Bringing home the bluebone.
Tuskfish are a branch of the wrasse family found in Australian waters as well as in many far-flung corners of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific.
Well over a dozen individual species of tuskfish have been documented, but the two varieties commonly targeted and caught in Australian waters are the black spot tuskfish and the venus tuskfish.
Both types of tuskfish are caught in subtropical to tropical waters and dwell over patchy coral reef in relatively shallow water.
They’re fairly prolific within their range and once you know the sort of terrain they frequent, they’re pretty easy to track down.
Their popularity with anglers’ stems from two factors; their unexpectedly brutal strength and their exquisite eating qualities. A decent sized tuskie will not only put up a fight worthy of just about any fish twice its size, it is one of the finest eating fish caught anywhere in the world.
RANGE AND TERRITORY
Both venus and black spot tuskfish are caught in southeastern Queensland waters, right up the Queensland coast, around the Top End and down the West Australian coast as far as the mackerel islands.
Both species prefer warm, tropical waters and are somewhat more prolific towards the northern end of their range.
Both black spot and venus tuskfish are said to inhabit waters between 10m and 60m deep, however personal experience shows they are more than happy to venture into waters as shallow as two or three metres – although whether or not you’re able to extract them from such shallow water over a jagged coral reef is a completely different matter!
Tuskfish are drawn to the cover of coral reefs in shallow tidal waters, and there are often big numbers of juvenile fish located directly over the hard coral reef.
Fishing directly on top of the reef will often result in a lot of undersized throw back fish, as well as plenty of lines snagged on the bottom.
The larger fish over about two kilos often seem to patrol the slightly deeper water over the gravelly sandy patches directly adjacent to the coral. Fishing these areas tends to result in a lot less snags and wasted baits and an overall better standard of fish.
It really is amazing just how hard these things can pull. I’ve spent a good chunk of time targeting most of the species billed as the top pound for pound fighters in the sea, and reckon it’s a fair call that a five kilogram tuskie would pull a similarly sized kingfish, samson fish, black drummer, blue groper, mangrove jack or giant trevally backwards.
These fish certainly aren’t endurance fighters like marlin or tuna, but over a short distance the fight they put up is just brutal, and boating any fish over a couple of kilograms is a real achievement.
To this end, it’s necessary to give yourself every advantage possible when fishing for these brawling reefies in order to minimise bust offs and get a few fish in the icebox.
Identifying a good tuskie spot comes down to trial and error, but starts with identifying structure in an otherwise barren or featureless underwater seascape.
This structure generally takes the form of a patch of coral reef in the midst of an otherwise sandy or muddy expanse.
Coral reefs in tropical waters will almost always hold fish; the problem is that they will hold plenty of undersize fish and undesirable species as well as the bigger fish you’re targeting.
Moving slightly away from the reef and burleying steadily will often draw the better fish away from their homes in the reef and into your burley trail.
Using your sounder, identify the patch of coral reef you’re looking to target, and drop your reef anchor directly on top of it.
Once the reef pick has bitten firmly, feed out your anchor line while keeping a close eye on your sounder to monitor the bottom structure. Once you can see that you’ve moved off the hard reef and are sitting over the top of a gravel or rubbly bottom, it’s time to tie off your anchor line and begin burleying.
It’s generally worth burleying for a good few minutes before dropping your first baits in order to lure some fish into the area. Tuskies feed predominantly on crustaceans and love prawns in particular, so the most effective burley is a mix of prawn heads and shells.
As mentioned above, tuskies are some exceptionally tough customers, and you’ve got to treat them with respect if you’ve got any hope of winning more battles than you lose.
The first time I targeted tuskfish over a productive reef on the western side of Cape York, I picked up a heavy 7’ spin rod loaded with 30lb braid that I’d been using to catch longtail tuna and Spanish mackerel earlier in the day.
After being warned of just how tough these fish are, I tied on a length of 60lb leader and screwed down the drag. Two hours later after landing one reasonable fish of a couple of kilos and losing four more, I conceded that I was seriously undergunned.
When I returned to settle the score the next afternoon, I was armed with an oversized spin reel loaded with 80lb braid matched to a 5’ broomstick of a rod. I tied on a length of 80lb leader and checked my knots twice before casting my first bait.
This tackle was much more appropriate and I landed two good tuskies up to five kilos, as well as skulldragging in any undersize fish or bycatch unfortunate enough to have a go at my baits.
Some might consider 80lb gear overkill when targeting reef fish, but if you like winning battles it’s better to bring a bazooka than a knife to a gunfight.
Dedicated bottom fishing boats utilise heavy duty deck winches like the Alvey Reef Masters loaded with heavy monofilament line to great effect.
Tuskfish subsist on a diet of crustaceans including prawns and crabs, so it makes sense that these are the best baits to use when targeting them.
The most simple and effective method of fishing for tuskies is to source a kilo or so of good quality large prawns such as tigers, bananas or endeavours, then to peel them and use the heads and shells for burley and the bodies for bait.
If you like to complicate things, there are plenty of imitation prawn style lures that are capable of eliciting strikes from tuskies, the problem with most of them is that they are not built for fish with jaws as strong as the tuskfish’s, so many of them will end up getting crushed or straightened out during the fight.
7” Gulp! Jerk Shads have proven fairly effective and are a good alternative if you have run out of bait.
ON THE PLATE
I’ve sampled dozens of species of fish caught around Australia, and I’ve got to say that not many fish can hold a candle to the tuskie.
Everyone will always have their personal favourites, so whether the tuskie is number one or not is up to you, but it’s certainly right up there with the best quality fish in the sea.
If you’ve sampled a fresh, well-cooked fillet of snapper, red emperor, black drummer or coral trout you’ll have a pretty good idea of how tuskfish goes on the plate. Perfectly white, firm and delicately flavoured fillets that hold their texture and flake away from the bone when cooked through.
Less is more when it comes to seasoning fillets of this quality. Grill or barbeque them with nothing more than a splash of cooking oil and season with a squeeze of lemon and a little salt and cracked pepper – anything more will just cover up the delicate flavour.
Next time you find yourself fishing in the tropics, consider bringing along a bag of prawns and spending an hour or two prospecting for a haul of Australia’s finest table fish.
Not only are they a heap of fun to target and catch, as soon as you’ve cooked one up and sampled it for yourself, you’ll have a new favourite seafood dinner.