Elephant fish are intriguing creatures, not only for their unusual looks, but also their fickle feeding habits. Wellington angler Jim O’Brien takes a look at this sport-fishing enigma, which fights strongly when hooked on light tackle and is found in good numbers in his angling backyard.
Aclose relative of the shark family, elephant fish have been described as both ugly (even grotesque) and strikingly beautiful – a real Jekyll and Hyde contrast.
Whatever way they are viewed, elephant fish are a sought-after quarry for Wellington shore-based and boat fishers. They are a true sporting fish, the cleanest of fighters, and a testing string-puller when hooked on light line. Rarely caught north of Taranaki and East Cape, elephant fish are an increasingly common catch for shore and boat fishers in the Wellington region, and a frequent catch in many parts of the South Island.
Sport fishing aside, elephant fish are biologically and physically one of our most interesting species. They have very noticeable physical features, starting with the trunk-like fleshy appendage near its mouth from which the fish gets its name. This is used to help find food. Also noticeable is the lateral line, which wanders down the body in a far from straight row of tiny dots; even more pronounced are the similar lateral-line markings that stand out on the very clean head.
The fish has large, broad pectoral fins and a long, wicked, fold-down spike extending from the leading edge of the dorsal fin. The tail of the fish is very shark like, having a long pointed upper lobe.
When first out of the water, particularly on a sunny day, elephant fish can dazzle you with their very shiny and reflective silvery skin.
A simple, two-hook 2/0 or 3/0 ledger rig is well proven for elephant fish. The first hook of the dropper should be tied close to or even off the sinker so the bait is presented as near the bottom as possible. Light line is recommended, both from the sporting aspect and because it is relatively inconspicuous, giving better results.
As for bait, elephant fish have a known liking for squid, which is best presented as a narrow triangle that flow and ripples in the current. Pass the hook through the broad end of the bait just once. They will also readily take the end piece of a squid tentacle.
Other good baits include a chunk of pilchard or, one of my favourites (borrowed from Bruce Basher), the inside-out bait, consisting of two fillets of pilchard laid skin to skin, and bound together with bait elastic.
Elephant fish are often an unexpected catch, especially for surfcasters. It would seem the fish have proven travel routes, but appear to be very fickle in how often they come close enough to shore to be caught. However, their numbers appear to be increasing, particularly from the big gravel beaches of Palliser Bay. A number of fish are also caught during late spring and summer from the shores of Oriental Bay and the Seatoun area of Wellington Harbour.
Boat fishers can target this fish year round in the harbour, as they tend to school up in areas bordering the shipping channel from Ward Island down to Seatoun.
Generally the fish are found in around 10 metres of water and, once you have a little practice at looking for the right shapes, can be located on the sounder.
When elephant fish take the bait, they will generally not move away quickly until the hook is felt. However, once hooked the angler is treated to a clean, honest fight – one of the compelling reasons why elephant fish are so rewarding to catch on light line. Aided by wide, strong pectoral fins and heavy bodies, elephant fish will slug it out, providing a fight that’s very similar to a trevally’s. They often give what appear to be head shakes, just like a snapper, but the thumps coming up the line are probably due to the twisting and turning of the head as it’s driven from side to side by the powerful pectoral fins. Generally, the smaller (3-4 kilo) males fight harder than the bigger females.
Their average size is in the region of four kilos, with the New Zealand record weighing in at a touch under nine kilos.
For sporting reasons and enhanced hook-up rates, a line of 6 kilos breaking strain or less is recommended.
A two-hook ledger rig, with the bottom dropper tied close to the sinker and squid strips for bait, is the most successful.
Elephant fish have distinct travel routes, so an angler in the know can patchwork an area, taking three or four fish at each site. This travel habit can make elephant fish vulnerable to local exploitation. Anglers should therefore temper their take so the resource remains available, not only to them, but also to the increasing number of anglers who want a crack at this fine eating and sporting fish.
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