Fishing for Goatfish

Craig Worthington goes out of his way to catch some of the lesser targeted fish species found in NZ waters, and one of his favourites is the goatfish. He gives us a rundown of where to find and how to catch this rare and attractive fish…

Goatfish are one of the most colourful and interesting small fish you can catch in New Zealand. They are not an everyday catch (which in my book makes them even more interesting), but they will bite lures, flies and sabikis quite readily. They are, in fact, a fish that you can target on any given fishing day – just don’t expect your catch return to be massively high.

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Confusingly, they are sometimes referred to as ‘red mullet’ even though they are obviously not related to proper mullet at all. This name comes from the Mediterranean and has ancient origins. The Romans referred to goatfish as ‘mullus’ and considered them a great delicacy. The Family name of Mullidae reflects this history.

I cannot remember ever having actually eaten a goatfish, but I am assured by others that they are quite tasty. There are many different types of goatfish around the world and they all have a good reputation on the plate. In Aitutaki in the Cook Islands you’ll quickly attract a crowd if you give any of the goatfish you catch to one of the locals. Every single species is considered great tucker and there are upwards of ten species there to choose from.

Here in New Zealand there are three or four species of goatfish recorded, but only one species is common – the red goatfish (Upeneichthys lineatus). This goatfish can be found all around the northern parts of the country, favouring soft sediments on the edge of reefs, through harbour channels and in sheltered bays. It is not an uncommon in some flounder spearing locations to disturb a slumbering goatfish with the glow of the flounder light. In some prime locations where coastal currents flow over soft substrates on the edge of kelp smothered rocks, they can be incredibly abundant. The best locations will also have several john dory hovering silently amongst the goatfish schools with shags (cormorants) trying to dive down and grab the goatfish from above. Kingfish too, will make smashing attacks on those goatfish herds. Everything, it seems, likes to eat goatfish.

Our beautiful and very red goatfish - one of the most stunningly coloured fish you will ever catch in New Zealand.

Our beautiful and very red goatfish - one of the most stunningly coloured fish you will ever catch in New Zealand.

You’ll catch them in depths that range from a few metres right down to one hundred, but they’re most abundant in ten to thirty metres of water. The big male fish frequently attack the lure first. It may be some sort of territorial response. These boys have vivid red hues on their scales and fins with iridescent blue/purple lines and spots running through them, finished off with a vivid, yellow border. Very pretty. Even their eye contains dazzling combinations of blue, purple and red.

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The smaller female fish can be a mix of more natural colours in shallow water, while the deeper water fish of all sexes are nearly always a standard red.

All goatfish have the distinctive muscular barbels under their chin. These are a great hunting weapon that they use extremely effectively. They can taste the sand, worm holes and rock crevices with these barbels and winkle out any likely prey. The worldwide abundance of goatfish and their success as a species is mostly a result of these fascinating appendages. They use them so effectively for hunting that it is not uncommon to hook them in the barbel when catching them on sabikis. Watching a school of goatfish working a patch of sand with their barbels is a fascinating sight underwater. They are truly a uniquely adapted fish for the environment they live in.

In terms of size, they are not the biggest fish on the planet, but they more than make up for it with all their other interesting traits. Forty centimetres is about as big as the New Zealand red species gets, but they’re not uncommon in the twenty to thirty centimetre range. At this size they are quite chunky and can produce reasonable sized fillets, if you have the desire to eat one.

Catching goatfish involves bouncing a soft-bait, metal jig or a set of sabikis right on the sand of their soft bottom habitat. They can be quite aggressive and will attack remarkably large lures, even lures bigger than themselves.

I have several spots where I can target them directly, but the catch rate never quite reflects the large numbers I see in these locations when diving. The nice thing about it is that john dory, tarakihi and porae are something of a by-catch in the same environment and so the jigging over these ‘goatfish flats’ can be an interesting diversion for a species hunter like myself.

It is, however, overseas and in the tropics where the goatfish family really comes into their own as a sportfish species. There are several species of tropical goatfish that get even bigger than our chunky red variety. Some of these species get up to fifty centimetres long and are very much predatory in habit. They will nail any fly, lure or soft-bait cast their way.

Red goatfish will attach soft-baits - and just about any other lure or fly you cast their way.

Red goatfish will attach soft-baits - and just about any other lure or fly you cast their way.

In this regard, Aitutaki is something of a goatfish hotspot. It has a worldwide reputation as a producer of monster bonefish, but those same productive sand flats and coral channels also deliver big goatfish of several types.

The dot-dash goatfish is a bonafide baitfish eater that will eagerly smash any lure cast its way, while the heavy shouldered gold-saddled goatfish is even bigger and more colourful and does very much the same. Both species are a common capture in Aitutaki.

A lovely dot-dash goatfish taken on a fly in Aitutaki.

A lovely dot-dash goatfish taken on a fly in Aitutaki.

Slightly smaller than these two ‘premier’ Aitutaki goatfish species are a whole host of other goatfish species that are equally keen on lures and flies. Part of the fun of an Aitutaki adventure can be seeing how many different goatfish species you can catch in the duration of your stay.

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The two bigger species can actually be found actively hunting baitfish and can be specifically targeted when they’re on the hunt. Generally, you’ll see a small spray of hardiheads or other baitfish beside a shallow coral bombie or down a sand bottomed coral channel. The big goatfish tend to stick to their territories fairly strongly so you can sneak up on a likely location and lay out a cast when you see baitfish moving. Even once the surface action has calmed down the big goatfish will still be there. As long as you don’t spook them they don’t tend to move too far.

The gold-saddled goatfish is a big stunning goatfish from the tropics that also comes in a bright yellow variety.

The gold-saddled goatfish is a big stunning goatfish from the tropics that also comes in a bright yellow variety.

At other times the goatfish will be caught on blind casts into channels that have a little bit of current flowing down them. They seem to like a mix of reef and sand with a bit of water flowing over the top.

Catching goatfish in these pristine bluewater tropical environments is an absolute delight, but equally so is jigging for our beautifully coloured red goatfish in quiet sheltered bays nearer to home.

Wherever you find it, goatfish fishing is great fun.

October 2021 - Craig Worthington
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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