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The garfish is a very common guest in many Northern European countries. It is normally a pelagic fish whose migration pattern is not known in detail. But one thing is for shure: these fish will return to spawn in shallow and rich areas along the coasts many places in Europe.
Garfish (Belone belone, hornfisk, hornhecht)
This section is the manuscript for chapter in a book on fly fishing in salt water in Northern Europe. The subjects covered here are also covered elsewhere on this web site. There are links to all relevant pages.
The garfish is a very common guest in many Northern European countries. It is normally a pelagic fish whose migration pattern is not known in detail. But one thing is for shure: these fish will return to spawn in shallow and rich areas along the coasts many places in Europe. The pattern of their behavior is well known in this respect, and normally they are very reliable, and will return precisely within days each year. In the outer Baltic area the season starts in the end of April and the start of May, and the fish can be followed towards south and east after this time. The fish will disappear again in less than a month and not return before the autumn where their appearance is less synchronized and fishing is much more sporadic.
Even though they come to spawn in the spring, they still eat, and because they are fast fish and avid hunters, they are a joy to catch. They are probably one of the strongest species per pound in our waters. But they do not grow big. A 0.5 kilo fish (1 lb.) is average while a fish of 1 kilo (2 lb.) is huge.
The limited size of the fish should be reflected in the tackle. A 5 wt. rod is an excellent choice and even lighter is possible if the wind allows it. The most suitable line is a weight forward floating, as you do not need long casts and the fish are moving just below the surface. Garfish are not easily scared, so a fairly short leader of approximately 2-3 meters (6-9') will be fine. The tippet should be 0.20 millimeters (3X) or 0.18 millimeters (4X) - not as much to hold the fish as to turn over the flies under windy conditions.
The flies for garfish vary a bit. Many fishers will recommend silvery streamer patterns in sizes up to 4 and 2, but if you really want to catch many fish, you should go towards sizes 10, 12 and even 14. These small hooks will set much better in the hard bill of the fish. Garfish have a very good eyesight and will easily spot the small flies from great distances.
One of the most successful colors for garfish is orange, and almost any small, orange fly will catch them. A size 12 unweighted Woolly Bugger i an excellent choice, but some people use flies as simple as orange yarn wound on or tied to a small hook. An orange San Juan Worm will probably serve you well. Use very sharp hooks such as specimen hooks or even small dry fly hooks. These will easily penetrate the hard bill and give a nice, clean hookup in the corner of the mouth. The traditional stainless salt water hooks are hard to get in the smallest sizes, so be prepared to trash some rusty flies.
If you do not have any small flies handy, you can also try traditional patterns: streamers, scud patterns and even shrimps in larger sizes. The garfish will probably attack them, but setting a larger salt water hook can be quite difficult.
The result of an hour or two with a fly rod: lots of fish and lots of fun.
The fish are mostly active in the daytime and even more so on mild, sunny days. This makes the first warm spring days in May ideal for a garfish outing. Choose a day with light wind as it enhances your possibilities of seeing the fish in the water.
They can be found everywhere from the deeper parts of the open ocean to the inner fjords. Normally you can spot them either moving over light bottoms in shallow water or tumbling in the surface during their mating ritual. They are not willing to bite while engaged in that ritual, but both right before and right after. Also mating fish will be a sign of other fish in the vicinity and it's a good idea to stay in an area with surface action.
If you see no fish, try looking for sandy bottom on depths of 0.5 to 1.5 meters (1.5-5') cut by patches of sea weed, sand bars, stone reefs or other significant 'landmarks'. The fish will often follow these natural corridors on their way. You can also look on a map to find places like points or narrow sounds that the fish have to pass on their way into the Baltic. These are bound to hold garfish.
If you see fish, just cast to them and let your fly sink a bit. Then retrieve slowly, maybe in small jerks. The figure-of-eight retrieve comes in handy here. Contrary to what many people think, this fast moving fish isn't only stimulated by fast moving food items. The fish will go for the fly and often miss a couple of times. Have patience and strike lightly on any feeling of weight in the rod. Keep on retrieving even if you have felt or have missed a fish.
When you have fish on, be prepared for some wild runs and jumps. Even a 0.5 kilo garfish will take line off a 5 wt. rod. Also be prepared to loose a few fish. They are hard to hook properly.
The fish are excellent food - don't be scared by their iridescent green bones, they are absolutely harmless - but keep in mind that you can only eat so many fish, and release the majority on a good day.