So, you’ve sussed out a nice easy dive site that isn’t in a no-fishing zone and looks like it could hold some fish.
In my last post I covered the rules and regulations around where you can/can’t spearfish. Next up in this series is a little bit about what fish to catch. The number one take away message from this post is: If you don’t recognise it, DON’T shoot it!
What fish can I catch?
There is NO catch and release with spearfishing. If you spear a fish, it is most likely going to die. I have seen fish swimming around with spearfishing injuries, but these fish can’t swim as well as healthy fish and are more likely to suffer mortality through predation or reduced fitness. So, if you’re going to pull that trigger, make sure that your spear is pointing at something you are going to eat and be damn sure that it’s not a protected species – heavy fines apply. If you don’t recognise it, DON’T shoot it!
The NSW DPI website has all the details of fish you are allowed to spear and their bag and size limits. Fisheries authorities in other states and countries should have a similar resource. It has pictures. Learn these species and their bag and size limits. No short-cuts here. Spend some time on this page. If a species doesn’t appear on this list, it probably isn’t regulated, but it’s also probably not fished very often, usually because it doesn’t taste very good. There are a lot of fish to learn on this list so my advice would be to pick a species that you know is abundant in your area, memorise the bag and size limits for it and only target that one species when you go spearfishing for your first time. Pick another species to memorize on your next outing and soon you will have a long list of species that you can quote the bag and size limits off the top of your head. Again, there really is no substitute for having someone experienced show you what is ok and what is not. If you don’t recognise it, DON’T shoot it!
There are a number of good fish identification books available and I would recommend getting very familiar with these. Below are a few of my favourites. A great online resource if you can take photos is inaturalist.org. Make a profile and post some pictures asking for advice and you will find a very helpful and knowledgeable community to help you ID that fish. It will be difficult at first to tell a lot of fish apart, but you will get better at it the more time you spend in the water. If you don’t recognise it, DON’T shoot it!
You will learn to identify fish a lot faster if you take an active interest in it. When you’re next out in the water and see something you don’t recognise, try to memorise as much detail (or take a photo if you have a camera) and go searching for it when you get home. You’d be surprised how often google hits the mark when you search for “fish with yellow stripes”. Markings are not the only thing to look for. Look at shapes. This will often help you to identify families of fishes. Fishes in the same family often (but not always) taste similar. Look for where the fish is found – bottom dwelling, surface swimming, mid water. Look for behaviours. For example, a fish sculling with its pectoral fins is probably a wrasse. Knowledge of all of these aspects will help you to recognise fish species from a distance and in low vis and will definitely help you to avoid a nasty fine. If you don’t recognise it, DON’T shoot it!
What fish can’t I catch?
There are a number of protected species and unfortunately these protections can vary from state to state. On top of this there are also Commonwealth protected species so you need to check a couple of places. For Commonwealth protected species check out this page. It’s not the easiest page to navigate, but if you find a species on here it will have a lot of information and links to pictures of it. For NSW protected species look no further than the NSW DPI page. It is worth getting to know the protected species living in your area as interfering with these species can result in massive fines. A few special mentions for southern NSW are below.
Blue wrasse aka blue groper are off limits to spearo’s. This is because they are a naturally inquisitive fish and will swim right up to a diver to check them out. For this reason, a lot of newbies get caught out and get excited about the great big fish right at the end of their spear. DO NOT shoot these fish. Be aware that the female blue gropers (they change sex to male when the dominant male in the area dies) are brown or yellow in colour. Learn to identify this species and do not shoot them. You can have a lot of fun when these fish are around. They will hang around and check you out. Try tapping your knife on a rock – they will often swim in very close to you to see what you’re doing. Some people like to cut up sea urchins for the gropers but I advise against this practice. These fish are very capable of feeding themselves and cutting up urchins is an unnecessary waste of life.
This is an interesting one and not a species that I was aware of until recently. Not usually sighted in southern NSW, but there was a recent report of one so worth knowing about. I’ve included it here because it could be easily confused with the black drummer, which you can spear and which is really good eating. They (the black drummer) are fairly long lived though so make sure there is a healthy population before taking one. Info on the blue drummer can be found here.
What fish should I catch?
Some good sustainable species for beginners
Most nearshore species are quite abundant and good for cutting your teeth on. They are also excellent eating. Some species that I recommend are luderick, bream and tarwhine. These species may take some practice as they spook easily and can move really fast. But they are often found up in the shallows which makes them good species to target while you’re learning to increase your breath hold. Red morwong are also often targeted by beginners because they don’t move much. It’s ok to target these on your first few outings, but try to move on to other species as soon as you can as morwongs are relatively long lived species. I include them here because fishing pressure is generally low and they are fairly abundant on most reefs.
Some more challenging species
Once you gain some confidence, it’s a good idea to try for some of the faster, more challenging species. The good news is that these species taste great and the challenge makes them really exciting to catch. Most of these species are fast growing and highly fecund (good breeders) so are more sustainable than the slower growing fish.
Australian Salmon gather in large schools and will sometimes cruise past. They are more common in the winter months in NSW. The challenging part to catching one of these fish is that they are quick and the schooling behaviour makes it difficult to target a single individual. Good aim is a must on these fish as the flesh is very soft and a body shot often results in the fish tearing off your spear and slow a agonizing death. Head-shots are best for most species, but Salmon especially. Bigger is NOT better with salmon. The big ones are quite dry so aim for fish around the 30 – 50 cm mark.
Bonito also gather in schools but are sometimes seen as solitary individuals. Bonito is one of my favourites. Dive bombing works well, but you have to be able to keep pace until the bonito turns to be able to take a shot. A good breath-hold is needed to chase one down.
Trevally are also great eating. While not as fast as the salmon and bonito they do spook easily and their schooling behaviour can make an individual difficult to target. Stealth is required to catch these fish.
You can catch lobsters with your hands but you must not use your speargun or any other tool to obtain them. Abalone, scallops, urchins and other shellfish are also fine to take by hand (you’ll probably want a knife for abalone) but you must still abide by the bag limits. Do not dispose of abalone guts in the water. This is to reduce the transmission of a disease that severely impacted the abalone fishery a few years ago. Process them at home and bin the guts. See the applicable closure notices here for the rules on abalone.
Tasty, but think twice
Flatties are good eating but just be aware that all of the large ones are female so bigger is NOT always better. Also, don’t shoot directly down at them. You will bend your spear in the sand. There are techniques for damping the rubbers on your gun which you should learn.
Kingies are a real challenge and very tasty. They do get big and they are strong so be prepared for a fight. I have bent spears whilst landing Kingfish. I don’t target Kingfish very often any more. They do grow and breed quite quickly, but they also face very high fishing pressure from recreational and commercial fisheries.
Black Drummer are fairly abundant on many reefs, but they are slow growers. I catch them every now and again, but I always make sure there are plenty around before deciding to target one. Also, make sure you can tell the difference between black and silver drummer. Silver drummer are yuk (in my opinion). They get massive and swim around in large schools. You will be tempted to take a shot on one, but I wouldn’t advise it. Black drummer can change their colour and can appear silver, especially when stressed. They don’t tend to get as big as the silvers, and usually hide among the boulders. Juveniles will school like silver drummer.
Hopefully this post has given you an idea of where you can find information on fish species and some things to think about in terms of sustainability. Obviously there are dozens more species than those I have listed here. The species above are common on near-shore reefs in southern NSW. I would love to hear from you about what you target. The take home message is to do your research into the species in your local area before you hit the water and of course, if you don’t recognise it, DON’T shoot it!
Next up, I will take a look at the equipment you need to get out into the water.