Why is it that the majority of saltwater anglers target snapper? Could it be for sport, accessibility, or the fact that they fetch $17-$25 per kilo - or is it their taste? One fish that compares favourably to snapper in many ways is possibly the ugliest fish of them all - the John Dory. Though they might be ugly, I prize them: they are heaps of fun to catch and my favourite table fish.
Don't let the 'third eye' put you off, it's only there to scare predators - but predators in the Hauraki Gulf are few, except for fishers such as myself, and getting dories to the plate is relatively simple once you know how. For most anglers, however, these fish are caught unexpectedly. Unbeknown to them, they probably first hooked a juvenile snapper, or some other small active fish, which in turn has been engulfed by the dory's telescopic orifice. Feeling the heavier weight, the angler winds the fish in to the boat and thinks: "Gosh! I'm so good! Look at what I've caught!"
Upon gutting the dory later on, he finds the smaller fish inside, with his hook in its mouth. Unbelievable! The lesson ends here for him - he doesn't think that this could happen again and puts it down to good fortune.
Targeting this species can be very entertaining, especially when one considers that dory can be caught while waiting for snapper to come on the bite. I recommend the following method when fishing for them. It is relatively clean, too, requiring only some finely minced pilchards and bran bread (or similar) to trickle out of the berley bag to bring small baitfish around. These might be young kahawai in close to rocky shores, or even better, yellowtail mackerel, which are plentiful in the deeper channels and around reefs.
Sabiki jig flies of many shapes and designs work well on most bait species, especially when each hook is baited as well. Hook sizes should be around #8 to #10 to catch mackerel and juvenile kahawai. Low tide is generally slow for catching bait, but as the current picks up the baitfish should come onto the bite. As the main diet of John dory seems to be yellowtail between 150mm and 200mm in length, these are what you should be targeting. If possible, try to keep the Sabiki rigs off the bottom and move them constantly, otherwise you will be forever picking up juvenile snapper and spotties - not the bait we're really looking for. Once caught, yellowtail are relatively simple to keep alive in a fish bin, needing just the occasional change of water to stay alive and kicking.
If you find it hard to believe that kahawai can be used as live baits for john dory, then you will be in for a surprise. I've caught many Johnnies on smallish kahawai, and on one occasion we caught one with the kahawai bait protruding 100mm from its mouth. The bait was as long as the Johnny itself - what a glutton!
Kahawai are more difficult to keep alive, so a good live-bait tank is a great advantage. This provides them with a constant flow of saltwater and allows them to swim around freely. If you don't have one, a large round bin may be sufficient.
John dory are found in most areas of the Hauraki Gulf, and I particularly like to fish around wharves or pillars, channels and holes, as well as over submerged reef systems. The reefs off Rakino, the Noises, the Davids, the Ahaas, and those that surround Waiheke all support good John dory stocks. Some fish better than others, but you'll have to find out which ones for yourselves!
Spring and autumn tend to be the preferred months, but these fish have to feed year-round, so you should still be able to catch them over the other months. The direction of the tide does not seem to matter with dory fishing, but as they are weak swimmers, they are less likely to be in the midst of a strong current flow. Anchor your boat as you would for snapper, generally over a reasonably deep area of fouI. I prefer to fish with my bait on top of reefs (say 20-30 metres deep), and about one to two metres off the bottom.
Place your yellowtail (live) onto a large hook (6/0-8/0) by either: hooking it through the top lip so that the point protrudes through the top jaw; across the nose in front of its eyes; or lightly through the shoulder. The hook should be attached to one-and-a-half metres of 60-80lb trace. This, in turn, is tied to a strong swivel, and then tied to a 15- to 24-kg stand-up outfit with a large 5-8-oz sinker running along the mainline. All this must be in tip-top order, including your knots.
Why so large, you ask? Basically this comes down to the fact that although the Johnnies in the area only grow to about 500mm in length, the kingies here can grow to about one and a half metres and are sometimes unstoppable. As they go for the same bait as John dory, you should try to be prepared. The rods can be left unattended. Put them up in the front rod holders with a light drag setting and the ratchet on. Meanwhile, you can do what you like with whom you like ? enjoy a little snapper fishing; have a game of 500; write a fishy story - or just doze off. I've been woken many times to a three and a half second run: this is a John dory. A five-and-a-half second run on the other hand is probably a snapper, while a slow, steady run that just doesn't stop - that's a stingray. Or a run that simply screams - that's a kingfish. If the run's only a second or so, then ignore it, it's probably just your mate testing you!
However, we are here to talk about the three-and-a-half second run. After it happens, one naturally assumes, 'Damn it! A good take, but dropped it!' You leave it there for a few more minutes, to no avail. You then retrieve your gear to check the bait, and hello - a lot of weight on the end. At this stage, keep the pressure on but don't go crazy with the pumping and winding, as it's probably a good John dory. The livebait could still be in the dory's mouth, but it's more likely already in the gut cavity. The Johnnie may not even be hooked at all. Eventually, a John dory should appear on the surface and must be netted. I've witnessed many a Johnny dropped mid-water, or as they're being lifted into the boat.
If you're lucky, the livie may be retrieved from inside the Johnnie in a lively enough state to be recycled - efficient, eh? A couple of times I have managed to use the same recycled livebait three times! I felt a bit mean, but when the livebait supply gets low, you take whatever measures are necessary.
Having brought the fish on board and quickly killed it, place the dory immediately into an ice-slurry. After gutting and gilling, it can be kept in the refrigerator for several days without the flesh spoiling.
Boning is relatively simple, as the fillets are almost bone-free. Just be careful to cut inside the bony spikes found near the base of the belly. Follow down and along the backbone and up over the ribcage, as you would with a snapper. The Johnny doesn't have the annoying row of fine bones along the middle of the fillet like many other species do, making them a simple and no-waste fish to fillet.
Pan frying - take your clean fillets (preferably lightly rinsed in seawater and then dried, but if you're careful you won't need to wash them at all), sprinkle with a little fresh-ground pepper and a light dressing of salt. Next, dunk them into seasoned flour and nothing else, or into a light sprinkling of breadcrumbs, also salted. The salt compliments the flavour of the fish, and doesn't drown it. Don't cook without salt and salt it later. Also, don't add overpowering herbs and spices and fancy sauces, though a fresh parsley sauce can be nice.
Place into salted butter in a pan and cook at a medium heat until light brown. Turn over. Place a lid on the pan and turn off the heat. Let the steam do the rest. Timing depends on the thickness of the fillets. Whatever you do, don't over-cook, as the flesh must be moist. Serve and eat - preferably without garnish. To my mind, most side salads tend to overpower fish like John dory with its delicate flavour. If deep-frying the fish, use a healthy cooking oil, and the same procedure. Salt the flesh, dip in the salted flour and then into a lightly salted flour and milk crispy batter. Deep fry until it floats, serve and eat.