Gurnard aren’t hard to catch when you’ve found them and being relatively small, they don’t fight much either. They taste great though, even if finding them can pose challenges – and when you do find them, you may need to cast into deeper water at the limits of your range to really get amongst the fish.
This is a topical time to write about gurnard because in the lower North Island and South Island they’ll be hanging around for another month or two; in more northerly parts the best gurnard fishing of the year is still to come when the weather and water cool.
Knowing these seasonal patterns in your local area really helps in terms of knowing when and where to direct your efforts.
Finding locations where gurnard turn up every year is the next key factor. In the lower North Island – waters I know well – there are beaches where gurnard reliably turn up and you can almost bank on getting one or two (if not a bag) at such places when the season and conditions are in your favour. However, there are other beaches, sometimes just around the corner, that throw up a gurnard only once in a blue moon.
Although it’s hard to piece the whole puzzle together, where gurnard fishing is concerned I’m a believer in a bit of depth and soft sand or mud bottoms. Gurnard are generally reluctant to enter the shallows and avoid white water, so successful gurnard fishing on shallow surf beaches generally requires a long cast.
As for the composition of the sea floor, I believe soft sand supports the main elements of the gurnard’s diet: small paddle crabs and juvenile flat fish. Stony and hard-pan gravel bottoms don’t support these species in the same way and gurnard are noticeably absent. Once you’ve found the right beach at the right time of year, it’s still necessary to locate gurnard on the beach on the day. Sometimes this takes a bit of experimentation – move up and down the beach and vary your casting distance until you find the ‘carrot patch’.
Once you have found it, keep hitting it over and over to maximise your catch. Doing this takes some skill, but once mastered you will really reap the rewards.
Tide will also play a part. On deep beaches, which is where I do most of my gurnard fishing, I generally find that strong mid-tide currents deliver the most fish. However, there are exceptions to this rule, so I don’t get too set on it.
On shallow beaches low tide can present the best opportunities, letting you wade out onto the distant bars and cast ‘out the back’. Sometimes the high tide will present opportunities by filling up holes and channels close to the shore, but gurnard tend to leave these areas to more adventurous species like kahawai. So, on shallow beaches waders or a wetsuit, a good casting rod and reel, and long-distance casting rigs are worth their weight in gold.
Conditions, as I’ve touched on, are very important where gurnard are concerned. They are fussy fish that prefer clean, calm water, though they don’t mind plenty of current (as their presence in the big North Island west coast harbours attests).
The moment the swell or chop kicks up and stirs sediments off the bottom gurnard seem to disappear quite quickly. There is a strong possibility that their main food sources have bunkered down at this point too.
Matching the hatch with the right baits often delivers the best results when surfcasting, but I don’t believe that’s true with gurnard. Whilst I wouldn’t discourage you from using paddle crab for bait, for example, pilchards and various fillet baits (kahawai, mackerel and trevally) are my preference for gurnard.
Gurnard aren’t suspicious biters, so you can get away with crudely presented baits, my favourite being to ‘tip’ fillet bait onto the hook and leave it hanging from the gape. This is a no-fuss, quick way to rebait and I think perhaps the bait swinging around on the hook attracts more bites.
Tackle-wise I usually use one-hook ledger rigs and sometimes long-cast rigs. I use 40lb mono or 20lb fluorocarbon trace, and attach a colourful float bead (yellows, oranges and greens work well). My preferred hook size is 3/0, which is a safe bet because gurnard are uniform in size compared to other species. A hook of this size is perfect for most of them.
A breakout sinker is compulsory for me, as gurnard bites can be subtle and these help me set a small bend in my rod so I can detect both ‘benders’ and ‘slackies’.
One of the bonuses of gurnard rigs and bait is that they have application for other species, and depending on your location, kahawai, snapper and trevally can be taken on them. Kahawai are the main bycatch I experience, and this can be really handy, since fresh kahawai cuts are right up there as a gurnard bait.
Playing gurnard doesn’t require a lot of sophistication. They tend to bite boldly and hook themselves well in their tough mouths. They also don’t fight much, pulsing around a little here and there and maintaining a tight arc out in front compared to, say, kahawai which go left and right in big, wide arcs.
The job is completed by nursing the fish carefully through the surf without allowing slack line at any point (to avoid the hook being spat out). Once the fish is beached, flick it off quickly and get another bait out as soon as possible – gurnard have the tendency to bite hard in one place for a short period of time before moving on, so value the bite and make the most of it.
Gurnard are almost the ultimate eating fish, so when targeting them I head to the beach organised – with a chilly bin and plenty of ice! My fish tend to go onto ice as soon as I can get them there, but if I’m not fishing right next to my vehicle, I’ll keep them cool by whatever means possible when a hot bite is going on. For example, a spare bucket filled with sea water will keep them cool enough for a while until things settle down again.
As for their eating qualities, I’m of a view that they taste so naturally good that simpler is better. I usually go for a light bread crumb after dipping the fish in egg. Eating my own fresh-caught gurnard is one of my favourite pleasures and it leaves eating supermarket fillets for dead. These are often a week old by the time you get them and don’t do gurnard justice at all.
Seasonally available right around the country, there’s a good chance you have gurnard in your neighbourhood. I’ve caught them from Northland to South Westland and at the Chatham Islands, but they do seem to be most prolific in the lower parts of the North Island where gurnard is an important and recognised surfcasting species in Wellington, Wairarapa and Hawkes Bay in particular.