How to Catch Gurnard

How to Catch Gurnard

For many NZ anglers, gurnard are not a sport-fishing prospect that they would specifically target on any given outing. However, for a select group of anglers, gurnard are certainly the target species and keen bottom fisherman Ben Francis is one of them. Ben shares his experiences of targeting these tasty bottom dwellers and explores differences between the east and west coast fisheries.

The intriguing gurnard…

Red gurnard Chelidonichthys kumu are often nicknamed ‘carrots’. They can be found around most of New Zealand’s coastline, but are more commonly caught by anglers in the waters of the North Island. Gurnard are an interesting looking fish with strikingly colourful wings and small, feeler-like legs which they use to ‘crawl’ along their preferred habitat of sedimentary deposits on the ocean floor. This type of environment is also ideal for their common prey species, which are commonly small bottom-dwelling crustaceans and fish, such as crabs, shrimp, and juvenile flounder.

An average-sized gurnard is in the vicinity 30-40cm, with larger specimens up to 50cm in length and weighing 1-2kg, depending on their condition. Gurnard are not revered for their fighting qualities (debatable depending on who you ask), but they possess a firm white flesh with its own unique flavour, making it the first choice for those who are aware of these qualities. In fact, many people will opt to eat gurnard over the more commonly plated NZ fish such as snapper. This alone makes gurnard a very welcome ‘by-catch’. Hopefully it is now clear why you may want to start targeting them.

Finding the fish - where and when…

As mentioned, gurnards’ preferred habitat is a sedimentary bottom (sand, silt or mud). They can be caught year-round in a range of depths, often dictated by the time of year and where you are fishing. To increase your chances of getting onto numbers of fish rather than just the odd ‘by-catch’, there are a few things you can consider when formulating your plan.

If you are fishing in a coastal area beyond the confines of an estuary or harbour, whether it be the east or the west, look for any area on the chart that indicates a flat and seemingly featureless bottom. Areas that produce good numbers of gurnard, such as the west coast of the North Island and Hawke’s Bay, possess this feature. When you have identified such an area on a marine chart, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly where you may want to direct your initial efforts.

Unlike a reef which will attract species such as snapper, the changes in the seafloor that will attract gurnard are often far more subtle and must be inferred by learning what the resident fish are eating, or by prospecting, rather than physically identifying specific spots on a chart or depth sounder.

One feature often worth investigating is where a deeper contour line swings back in on itself, as this can indicate a natural depression which will help to concentrate a food source or act as a ‘holding pen’ for the bottom-dwelling gurnard. If, however, there is nothing obvious on your chart, the best way is to follow the advice above and then do a bit of prospecting (trial and error), trying different depths to identify where the fish may be holding.

Otherwise, if you have investigated what the fish you have caught in the past have eaten, you may have already identified a likely area with the right food source. Fish are simple creatures; they will congregate where they can find food.

Inside the harbours

The more dynamic nature of a harbour presents the opportunity to be more deliberate in finding the right area to target gurnard. Harbour fishing for gurnard is often associated with the west coast harbours of the North Island, especially during the winter months. As the water temperatures cool, snapper migrate out to coastal waters and are replaced by good numbers of gurnard in search of the abundant food sources that harbours present.

The shallow banks and intertwining channels act as a great feeding habitat for gurnard which move onto and off the banks as the tide flows and ebbs, respectively. As an angler targeting gurnard, this allows you to identify likely places to situate yourself to target your intended quarry. As a starting point, the edges of channels can be a great place to catch gurnard. Many harbours exhibit high current flows through the channels. The laws of hydrodynamics dictate that the water flow on the edge of a channel will generally be slower due to friction. As fish don’t expend more energy than required, this is a good place to try and intercept the fish travelling along the channel or on and off the banks with the tide changes.

A typical channel edge, which is well worth anchoring on for a targeted gurnard session. A typical channel edge, which is well worth anchoring on for a targeted gurnard session. 

To increase your chances even further, if you can identify some of the smaller guts that act as ‘feeder channels’ onto and off the banks, you may find yourself a hot spot for gurnard. Often, these small guts provide a ‘highway’ or choke point where the fish funnel onto and off the banks. Not a bad place to have a bait if you are hoping to intercept a travelling ‘carrot’.

Tackle and baits for gurnard

When it comes to tackle for gurnard, the rod, reel and mainline really don’t matter too much in respect of being capable of landing a gurnard. With their relatively small size, they are unlikely to bust you off or leave you looking at an empty spool. Rather, it is more likely you will be matching your tackle to the location and conditions you are fishing, or even to improve the fight you will experience.

If you are fishing in a relatively low current area such as in open coastal waters, options are far more open, essentially allowing you to fish the gear you please. It is the harbours with high current flows that may dictate your choice of gear. If I am not too hampered by the conditions, I will personally opt for a selection of light overhead and ‘eggbeater’ type reels spooled with braid. This selection of gear suits my style of targeting gurnard and ensures I enjoy the fight as much as possible.

In my experience, your rig selection and whether you use bait or artificial lures is the aspect that can determine your rate of success when targeting gurnard. I have tested this when fellow anglers have anchored directly down current on the same channel edge; the only discernible difference was the rigs we used. You can guess the outcome: one of us was catching fish whilst the other looked on in frustration. I have done the same experiment from my own boat and noted that one rig will often out-fish another 5:1. For this reason I always carry a range of options to suit the conditions or the particular bite on a given day.

I firmly believe that a bit of movement is important when it comes to targeting gurnard successfully. Consequently, I like to adapt my fishing style to suit the conditions and present my bait or lure appropriately.

When fishing with natural bait, I will always opt for more oily offerings with skipjack tuna and mullet my personal favourites. The simple two-hook ledger rig is a solid starting point and will generally produce the goods, being effective in nearly all conditions.

If you are fishing in an area that has enough current flow to angle your mainline out, a variation of the ledger rig can be well worthwhile deploying. This rig is best described as a swinging rig, whereby a sinker is attached to a small section of trace between the mainline and a modified ledger rig, allowing the baits to freely meander side to side and lift off the bottom in the current, often enticing the bite from a passing gurnard.

I often fish both rig styles simultaneously at the start of my day, switching over to whichever works better. From my experience, regardless of the rig, I have found that lighter traces, with smaller hooks and baits will attract gurnard more so than big bulky offerings. I like to use 10 to 15kg trace, size 1/0 to 3/0 hooks, and baits about the size of a $2 coin.

If you are averse to using oily fish baits (which I highly recommend when targeting gurnard), both soft- and hard-bodied artificial lures can be effective. If you are like me and predominantly fish with bait, you can add an artificial lure to the rigs described, to increase your chances if the fish are not responding to bait on the day. Otherwise, if you are more of a purist, ‘dragging’ a soft-bait along the bottom can be effective, as can the likes of working sliders or inchikus with subtle movements. In either case, it is important to maintain connection with the bottom.

A fat gurnard which was caught by slowly working the hard-bodied lure along a sandy bottom.

I believe that where low current exists, lures come into their own, producing the movement that will often result in the instinctive strike from a passing gurnard. I have often found that simply placing a light-tipped rod in the holder with a kabura-style lure will yield a number of nice gurnard, with the movement of the boat being enough to lift the lure on and off the bottom, creating puffs of sand, in turn attracting nearby gurnard. If you really want to up the odds, rather than using a lead sinker for your baited ledger rig, use an appropriately weighted hardbody lure to create a ‘combo’ offering.

Regardless of whether you fish with natural or artificial bait, if you are anchored, then berley will often increase your catch numbers. This is especially the case when fishing in environments where water clarity is poor, helping to attract the gurnard to your offerings. As gurnard are bottom dwellers, get your berley near the bottom – a well-placed bait behind the berley pot will often result in a stream of fish for the angler cunning enough to set their baits there.

Gurnard seem to travel in small groups. To increase the number of fish you catch, you need to capitalise when the fish are passing through. When this happens, more baits or lures in the water generally result in multiple hook-ups and more fish.

East vs west coast

Is there a difference between targeting gurnard on the east or west coast? Well, yes and no. You can catch gurnard using any of the methods described on either coast so in that sense, it’s a “no”. However, there are subtleties you can adopt in your approach which will likely help you catch more gurnard depending which coast you are on, so there lays the “yes” in my answer.

On the west coast, I believe that gurnard will respond to bait better than a lure nine times out of ten (I have been proven wrong on occasion, but this is my general rule). I like to keep it very simple… anchor, get some berley and baits on the bottom and wait for patches of gurnard to pass through beneath the boat. For me, this has been the most effective means of catching good numbers of gurnard. I normally use this approach.

Wayne Thorburn holding a well-conditioned west coast gurnard caught in 40m of water over a sandy bottom.

Wayne Thorburn holding a well-conditioned west coast gurnard caught in 40m of water over a sandy bottom.

Although not the case everywhere, if I am on the east coast, I will be much more open in my thinking and dig deeper into my tackle bag. My personal preference is to still anchor the boat and berley but if this is ineffective on the day, I will instead try drifting. My success rate with gurnard when using artificial lures increases tenfold on the east coast, both anchored and on the drift.

It would be rare that I don’t have some form of lure in the water, often fished from the rod holder, allowing the natural boat movements to do the work by subtly moving the lure. I have found pink or orange colour schemes in slow-jig lures to be the most effective. On the east coast, my personal favourite for targeting gurnard is the ‘combo’, where the weight for my baited ledger is a lure – it will often be the case that when either method (bait or lure) used in isolation is not working, the ‘combo’ will. The fish is attracted by the scent of the bait and enticed to bite by the movement and/or colour of the lure.

The writer with a gurnard caught while drifting off the east coast.

The writer with a gurnard caught while drifting off the east coast.

If you want more information or to share your experiences with the writer, feel free to contact Ben via his Instagram account
@benfrancis_133.

   This article is reproduced with permission of   
New Zealand Fishing News

June 2020 - Ben Francis 
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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