Tarakihi, or turkeys as they are lovingly referred to by the more hardcore tarakihi hunters, are a hugely underrated table and even sport fish that I love to get out and target.
They take 3-4 years to reach the minimum landing size of 25cm and can live up to around 50 years old. As young juveniles, they tend to congregate on shallow reefs up to a few metres deep before moving to deeper water where they can be found schooling over sandy/muddy seabed, as well as reefs and structure; however, I prefer to target them in the shallower water as it’s more accessible. Generally, they are found in much deeper water in most of the North Island, but Wellington and the top of the South, including Tasman Bay and the Marlborough Sounds, hold good numbers much shallower, as do a few other places in the South Island.
Tarakihi belong to the morwong family, the same family as red moki, and have a thin body shape with a sharp nose and a forked tail. They have a dark grey back with a light underside and are distinguishable from blue moki and porae by their black band behind their eyes, which tends to fade after they have been dispatched. Another species of tarakihi less commonly caught and known about is the king tarakihi, which is usually found in more remote waters such as the Three Kings and the Ranfurly Banks. It is distinguishable from normal tarakihi by the faded black mark on the top of its head rather than the clear black mark on normal tarakihi.
Tarakihi have very small mouths and are picky eaters. They feed on small crustaceans, shellfish and other fish but will take most baits if they are small enough. They are a schooling fish (you will rarely find a solitary tarakihi), so having several hooks often results in double hook-ups. An important behavioural trait they exhibit is their tendency to sit just off the seabed, which is something important to consider when targeting these guys. Tarakihi have a keen sense of smell and respond very well to berley, particularly berley lifted just off the bottom and held at the same level in the water column as the school.
Finding the right spot
To consistently catch tarakihi, finding a good spot is essential. When looking for an area to fish, there are lots of things to consider. First and foremost is finding structure or reef – anything from a pinnacle to a cluster of boulders can be enough to hold a shoal of tarakihi. Watching your fish finder closely and looking over charts and even watching the coastline are all good ways to locate such a spot. For the North Island fishos, tarakihi tend to be a deeper water species, so pushing out from the coast to deeper water may produce the best results; however, they can also be encountered along weed edges in relatively shallow water. For the more southern fishermen, you will be able to find tarakihi in much shallower water, but that is not to say that you won’t find them out deep as well – it’s all about how far you’re willing to go.
What I have found is that tarakihi, like a lot of fish, will sit either just behind or in front of structure where the current is. Positioning yourself so your line is just off the side of the structure often leads to better catches, particularly if the reef or structure backs off onto mud or sand as they really like this kind of territory. Another important factor that relates to almost every species is tide and current. I have found that tarakihi will congregate and feed in areas of higher current. For this reason, you will find the bite turns on as the tides start to push but dissipates at slack tide, so don’t be afraid to try the same spot more than once at different tides.
How to fish the turkey spot
Whether you should anchor up and berley or drift fish depends on the depth, current and how the fish are behaving on the day. I have found both techniques to be highly effective. In deeper water where there is a lot of structure to cover, I find drifting is the best way to cover ground and find the fish. Marking where you are catching the fish is an effective way to narrow down where the fish are, so you can position your drift accordingly or alternatively anchor up in that area.
For shallower water, I find anchoring up and berleying more effective as there is much less water to attract the fish in from. One of my go-to tarakihi spots is in 15 metres in Tasman Bay just behind a small boulder with a fair bit of current, and with the right tide and techniques, I have had some cracking days here.
Tarakihi have relatively small mouths and a sensitive nature which often leads to very subtle, sometimes indistinguishable bites, particularly if using the wrong kind of rod and reel. Very small hooks are essential and will increase your catch rate massively. I like to use strong 1/0 to 3/0 circle or j hooks such as the Blackmagic KS or KLT hooks depending on the size of fish you think are in the area, and the bycatch you might encounter which may need stronger or larger hooks. I prefer to use a relatively light leader of around 20 to 40 pounds; however, if I’m fishing in deeper water, I will up my leader and hook size as bycatch of larger species such as groper, trumpeter and cod is always possible.
I like to use a ledger rig with up to three hooks branching off the mainline. A refinement that I have found to work incredibly well is having a much longer length of leader below your hooks for the sinker, as tarakihi will feed well off the bottom. Depending on the water depth, I will increase or decrease the length of this leader. This technique also limits bycatch of less desirable species such as spotties, wrasse, sea perch and often undersized cod. For example, in 100 metres of water I would have a length of line from my hooks to my sinker of about two or three metres, whereas if I was in 20 metres, I would change this to half a metre or less.
I was recently fishing off Kaikoura drifting in around 80 to 100 metres of water. For those who have fished at Kaikoura, you will know just how many sea perch there are and how hard it is to get your bait past them. Even dropping to the bottom and instantly winding up doesn’t seem to help, as the moment the bait hits the bottom, a sea perch is attached. Using the knowledge I had gained from watching tarakihi while diving (I could see they like to sit just off the bottom), my dad came up with the ingenious idea. To prevent the baits from ever getting to the bottom where the hungry sea perch were waiting, we tied a two-metre length of leader under our rigs. Almost instantly we went from unhooking sea perch and small cod, to catching good sized tarakihi on almost every drop. The quality of bycatch we were pulling up also massively increased as well, with some solid blue cod filling the chilly bin.
Pre-made rigs are also very effective as long as you are using the right hook size. For example, the Tarakihi Terror Blackmagic Flasher Rig is perfect with three 3/0 sized hooks (the extra attraction of the flashy material seems to attract more tarakihi). A rig that has proven itself repeatedly onboard our boat is unquestionably the sabiki rig. This essentially tiny flasher rig mimics small baitfish or shrimps jumping about in an enticing manner near the seabed. In other words, sabiki rigs mimic the exact sort of prey tarakihi naturally feed on so it makes complete sense that they would be effective. Adding tiny strips of squid or mackerel pretty much guarantees you a shot at landing yourself a turkey of the sea if you’re in the right habitat.
Jigs and lures
Due to tarakihi’s timid feeding behaviour and small mouths, it seems unlikely that lures would be of any use when targeting these picky turkeys; however, I have discovered this to be untrue. Like most fish, tarakihi will often lash out at a flashy moving thing jumping up and down in their environment as much out of curiosity and aggression. Not only this, but due to the schooling nature of these fish, competition for food is undoubtedly high, so often fish may have a go at something just so they can get to it before another fish from the school does. We will often catch tarakihi on small soft-baits and slow jigs, but usually they are not hooked in the mouth, which suggests they are either being foul hooked or are attacking the lures out of aggression. If you were looking at effectively targeting tarakihi on lures, I would say very small grub-like soft-baits, micro jigs and even flies or small skutes are your best bet. Slow jigs with their wafting skirts are also highly effective.
Baiting up for gobblers
Baiting up to chase turkeys takes a bit more refinement than baiting up for blue cod and snapper. Most baits will be effective for targeting tarakihi provided they are tough and firm enough to be cut into very small strip baits. My personal favourite baits are squid, fresh mackerel and barracouta. Squid is a great bait for tarakihi as it’s tough and can be cut into tiny strips. It will last a long time on the hook and is also readily available at most petrol stations and fishing shops. The tentacles off larger squid will also make a great strip bait that will drift in the current, and the white colour acts as an attractant.
Fresh mackerel is a relatively common bycatch when targeting turkeys as they also have small mouths and are easily caught on the smaller and finer rigs. They make an amazing little strip bait with their oily flesh and flashy skin.
Barracouta are by far the most versatile baits with their oily, smelly flesh and scaleless, shiny skin making them perfect little strip baits for our small-mouthed targets. So next time you pull up one of these slimy snakes, pull out your gaff or net like it’s a prized snapper rather than shaking your head with disgust, because they really are an incredible bait.
In terms of the size, I like to use baits not much larger than my thumbnail in width and only about 7cm in length but cut into strips with one side shortening into a point. I then like to hook the thinnest side of the strip bait onto the hook, so the bait doesn’t spin and flaps about enticingly in the current.
Rod, reel and line
To have the best chance and the best fight when targeting tarakihi, a light combo is the go-to. A light, sensitive rod is pretty much vital for feeling the subtle bites and takes of the picky sea turkey. A small compact reel spooled with light mono or braid is the best setup. Braid is particularly useful as it gives you a much better connection to your baits, particularly if fishing in deeper water. You can go light on the gear, and I’ve even had a bit of fun chasing tarakihi on a trout rod. The lighter rods will not only pick up the bites better, but also you give you a good fight.
Turkey for dinner
Tarakihi is one of the best eating fish we have here in New Zealand. Their slender form and sharp spikes can make filleting them relatively challenging; however, putting the time and care into processing these little fish right can result in some awesome table fare. Their firm white fillets suit just about every type of cooking, from breadcrumbing and battering to curries and fishcakes. So, if you’re ever having a tough day drifting for cod or anchored for snapper, try something new, pick up your lightest rod and chase some sea turkeys!
November 2021 - Sam Boothroyd
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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