the autumn and winter months - especially from March until September. Whilst most of Australia is happy with fish to 40cm Tasmania is blessed with up to and often over 50cm. Fish this size can be cut into cutlets or fillets and make great eating.

Targeting Garfish

Tide doesn't seem to matter too much with garfish, and you can fish for them anytime during the day. The most important thing is berley and in a fast tide or current you'll find the berley spreads out a bit too quickly. Fish an hour either side of high or low tide and you'll normally get the best of it.

Anchor up so your berley is going back over the seagrass beds and start flipping some berley over the side. The berley can be a simple mix of bread and a can of cat food, which contains an oily fish such as tuna or pilchards. Bread and tuna oil works just as well with some water mixed in. It all needs to be finely mushed up so the pieces are tiny. You can use a berley bucket, but I prefer the hands on approach. Keep the berley trail constant, but be quite miserly with the quantity, otherwise the garfish just get a free feed and you'll get nothing.

It normally won't take more than fifteen minutes to attract garfish with berley. You'll soon see then at the back of the boat grabbing at the food in the berley trail. If they don't appear within twenty minutes try somewhere else.

Whilst garfish are mostly targeted from a boat there are plenty of jetties where garfish can easily be caught. Just look for seagrass and all you need then is a bit of current to deliver the berley.


The following three rigs will give good results; two with floats and one without.

The first rig is best when there is little or no current. It is simply a long shank size 10 offset hook, 300-500mm under a small pencil float. I use red hooks, but not for any real reason other than I like them. Using this simple rig the float lays on the surface and because it is close to the boat it is easy to see. When a fish takes the bait it pulls the pencil float into a vertical position and then you strike. If there is too much current though the bait gets dragged to the surface and the rig is not the best. The second rig is essentially the same, but with some split shot or a small sinker added just above the bait and this keeps the bait below the surface where you will get more action. With this rig the added weight makes the float run upright. If a fish takes the bait now the float does one of too things and it either goes from vertical to horizontal or it gets pulled under. Either way you strike.

The third rig is no float and no split shot - just a hook and the bait. It works best if you grease the line with some floatant and watch it carefully as it drifts back into the feeding zone. When it makes off in any way strike.

It is important with all these rigs to feed the rig back behind the boat into the feeding zone and watch it very carefully. Also important is line size. Whilst garfish are scrappy little fighters there little need for more than two or three kilo line. The only problem here is if some bigger fish like mullet arrive on the scene.

I prefer a lovely soft rod that you might call sloppy. It is a Crane Light by Javis Walker that suits sensitive bait fishing perfectly. There are many other rods that would suit, but look for one with a soft tip for best results.

Note: Small bubble floats can be used, but the pencil floats are a lot more sensitive and you will get a lot more opportunities. Almost any bait will do - perhaps the best is a small piece of prawn. It stays on the hook quite well and the garfish seem to love it.

Fly Fishing for Garfish

This is a fun way to catch these mini marlin. Trout gear is plenty - and even an overkill. Use a floating line with a two meter level leader of two kilos. A size 12 bread fly is all you need, but there is a little trick that will increase your chances enormously. Offset the hook on your fly as much as you can. Twenty to thirty degrees is not too much. Garfish only have a small mouth and when they grab a fly the material often protects the hook - consequently they are hard to hook on a fly. Offsetting the hook gives you the upper hand. It is also a good idea to squash the barb. It makes them easier to hook - and if you are intending to release fish it is much simpler.

Cooking Garfish and De-boning garfish

Many people like to de-bone their garfish first. To de-bone a garfish clean it and then cut the skin all the way around the body behind the gills - taking care not to cut through the backbone. Place it belly flaps down on a board and with a rolling pin roll firmly along the length of the spine several times. Turn the fish over and hold the body with one hand and pull the head upwards. The backbone and ribs will come away in one piece.


Baked garfish

  • You'll need:
  • Butter
  • Garfish fillets
  • Lemon
  • Tomato
  • Salt and pepper
  • White wine
  • Mozzarella cheese

De-bone garfish as above and cut into fillets. Brush a baking dish with butter and put in the first layer of garfish fillets. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and then add some thinly sliced lemon. Add another layer of garfish and sprinkle with more salt and pepper. Brush with a little melted butter. Add thinly sliced tomato, thinly sliced lemon, and a splash of white wine. Take a sip of wine yourself to make sure it is ok. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and top with the mozzarella cheese and bake in a moderate oven for about 20 -25 minutes.

Pan Fried Garfish
You'll need:

  • 2-3 fillets per person
  • Plain flour
  • Olive oil
  • Two eggs
  • One tablespoon chopped parsley
  • One tablespoon chopped dill
  • Salt and pepper

Dry the garfish fillets in paper towel, then dust with plain flour and dip in beaten egg. Heat olive oil in a non-stick pan and before it starts to smoke, place the fish fillets in a single layer, skin up, and season. Allow to cook for a minute, then turn over and allow to cook for a further minute.
Serve immediately on a pile of mashed potato with a slice of lime and some mayonnaise.

Baked Garfish with Olives
You'll need:

  • 2-3 fillets per person
  • Virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • One cup Stuffing
  • Preparing the stuffing:
  • Four tablespoons of pitted kalamata olives, finely chopped
  • Six shallots, finely sliced, including green tops
  • Two garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • One red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
  • Two tablespoons grated parmesan
  • Cracked black pepper
  • One tablespoon virgin olive oil

Place all ingredients into a large bowl and mix well. Next dry all the fillets and place skin down in a single line along your bench. Spoon even amounts of stuffing onto each one and roll the fish up as you would cloth, starting at the tail end. Place the fish on a well oiled baking tray, season, then drizzle with oil before placing in  a hot 200 degrees Celsius oven for 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and serve immediately, or you can serve at room temperature, ideal with salad.

Mike Stevens

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