Offshore, Recipes, Sustainability

Red rock cod, ocean perch and leatherjacket – the neglected reefies

It’s common when we’re fishing inshore to get fixated on so called ‘desirable’ species; the sand/tiger flathead and snapper, and to a lesser extent, redfish (nannygai) and blue morwong. However, a number of the other species we wind up from the depths seem to be neglected by anglers, either because they are perceived as rubbish fish or are seen to be too fiddly to fillet. There are a few that you probably do want to let go to swim another day, including the yellow wrasse (also known as ‘butcher’s dicks’) and the wirrah (also known as ‘old boot’). There is probably a good reason these fish got their nicknames, and I have heard that wirrah do indeed taste like old boots. I don’t even want to think about wrasse.

Do you really want to eat this?
Do you really want to eat this?
One of the many species of wrasse
One of the many species of wrasse

The red rockcod (eastern red scorpionfish), ocean perch, leatherjackets, gurnard and sergeant baker are some of these oft-overlooked denizens, and I’ve realised I unintentionally listed them in terms of their eating qualities. Red rockcod are simply superb to eat, and often get the nickname ‘poor man’s lobster’. They have a sweet, firm flesh, which can take on an almost pinkish tinge. They are mongrels to fillet, mostly due to their sharp spines and gill rakers, and can give you a nasty jab that tends to ache for hours. The only cure that I have found for this is time, beer and whiskey, but I’m sure heat or cold would probably help too. Back to the cooking, these things are delicious, and cooked whole, they provide an exquisite centrepiece to any meal. Perrin steamed a few one night, and with a liberal covering of chopped chilli, spring onions, ginger and soy with a dash of fish sauce, it was certainly a memorable dish.

A nice poor man's lobster
A nice poor man’s lobster

Ocean perch and often sold in fishmongers and markets under a variety of names, and the small, sweet white fillets often command a good price. I’ve seen them as perch, sea perch, reef perch, bigeye perch and ocean perch, but they could be sold under all sorts of other names. They can be a little fiddly to fillet, but nowhere near as difficult (or dangerous) as red rock cod. The fillets are small, but the taste makes up for it. These fish are in pretty good shape as far as the stocks go, although sadly there is a high rate of discarding. If consumers start buying a bit more, then this might provide a good incentive for them to be kept. However, I suspect demand isn’t the only reason they are discarded in high numbers; it’s probably the high cost of processing them. There are actually two species, which can be very difficult to tell apart. The inshore or reef ocean perch is generally smaller and has a small eye, and the offshore or bigeye ocean perch grows a bit bigger, and you guessed it, has a bigger eye. It’s usually the bigeye that are retained by the pros, but both are similarly delicious and I’d encourage anyone to buy more or keep a few more for the table.

Terrible photo...but the only one I have of an inshore ocean perch
Terrible photo…but the only one I have of an inshore ocean perch

Leatherjacket are a bit like salmon and tailor, in that they tend to polarise people in terms of their eating qualities. They aren’t like other fish, due to their leathery skin and huge bone structure. However, this makes them nice and easy to prepare, and their sweet flesh is suited to a range of cooking and has enough flavour on its own to be delicious on the bbq, or steamed, fried or grilled. Leatherjacket stocks seem to be in good condition, so I’d encourage anyone to eat a few more, particularly the ‘ocean’ and Chinaman species.

The other ones I mentioned were seargant baker and gurnard, and to be honest, I usually let them go. The gurnard are a beautiful looking fish, and it’s difficult to stick a knife into, particularly when they make an almost cute grunting noise. Ethics and sea kittens aside, I’ve eaten some beatiful gurnard from the fishmonger at Bermagui, and it easily rivals flathead tails and is generally much cheaper.

Delicious....but really really nice looking
Delicious….but really really nice looking

Hopefully this post has motivated you to think about keeping a broader range of fish the next time you go bottom-bouncing. There are lots of reasons why it’s a good idea, not least because it takes a bit of pressure of some of the more desirable species. As I’ve hopefully proven, these fish are all delicious and it’s nice to have a variety of fish in the esky or freezer, all of which are suited to different styles of cooking and eating.

Thanks for reading


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4 thoughts on “Red rock cod, ocean perch and leatherjacket – the neglected reefies

  1. The bermagui fish monger really does do a good job. Haven’t been back there in almost 10 years but definitely miss the fishing

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jake. I agree, the Bermi fishmonger is excellent. I forget her name, but the manager there can tell you the species, the boat on which it was caught, and even the status of the stocks. Pretty impressive, and something I’d love to see more of. I’m tired of asking takeaways and waiters ‘what is the fish?’ and them saying either ‘basa’ or ‘I don’t know’!

  3. Hey Mate,

    A quick addendum to your article, which was great! a lot of people say wirrah is crap to eat, and I would have agreed with you for years. i had a mate tell me that if you make sure you prepare it properly by removing all the slime from the skin/scales with a washer or steel wool or other substitute, this is what makes the flesh bad to eat. Apparently it has some weird antiseptic bacteria in it which attacks the flesh and makes it rubbery. I sure as hell didn’t believe him, but being an avid spear fisherman I saw a really big one while diving not long ago and thought id give it a crack.

    Long story short I followed his advice and also cut out the line of fat that seemed to follow the dorsal fin on the top side of the fillets. The meat was very orange/pink with good muscle size and very firm. Sure enough it was absolutely scrumptious.

    I had one fillet fried in a light beer batter on toast and it was very sweet with a nice saltiness and kept its firmness after cooking, I also steamed the other fillet with oyster sauce Vietnamese style and once again it didn’t disappoint. Now every time i catch decent sized wirrah i keep them!

    Just keep in mind if you ever try it to not let any slime come into contact with the flesh at all. id suggest using two chopping boards, one to remove the slime on and the other to prepare the fillets. Its a little bit fiddly but it bears some brilliant table fish.

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