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.
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.
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.
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.
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