Published May 2. 2017 - 6 months ago
Updated or edited May 7. 2017

Garfish!

The Baltic garfish or needlefish appears in colossal numbers each spring and is a great joy to target with a fly - and a delicacy to eat.

Landing a garfish
Garfish
Pretty obvious
Garfish
Martin Joergensen

This is a subject I have covered now and then, but it's been many years since I wrote a real article on Baltic garfish, and much has happened since then. This one is more than 20 years old and this one a little newer. I will go a little more in depth with the subject here, and explain how, where, when and with what to catch a garfish - or many actually, because the potential is there to catch quite a lot of fish.
And I will praise the fishing for garfish.
It's easy.
It's fun.
It's great for filling pan and freezer.
It's a perfect introduction to Baltic fly fishing for newcomers, who are almost guaranteed to get some action on the fly rod.

It's easy.
It's fun.

Our garfish

Some people, Americans especially, might think about the US gar or alligator gar when I mention a fish called garfish. But out garfish are much different, and not at all related to the armored, toothy critter found in the freshwaters of the southern US states.
Our garfish is Belone belone in Latin, and is more like a needlefish, a group of fish, which is found in warmer waters like the Caribbean or the coasts of Africa.
In Danish we call it hornfisk – literally the horn fish - where the word horn refers to the long beak or bill. The garfish is long and slender, and a good specimen is 50, 60 or even 70 centimeters long or some 24 inches plus minus a few, depending. They aren't large fish, and a good garfish will weigh 500 grams or about 1 lb.

Fair weather fish
Apple flowers
Garfish and dandelions
Springtime
Martin Joergensen

Springtime

The garfish come to the Baltic in the spring. Late April and all of May is the peak time for garfish fishing. The largest and strongest ones will arrive first and smaller specimens arrive soon after.
The come to spawn in the shallow waters and they come in huge numbers. And huge numbers in this case is millions.
Once the garfish are here, it's actually hard not to catch one, because they will be in essentially all shallow areas, close to the shore, hunting and mating.

Clear, shallow water
Martin Joergensen

A perfect fish

It's in many way a perfect fish to try to catch on a fly rod, but is actually underrated by many Baltic coastal anglers and even frowned upon by many. Some die hard sea trout anglers consider the spring season over once the garfish come, and curse their large numbers and consider them an annoyance and a useless bycatch.
Personally I see it the other way round, and consider the arrival of the garfish a real spring sign, and enjoy every minute I get to fish for them.
And luckily the usual quarry, the sea trout, don't go ashore just because the garfish arrive, and many a garfish angler has been surprised by a take from a stronger and larger fish, a sea trout, taking a small fly meant for garfish.

The simplest fly will work
A garfish in the surface
Freshly caught for the pan
Light gear fish
Martin Joergensen

A fair weather fish

Not only are the fish numerous. No, it's also easiest to catch when the weather is good. The garfish hunts with its eyes and is very active during the day, and typically more active in sunshine. It's really great fun to catch in clear and calm water where you can see what's going on and see the fish chase the fly in small schools and see other specimens follow a fish you're fighting.
The fair weather also triggers another behavior in these fish: the spawning, which you see as large groups of fish - maybe 20 or 30 - congregating and tumbling in the low water, very visibly disturbing the surface, and showing their whereabouts. Between these spawning sessions, the fish are feeding actively, so unlike salmon it's not like the propagation of the species stops most feeding behavior. These fish do their thing, and then immediately return to hunting.

Gearing up... or down

Since a large garfish is about half a kilo or 1 lb., you will do yourself a great service by using light gear to fish for them. A 3, 4 or 5 weight rod will increase the fun tenfold compared to a 7 or 8 weight. As I have mentioned many other articles, I consider heavy rods a boon on the Baltic coast anyway, and I rarely fish rods heavier than a 6 weight myself, and often use a light rod made for a 5 weight line.
The usual 9' rod can also be exchanged for a shorter one if you prefer, so an 8' rod for a 4 weight line is a great garfish rod, and a rod type, which is found in many closets in Scandinavia, typically there for stream fishing with a wet fly or a nymph.
Should the trout of a lifetime take your fly, find comfort in the fact that large fish have been landed on way lighter gear times and times again. A light rod isn't actually a big problem when fighting a large sea trout.
Use a floating line and a rod length leader ending in a tippet in the 3X-4X range or 0.20 millimeters or 0.008 inches or even thinner. That will be suitable for the small flies we will use and is more than strong enough to hold the fish.
The reel is whatever you fancy for the rod and line combo. A brake isn't really important. A 1 lb. fish is not going to show you your backing anyway.

Garfish Miracle
The foam beetle
On a Clouser
Fly selection
Martin Joergensen

Go small

A lot of people will tell you that they have had garfish “nibble” at their flies, unwilling to take. All sea trout anglers fishing during the garfish season will tell you that the fish are reluctant to take “for real” and difficult to hook.
I can only attribute this to one cause: big flies.
Using your normal sea trout flies or flies in the size range 2-4-6 will definitely reduce your chances of hooking the garfish for two reasons:

  • The fish have a hard time grabbing and swallowing the fly.
  • The fly has a very hard time penetrating the cartilaginous and hard beak.

The solution? Go small of course! And small in this case is a size 10, 12 or even 14. Small hooks with thin wires and razor sharp points is the key.
To some, fishing a size 12 fly in the ocean may seem totally crazy. How are fish supposed to find such a small fly in this huge mass of water? Well, look at the eyes on a garfish. They are large! Garfish have great vision and hunt mainly using their sight, and will easily spot a small fly - particularly in the bright and clear conditions where we prefer to fish for them. Below you will find some of my own most successful flies for garfish.

Colored yarn will work
Colored yarn will work
Martin Joergensen

Thread flies

During the last few years a new method has seen the light of day on the Baltic coasts: so called silk or thread flies. These are simply tufts or loops of bright, silk-like yarn that are attached to small rings or swivels and have no hook.
The yarn trails behind the leader, and the garfish will readily attack it – like they attack a large lure or streamer. But as they grab the yarn, their many fine teeth get tangled in it, and the fish is helplessly stuck on your lure.
This method has proved very efficient, and can increase the “hookup” or catch rate significantly, the only downturn being that the fish can be difficult to untangle again. On the other side they can swim away unharmed after being released, unlike the case where they have been hooked with a traditional hook.
Be careful when removing the thread from the fish's teeth. Don't get tempted to just tear. That will harm the fish significantly. Simply work out the silk, slowly and meticulously.

Slow fishing

When I started fishing for garfish I used a spinning rod, and the mantra was that you couldn't retrieve too fast. The faster the better and the greater the chances of hooking the fish.
I didn't know better, and when I started fishing with a fly rod, I used large flies and stripped them in as fast as I could. The fish would chase the fly and even attack it, but I rarely hooked one.
The key to hooking garfish on a fly is the small flies mentioned above - and then to be slow. Like really s-l-o-o-o-w. Cast out, let the fly sink a bit and then take it back in long and slow strips. When you feel a fish simply leave the fly and hold the line tight. As soon as you feel some weight, a short and deliberate strip strike is the best way to set the hook. A garfish beak is hard, and a trout strike with a lifted rod tip will most likely not do it.
The slow pace also calls for light and even bushy flies with no added weight. The fish often swim just inches under the surface, and that's where your fly should be too.

In the surface

One fun thing about garfish is their willingness to go to the surface to take a fly. In clear and reasonably calm water, a small, bright dry fly can be a lot of fun to fish and the garfish will slash at it and do what they can to eat it.
And with dry fly I'm not referring to a Royal Wulff or an Adams, but a simple floating fly such as a foam or poly yarn fly, like this simple foam popper.
Simply cast it out over a few feet of water where fish have been seen or caught and strip it back in small jerks.
Wait for it... wait for it... splash!
The fish aren't exactly easy to hook on dry flies, but when they are active, it's a lot of fun to get them, to go for the fly.

Cleaned garfish
Garfish doesn't exclude trout
Keepers
Martin Joergensen

Garfish on the pan

Don't hesitate to take a few fish to eat. They are a great delicacy. Some people get deterred by the many green bones in the fish, but there's no reason to worry. The color is actually an advantage, making it easier to spot the bones.
The fish can be prepared in many ways. I have a couple that I prefer:
Clean the fish and scrape the scales off skin with a knife. Cut off the head and cut each fish into 3 or 4 pieces. Roll these pieces in coarse flour (we use rye flour here) generously seasoned with salt and pepper. Fry the fish in copious amounts of browned butter, just a couple of minutes on each side. The fish will open when heated, but pressing them down with a spatula will tame them a bit. Serve the fish with boiled potatoes, a white bechamel sauce with large amounts of chopped parsley and some grated nutmeg added, and put lemon wedges on the plates. The fish pieces come with the bones, but loosening the meat and finding the green bones is easy.
Alternatively you can use the upper part of the fish only and leave the thinner belly meat. You can skin it if you want to, but don't have to. Clean the fish, but leave on the head. Cut into the skin just behind the head, cutting only the skin all around the fish. Grab the skin and literally pull it off the fish. It requires a little practice, but can be learned. Now cut along both sides of the spine and then just above the sideline. This will loosen the finger thick row of muscles that run along the full length of the fish.
Cut these pieces into finger long bits, dip in batter and deep fry. Serve with fries and a good tartar sauce plus the ever present lemon wedges.

Patterns

Doh!
Pattern type: 
Cold saltwater fly
Originator: 
Martin Joergensen (duh!)

Dubbing On a Hook! Simple as that! Use orange or red and you have the simplest and easiest garfish fly available. No tail, no flash, no rib. Save the effort and just dub a few hooks and go fishing. If dubbing intimidates you, simply use yarn. If you want something a little more durable, rib with some mono.

Species: 
Materials: 
Hook
Kamasan B170 or similar wet fly hook size 8-14
Thread
6/0 to match dubbing
Body
Orange or red dubbing
Head
Tying thread
Difficulty: 
Very easy
Instruction: 
  1. Start thread in the back
  2. Cover the hook shank with dubbing
  3. Whip finish and cut thread
  4. Varnish

Orange Chillimps
Pattern type: 
Cold saltwater fly

One of my early favorites for garfish, but complex beyond what's needed. Tail, hackle, rib can be left out, and the fly will still work. But again: if you like garfish flies with some style, this is also a good contender. Here's an old article about the Chillimps

Species: 
Materials: 
Hook
Kamasan B170 or other wet fly hook size 8 or 10
Thread
Orange 8/0
Tail
Orange hackle fibers
Rib
Thin oval silver tinsel
Body
Orange dubbing
Body and front hackle
Orange hen
Head
Tying thread
Difficulty: 
Medium


Small flies
Garfish flies
Garfish flies
Martin Joergensen
Rackelhanen
Pattern type: 
Dry fly
Originator: 
Kenneth Boström
Materials: 
Hook
Dry, long, such as Mustad 94833 or Partridge SHD, size 10-18.
Thread
Color to match body.
Body
Poly yarn cut into 1 cm pieces.
Wing
Poly yarn.
Head
Poly yarn cut into 1 cm pieces.
Difficulty: 
Easy
Instruction: 
  1. Cut some poly yarn into 1 cm pieces.
  2. Cover the hook shank with thread. Go a little bit down the hook bend.
  3. Make the thread come back again, so it hangs app. over the hook point.
  4. Dub the thread with the prepared poly yarn.
  5. Wind the dubbed thread to a little bit down the hook bend and back again, ending about an eye width from the eye. This should make the fly a bit more volumnious to the rear.
  6. Tie in poly yarn as the wing on one side of the hook.
  7. Bend the poly yarn over to the other side of the hook.
  8. Secure the wings
  9. Dub the wing base with poly yarn and form a nice head.
  10. Tease and trim the body to form "legs" and trim the wings.

BHD Garfish Fly
Pattern type: 
Cold saltwater fly
Originator: 
Unknown

This was one of the first flies I tied specifically for garfish, and still one that I like a lot. It's a simple variation of the Big Hole Demon. It's unnecessarily complicated and nowadays I rarely use it. It's still very efficient, and if you want something that's a little more than a tuft of dubbing on a hook, this could be it. If you want it to last more than a few fish, varnish or cover the body with LCR.

Species: 
Materials: 
Hook
Kamasan B170 or other wet fly hook size 8-12
Thread
Orange 8/0
Tail
Red hackle fibers
Body
Narrow silver Mylar tinsel
Front hackle
Orange rooster or hen
Difficulty: 
Medium
Instruction: 
  1. Start the thread behind the hook eye.
  2. Tie in the tail the full length of the shank, reaching one shank length to the rear.
  3. Take the thread forward and tie in the tinsel.
  4. Wrap tinsel in touching turns to the hook bend and back.
  5. Tie down and trim tinsel.
  6. Tie in the hackle, tip first, shiny side forward.
  7. Wrap the hackle 2-3 times, tie down and trim.
  8. Form a small head, whip finish, trim thread and cut.
  9. Varnish the head.


A garfish has taken a Gotcha
Ready to land
The boil
Fun fishing
Martin Joergensen

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