Piper, also called garfish, can be fantastic as baits, but are difficult to catch at times (and use), so Mark Kitteridge offers a few tips.
I can’t count how many times my fishing trips have been saved by the catching of a few piper after other bait-catching avenues have been exhausted.
Indeed, such can be their effectiveness on a wide range of fish species, alive or dead, whole or cut, I certainly understand why some people try for them first, before targeting the more popular mackerel and kahawai...
While drag-netting or whipping out a throw net will generally secure a bunch of these prime baits quick smart, I find the ‘net thing’ unattractive philosophically; way too many can end up being caught, leading to wastage. That’s why I prefer to catch them on rod and reel: in addition to the catching process being absorbing fun, I’m able to control the numbers of piper caught.
These relatively delicate baitfish often turn up in berley trails, but can be hard to spot. However, by throwing in a few finger-tip-fulls of bread mixed with water, they soon start swirling and nosing the floating crusts around, making them easier to detect.
To catch them, a light spinning outfit (2-3kg capabilities) is recommended, as the better techniques involve casting out.
Piper can be caught with, or without, a quill or pencil float, but either way it pays to use long-shanked hooks because they’re easier to remove from the piper’s mouth. I suggest using size 10 or 12 freshwater ‘nymph’ hooks. These bronze-coated hooks rust easily, but are sharp and just wide enough in the gape to make them hard to swallow right down.
A small split-shot is crimped onto the light nylon, about 30cm away, although tying a smallish swivel in that position works almost as well.
If you choose to fish without a float, place a small piece of bait onto the hook, making sure it’s small enough to fit within a reasonable piper’s mouth, and that the point and barb are still exposed. Use pale-coloured baits, such as small squid strips, as they’re tough, show up nicely, and are attractive to the piper.
Cast the lightly-weighted bait out, engage the reel and begin retrieving at a very slow pace, but not so slow that your bait sinks right down. If you’re finding the latter hard to avoid, put a smaller split-shot on.
Keep your rod tip down and pointing along the line, and watch the line coming up from the water to the rod tip like a hawk. As soon as it tightens, wind the handle quickly (this is faster than striking with the rod), and there should be a piper skittering around on the end.
Should float fishing appeal instead, make sure the float is small and slim enough to be pulled under easily by the piper, but not by the split-shot, so weight it to suit.
As moving baits tend to be more attractive to piper than stationary ones, wind this rig in too, but even more slowly than the weighted rig. If the float ducks or hesitates or starts to move sideways, wind quickly or give a gentle strike. Sometimes your only indication of a piper bite will be the pale bait ‘winking out’ as the piper gently inhales it.
Having caught your piper, if you want to use it as bait, be very careful when handling them, as they are delicate and lose scales easily. It therefore pays to hold them over the live-bait container and avoid touching them directly as much as possible.
Alive… Yes, live piper can be truly fantastic baits – especially for kingfish – although they do have their drawbacks. While there’s no denying even monstrous kingfish can be enticed into eating them at times, they’re much more likely to be nailed by a rat-sized model instead, or a decent kahawai (at least you’ll get a fresh bait out of it, I suppose) — or even a snapper, as no predator seems immune to the charms of these little slivers of silver.
The other disadvantage of using piper as live baits concerns how they are hooked. My favourite way involves angling the hook across the bait’s upper body in the ‘shoulder’, but do this with a piper and there’s a fair chance you’ll damage the backbone and render it paralysed. Sure, you can hook the bait more lightly, but this makes any subsequent handling a risky proposition, with the hook possibly tearing out during even gentle lobs. Instead, it’s better to let your piper swim away under its own steam when hooked in such a manner – and, even then, your care and patience may be undone by an explosive strike, with the hook ripping free in the process.
Another common hooking position sees the hook placed through the baitfish’s cartilaginous nose, just in front of their eyes – but do this with a piper and it’s generally rendered somewhat cross-eyed and sluggish. So instead, try much further back and underneath the body near the anal fin, where there’s nothing too vital to cause significant injury. However, you will still need to keep handling to a minimum and use a small but strong live-bait hook to enable your bait to remain frisky. Also, retrievals should be avoided if possible, as this causes the piper to be brought in backwards, reversing its normal breathing pattern and often leading to a quicker death.
Finally, if wanting to use a piper as a live bait under a float, it’s best used in conjunction with a barely inflated balloon or streamlined float that’s easily pulled under the water. Piper are not very large or strong, so the influence of wind on bigger balloons can see them getting blown out of position (or even into the air!) – a real pain if that wind happens to be angling onshore and you’re a land-based angler. Also, a smaller float that slips beneath the surface easily doesn’t interrupt the king’s feeding process, allowing the piper to get eaten properly and making
a hook-up more likely. Conversely, a big balloon’s resistence to being pulled under the water can see piper smashed off the hook by hard strikes.
Piper are one of the few baits that still regularly attract all kinds of predators when dead. Having said that, kingfish often bite quite warily initially, so require a bit of teasing – much like a cat with wool – to get them to take with more commitment. While a simple hook through the front of the bony skull can do the job (with the beak snapped off to prevent it spinning), I prefer rigs incorporating two fixed hooks. This method covers the bait more effectively, enabling anglers to cast and retrieve their baits if they want, and to strike immediately at any strikes with a fair chance of success. The two-hook rig is also the way to go if snapper are your target…
If all the above fails to produce, I suggest scaling and gutting the remaining piper, placing them on ice, and taking them home. Now cut a small slit through the pipers’ tail with the point of a slim, sharp knife so the piper’s beak can be inserted through it to create a circle. Then, after coating the piper with seasoned flour, place them in gently bubbling butter in a frypan, and cook till golden brown – DELICIOUS!
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