The garfish (or garpike) is one of the more unusual fish living in British waters. It thrives in warm water so the British Isles represent the northernmost tip of the fish’s range. Its sleek, cigar-shaped body resembles that of a large sandeel, although the only fish you may confuse it with is the skipper – or saury – which can be distinguished from the garfish by its row of small fins behind the dorsal and anal fins.
Similar to mackerel, the garfish has a brilliant green/blue back and sides and a gleaming silver belly, ensuring that it is camouflaged from predators. The jaw makes up a large part of the fish’s length and is lined with rows of numerous sharp teeth. The dorsal and anal fins are set well down the back towards the tail, which is deeply forked. The lateral line runs from head to tail and very close to the belly rather than along the flanks as in other fish.
Mainly a shoaling fish over deep water, the garfish is not commonly caught, except in the summer when it moves inshore. It has a migration pattern similar to that of mackerel, in whose company it is often found. From the eastern Atlantic the shoals reach southern Britain between March and April. They stay until the first signs of winter, after which they return to the open sea.
The garfish spends most of its life in the upper layers of the sea, feeding on brit, whitebait and herring eggs. Hunting by sight, it tends to eat during the day.
Spawning takes place in coastal waters during May and June. The female lays a few thousand eggs which have long filaments to bind them to algae, weed or flotsam and even to themselves. The young fish have short jaws but the lower jaw soon elongates and remains longer than the upper half until the fish is 9cm (3Mdn) long, by which time the upper jaw has caught up. The garfish does not reach great weights • any fish of more than l/2lb (0.7kg) from the shore and 2 lb (0.9kg) from a boat can be considered very good specimens. Shore anglers often encounter garfish from piers, rocky outcrops and breakwaters.
Shark anglers often take them on light tackle when they feed in the boat’s ground-bait trail. An extremely agile species, garfish can be seen leaping out of the water when being chased by predators such as dolphins and tuna fish.
By the light of the moon
Garfish give good sport on light tackle and are said to taste quite good, although the bones and flesh turn green when cooked, which might put some people off.
A welcome visitor to southern shores, the garfish has sometimes been spotted performing one of nature’s more unusual tricks • that of tailwalking on the water.