- Scientific name: Belone belone
- Also known as: Needlefish, Garpike, Sea Pike, Beakfish, Sea Needle, Mackerel Guide, Mackerel Guardian, Greenbone Fish, Long-nose Fish.
- Size: Up to 3ft and 4lbs
- UK minimum size: 38cm/15inches
- UK shore caught record: 3lb 9oz
- IUCN Status
- Global: LC (Least Concern)
- Europe: LC (Least Concern)
- Distribution: Found in the warmer water around the south and west of the British Isles.
- Feeds on: Small fish such as herring, sprats, sandeels and immature fry of larger species.
- Description: Easily recognisable by the thin, extremely elongated body and a long, tooth-filled beak-like mouth. The lower jaw is usually longer than the upper jaw. Single, small dorsal and anal fin set very far back on the body, as are the pelvic fins. Underside is pale and back and flanks are blue to green. The tail is forked.
Garfish are a common species around the southern parts of the UK. They are a popular species to for anglers to target due to their strong fighting qualities and the spectacular sport they can produce when they leap out of the water in their attempts to throw the hook.
Garfish are often thought of as a warmer water species, and they are indeed more common throughout the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea, around Madeira and the Atlantic coastline of Spain and France. They are, however, found northwards as far as the Baltic Sea, Norwegian Sea and the waters of Iceland. Garfish can be found all around the British Isles, although they are more common around the south and west.
Habitat, Behaviour and Feeding
Garfish are unusual in the fact that they will feed right at the surface of the water (other pelagic fish such as mackerel and herring usually stay deeper in the middle of the water column). They will come close to the shore and often hunt around inshore structures which break up the tidal flow of the sea.
Garfish will also form into shoals and move around hunting as a group, and will also shoal with mackerel and greater sandeels. Their diet is made up of small fish such as sprats, small herring and mackerel and squid. They are a migratory species which is found in shallow waters in summer, moving away into deeper water away from the shore in the winter months.
Garfish are perfectly edible although their green bones put off consumers who think that the fish is rotting or diseased. The green colour is caused by a perfectly natural and harmless pigment called biliverdin. Despite never catching on as a food fish in the UK garfish are popular in southern European countries where they are sold on wet fish counters and are also frozen and exported around the world. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) classes garfish as a species of Least Concern in both Europe and on a global basis.
The Many Names for this Species
There are a large number of names applied to this species. Clearly, some of these names such as needlefish, beakfish and longnose-fish are derived from the appearance of this species. Many of these names have faded away and garfish seems to be by far the most commonly used name for this species now, but this name is also based on appearance as gar is an old English name for spear. The names mackerel guide and mackerel guardian (or guard) have also applied to this species. This is because garfish are often found with mackerel and in the past people believed that garfish were either leading or protecting the shoals of mackerel.
Second Species of Garfish
Until the early 1980s it was believed that there was only a single species of garfish within UK (and Northern European) waters. However, in the early 1980s it was discovered that there was actually a second species of garfish – the short-beaked garfish (Belone svetovidovi). Previously, this species had been classified as a variation of the more common garfish (Belone belone), but evidence emerged that it was actually a separate species. The main differences are its smaller size (the UK shore caught record is 13oz 14dr) and it has a slightly shorter beak with fewer teeth in its mouth and fewer gill rakers. As the two garfish species are so similar the vast majority of anglers find it difficult to distinguish between the two garfish species and simply class them as a single species.
Methods and Techniques to Catch Garfish
With garfish feeding around structures which break up tidal flow piers, jetties and breakwaters provide the ideal locations from which to target this species. The calm water inside of harbours can also be productive, and garfish can travel surprisingly far up rivers in the summer months. Garfish are great fighters. They will leap from the water when hooked, and will sometimes ‘walk’ across the water by jumping out of the water and using their tail to skip across the surface for a short distance. Despite their great fishing qualities garfish do not, unfortunately, grow to large sizes. A garfish of around one pound is a very good catch, and one approaching two pounds can be considered an excellent specimen. For this reason light tackle garfish fishing is by far the most fun. The ideal set-up to fish for this species would be a small spinning rod of 8 – 10ft which is rated to cast just an ounce or two, and use a small fixed spool reel with 10 – 15lb breaking strain line straight through. A setup such as this provides the best possible sport from this species. As garfish feed between mid-water and the surface of the sea presenting baits on the seabed will not produce results and lures and float fished baits must be presented high in the water column to successfully catch this species.
Lure fishing: Garfish will take spinners, with thin silver spinners being the most productive. They will also take daylights, feathers and plastic jellyworm type lures. Casting distance is not important as most garfish are taken within thirty yards of piers and jetties. Try reeling in fast a few times to see if garfish are feeding at or near the surface of the water. If there has been no interest in the lure after a few casts reel in slower so the lure drops deeper. Continue this until the feeding garfish have been located.
Float fishing: Float fishing is a classic technique to catch garfish and accounts for as many garfish catches as lure fishing. The best setup uses a cigar-shaped float (although some anglers prefer freshwater carp floats) which can be adjusted for depth and Aberdeen type hooks sized 4 – 8, as this will be the correct size to fit into the beak of a garfish. Begin by setting the float to suspend the bait just two or three feet below the surface. If no bites occur then readjust the rig so that the bait is fished a foot or so deeper every few casts until the level at which the garfish are feeding has been found. Garfish are unlikely to be located much deeper than mid-water. Garfish will take a number of different baits. Mackerel – especially a silvery belly strip – is a top bait, but a strip of herring or squid are also worth a try. Small lesser sandeels are also a brilliant bait to float fish for garfish, and fresh sprats are also an underrated bait to use for this species. Groundbait, such as the insides of a freshly gutted mackerel, can be used to attract garfish to the float. If anglers are running low on bait then a strip of garfish itself can be used to catch further garfish.
Garfish have a hard, bone-like beak which the hooks cannot easily pierce. For this reason it is a good idea to use small hooks which will be taken further into the garfish’s mouth and find a secure hook hold. It pays to have a disgorger to remove the hooks from fish which have been caught in this manner. The shore caught record for this species was set in 2017 with a garfish of 3lb 9oz which was caught off the coast of Devon, beating the previous record which had stood since 1995.