8. Feb, 2015

Line fish: Local is Lekker!

“How foolish is man to believe that abstaining from flesh, and eating fish, which is so much more delicate and delicious, constitutes fasting.” – Napoleon Bonaparte.

One of life’s great pleasures is fresh line fish (i.e. that has never been frozen). Freezing destroys a lot of the taste and flavour of most fish – if you don’t believe me, eat hake out of a supermarket freezer and then hake that has only been kept cold on ice. While one’s chances of catching your own fish while on your annual holiday have become decidedly remote, more and more decent supermarkets are selling line fish to inland customers. Handled properly, most fish will last for the best part of a week. If you are keen to include line fish in your household’s diet but not sure how to cook it to best effect, this week’s post might help you get over the jitters.

You might notice that I have stuck to four important guidelines:

  • Endemic species only. This is meant to be a celebration of species that are uniquely South African and can only be caught here. Hence, fish many people consider quintessentially South African were not included, including Snoek, Kob, Elf/Shad, Blacktail, Hake and Spotted Grunter.  I did include Kingklip and Cape Gurnard, though – although they have relatives in other parts of the world, the species found here are endemic to our waters.
  • Consider conservation status. Because many of these fish are rare and vulnerable to over-exploitation, I have tagged each one with its Department of Sea Fisheries’ current conservation status as well as the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) status. SASSI status does not carry legal status – hence you will see SASSI Red status fish for sale at fishmongers’. It is a matter of conscience whether you choose to buy such fish. The Sea Fisheries regulations are enforceable, and compliance should be self-evident, e.g. some fish have closed seasons (to allow them to spawn in peace), others may not be sold (only self-caught fish may be consumed) and others have bag limits and size restrictions. Please observe these rules and report transgressions – it is our natural heritage that is at risk!
  • No recipes. The aim with this piece is to inform and excite, and not to provide step-by-step recipes. I am a foodie, not a chef.  As such I cannot compete with the pros – if you want recipes for the fish I discuss here, you can do a lot worse than get yourself a copy of “Free from the Sea” by Lannice Snyman and Anne Klarie. I have had mine for 27 years, and I have yet to come across a more user-friendly cook book on South African fish and seafood.
  • Scientific names. As you will see, many of our fish have numerous – often misleading – local names, and adding to the confusion is the fact that most have Afrikaans, English and Nguni names. To ensure we are all on the same page, I have added the scientific names as provided in Prof Rudy van der Elst’s “Guide to the common sea fishes of Southern Africa”.

Galjoen(Coracinus capensis)

This feisty inhabitant of the inter-tidal zone is our national fish. It literally rides the surf onto the rocks, where it grabs mussels, marine worms, small crabs and pieces of red bait with its sharp front teeth. Its strength and agility makes it a formidable fighter, and a big Galjoen is a prize catch among Cape rock and surf anglers. It was named after the galleon, a fast and sturdy sailing ship, by the early Dutch settlers. Because it feeds close inshore, it is in peak condition during the winter months when big waves dislodge its favourite food items from the rocks.

The Galjoen is a medium-sized fish, with an average weight of 1 – 3kg and a maximum of around 6kg. Because it lives within easy reach of shore anglers, the Cape’s Galjoen population has been decimated by overfishing over the past 50 years or so. Anglers used to brag about catches of 50 – 100 fish in a morning; clearly not a sustainable practice. Strict bag limits, a closed season and a ban on its sale have helped to slow its decline, but it is still a vulnerable species.  

The flesh of the Galjoen is fatty, and marbled with tiny veins. It has a taste people either love or hate – very rich and slightly gamey.  The traditional Cape modus operandi is to butterfly the fish, cover the flesh with coarse salt to firm it up, rinse off the salt and then hang the fish out to wind dry. It is then barbecued with only salt and pepper. Old Cape hands sometimes cook it Kleftiko style on the beach, wrapped in newspaper and baked among hot coals buried in the sand.  

Conservation Status: Conservation Status:  Rare – no fish under 35cm may be kept. Bag limit of 2 fish per angler per day. Sale prohibited, and closed season from 15 October – 28 February.

SASSI Status: Red – No Sale Species.

Red Stumpnose (Chrysoblephus gibbiceps)

Afrikaans-speaking fishermen in the Southern Cape affectionately call the Red Stumpnose “Kittie” while further up the East Coast it is known as “Miss Lucy”. There is, it has to be said, a touch of homely spinster about its appearance. Once plentiful along rocky shores, it has retreated to refuges far from the coast like the Agulhas and Alphard banks. In these cold, deep waters they prey on crabs, small crayfish and their favourites: octopus and squid. My experience is that they are patient, wary biters but dogged fighters who fiercely resist being lifted off the bottom.

Red Stumpnose are classified as vulnerable, i.e. they would probably be endangered with extinction if protective measures are not enforced. There is a perception among Overberg professional anglers that they are actually quite common, because they make up sizeable parts of their catch. This is however only true in relative terms – other species are just more depleted! In absolute terms, Red Stumpnose have suffered a major decline in numbers.

One of life’s great tragedies is that most undersized or over-the-bag limit fish are actually returned to the sea, only to die anyway. The reason is that, when deep sea fish are brought to the surface fast, their swim bladders expand due to the rapid decrease in pressure on their bodies. The bladders grow so large that they protrude grotesquely from the fish’s mouth. If it is then simply thrown back in the water, it floats helplessly as if wearing a life jacket. In this state, it is doomed to fall prey to seals, sharks or sea birds. 

In my view this is our tastiest line fish. When cooked with care it tastes almost exactly like crayfish. On the rare occasions when I am able to catch my own Kittie, I invariably butterfly the fish, put it on the braai, and baste it with a lemon butter sauce. Surplus fish I poach in court bouillon and use for mock crayfish dishes – it makes a world-class Avocado Ritz.

Conservation Status: Rare. No fish under 30cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 1 fish per angler per day. No sales ban or closed season.

SASSI Status: Red – No Sale Species.   

Dageraad (Chrysoblephus cristiceps)

What a wonderfully descriptive name this stunning fish has: while alive, it radiates all the colours of a perfect sunrise. It is (mistakenly) called “Daggerhead” by some English-speakers, and large ones – more descriptively – “Wawiel/Wagon Wheel” in the Eastern Cape. Its heartland is the steep Tsitsikamma coast, and the marine reserve around Storms River has helped save the Dageraad from extinction by providing a safe haven for spawning fish and juveniles. Most mature specimens are caught by line boats over offshore reefs between Mossel Bay and the Wild Coast.

The Dageraad, like the Red Stumpnose, is blessed with flesh that is simultaneously firm without being tough, juicy without being watery, and full-flavoured without being gamey. It is less well known among non-fishermen though, because it has always been rather scarce – even in the “good old days”. Strictly enforced protective measures have helped the population recover somewhat.

I believe in not fixing things that are not broken. A fish this tasty should not be overpowered by unnecessary sauces and toppings. Pan-searing and barbecuing (with a mild basting sauce) are my favourite ways of cooking this special fish. It can, of course, be grilled or baked whole to good effect – it is difficult to get Dageraad not to taste great! 

Conservation Status: Rare. No fish under 40cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 1 fish per angler per day. Sale prohibited, but no closed season.

SASSI Status: Red – No Sale Species.

Slinger (Chrysoblephus puniceus)

The Slinger is almost as pretty as its first cousin the Dageraad, but was given its derogatory name (“to chuck”) because line boats used to catch so many that crew chucked them on a heap without a second glance. I remember going out to sea on the then-famous Isle of Capri line boats in the mid-1970, when Slinger were so plentiful that they made up more than half of all the fish caught in a day!

Slinger – despite immense fishing pressure – is still the mainstay of the KZN line fishing industry. It is an economically important fish, and supports thousands of jobs. Ironically, one probably has a much better chance of obtaining fresh Slinger in Johannesburg than in Durban. Locals complain with some justification that all their prime line fish is bought up by bulk suppliers, who transport it to Gauteng, where gourmands pay a substantial premium for quality line fish.

The Slinger has lighter, flakier flesh than its two relatives previously described. Combined with a milder flavour, this makes it perhaps the best pan fish of the 20 species under discussion. It filets easily, and literally melts in the mouth when done just on the point. Don’t let my personal taste deter you from exploring other techniques and recipes though – apart from being too tender for the braai, it is suitable for pretty much all cooking methods. A young Slinger is ideal for steaming whole, Chinese style, with veggies, ginger and soy sauce.

Conservation Status: Vulnerable. No fish under 25cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 5 fish per angler per day. No sales ban or closed season.

SASSI Status: Orange – Cause for concern.

Englishman (Chrysoblephus anglicus)

This striking member of the Sea Bream family allegedly got its name from its pink face, which reminded old-time fishermen of the sun-burnt complexion of a Tommy (British soldier). It sports bright red vertical bars on its flanks, and is a really attractive fish fresh out of the water. They are fairly common on offshore reefs all along the KZN coastline, and seldom venture close to the shore. They frequent the same habitats as Slingers, but not in shoals like the latter – mostly in ones or two’s.

Englishmen have hearty appetites, and feed on crabs, hermit crabs, shellfish, squid and the occasional small fish. They are not timid biters, nor are they pushovers once hooked. Deep sea fishermen are very fond of them because of this, as well as the fact that they make excellent eating. Their numbers have held up surprisingly well, perhaps because large numbers seldom concentrate in one place where they can be decimated.

Most of the positive culinary attributes of the Slinger are present in the Englishman. You can use the same cooking  guidelines set out above.  

Conservation Status: Rare. No fish under 40cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 1 fish per angler per day. No sales ban or closed season.

SASSI Status: Orange – Cause for concern.

Red Roman (Chrysoblephus laticeps)

The Red Roman literally stands out in a crowd – its signal-red colour makes it instantly recognisable. The term “Greedy Guts” comes to mind where the Roman is concerned. It ransacks deep water reefs, and will feed voraciously on sea urchins, crustaceans of all descriptions, small shellfish and sea weed. Most of these are swallowed whole, although larger specimens do occasionally crush prey with their molars.

It is a medium-sized reef fish, attaining a maximum weight of around 5kg. Unlike many reef-dwelling fish, the biggest specimens are males. Where Roman are plentiful, the majority are females. Large males are solitary, and prefer a cave-dwelling existence. These old hermits become fiercely territorial, which sadly makes them easy pickings for line fishermen. Most juicy baits produce results, with a pilchard-and-squid “cocktail” being favoured by fishermen on the banks off Cape Agulhas.

The Red Roman has a very distinctive flavour, which is overpowering to some people. It is therefore not ideally suited to frying or grilling. It comes into its own  when baked with a savoury stuffing, wok-fried whole, Chinese style or barbecued in a fish gridiron with a stuffing.

Conservation Status: Vulnerable. No fish under 30cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 2 fish per angler per day.  No sales ban or closed season.

SASSI Status: Orange – Cause for concern.

Red Steenbras (Petrus rupestris)

This is without a doubt the hardest fighter of all the fish found on our reefs. It is fiercely territorial, and has the size and canines to enforce its will! It has been known to dominate all but the biggest sharks in its territorium. There is in fact a persistent rumour that when the ill-fated Birkenhead ran aground off Danger Point, Red Steenbras joined sharks in attacking the survivors as they thrashed about in desperation. While the story might be apocryphal , they can certainly reach a size that would make it possible. Before World War Two fish of 100lb (45kg) or more were not uncommon.

Despite its size and fearsome reputation, the Red Steenbras has some of the most delicate flesh to be found in our waters.

Conservation Status: Rare. No fish under 60cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 1 fish per angler per day. Sale prohibited, and a closed season from 1 September – 30 November.

SASSI Status: Red – No Sale Species.

White Steenbras (Lithognatus lithognatus)

The “Varkbek” is the thoroughbred of Southern Cape beaches and estuaries. When hooked, it sets off on blistering runs that can total hundreds of metres in the case of large specimens. It roams shallow surf and estuaries, where they seek out organisms such as cracker prawns, blood worms, small crabs and baby clams. These unfortunate creatures are literally blown out of their holes by the Steenbras, using a strong pump action generated by its gills and directed by its pointed mouth. They can at times be seen “tailing” in estuaries, in water so shallow that their tails protrude from the water while they feed head down.

It is their reliance on estuaries which has largely led to the decline in White Steenbras numbers over the last 50 years. Not only can they be caught more easily in still waters, but the degradation of our estuarine systems via pollution, irresponsible construction, silting up and water extraction has made life tough for these beautiful fish. Fortunately the largely undeveloped Transkei Wild Coast provides a number of safe havens for mature fish that congregate prior to spawning in late winter.

The White Steenbras is immensely popular with Western and Southern Cape anglers. It can grow as big as 30kg, fights to the death and is extremely tasty. It has white, flaky flesh which stays delicate regardless of size or age. Younger fish are at their best baked whole, while larger specimens can be fried, grilled, baked or steamed.

Conservation Status: Rare. No fish under 60cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 1 fish per angler per day.  Sale prohibited, but no closed season.

SASSI Status: Red – No Sale Species.

Hottentot (Pachymetopon blochii)

The Hottentot or “Hangberger” is the Cinderella among our line fish. It is not particularly good-looking, nor the best-tasting of our line fish. Some would argue that it does not belong in the company of the other species described here. I should however point out that it is an extremely important source of affordable protein on the West Coast, which is not blessed with an abundance of inshore species. They roam the kelp beds that cover vast areas of this stretch of coastline, and feed on seaweed, shellfish, tiny crabs and shrimps. They are also voracious eaters of the red and green algae common in the area. They are endemic (i.e. they tend to stay in the same place) which makes them vulnerable to over-exploitation.

Despite being largely herbivorous, the champion baits for them are red bait and pieces of crayfish tail. They are dogged, if unspectacular, fighters on hook and line. Their habitat and sluggish movement make them popular targets for Western Cape spear fishermen. They do not attain any great size, and typical catches range between 500g – 2.5kg.

Like all omnivorous bottom fish, some Hottentots exude a strong, gamey smell when the stomach cavity is cut open. This is due to undigested seaweed and/or algae. Fortunately this odour does not penetrate the flesh! Because the flesh is very moist, I prefer cooking methods that allow some of the liquid to escape – in particular braaiing and grilling. Cooked with care over medium coals, it is the poor man’s Galjoen.

Conservation Status: Stable. No fish under 22cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 10 fish per angler per day. No sales ban nor closed season.

SASSI Status: Green – Sustainable Species.

Bronze Bream (Pachymetopon grande)

Also known as the Brown Hottentot in the Eastern Cape, it is the handsome brother of the “true” Hottentot. It is relatively common along our East Coast, but because it is both wary and herbivorous, not many are caught. It is occasionally seduced by artfully presented prawn, mussel or red bait. Once hooked, this timid fish turns into a strong, dogged fighter respected by anglers, particularly on the KZN South Coast where it is most common.

Bronzies can weigh up to 6kg, which makes it the biggest herbivore among our line fish. They have an exceptionally long large intestine, which helps to extract maximum nutritional value from its low-yield algae diet. Because of their biology and habits, they inhabit shallow water and are hardly ever caught offshore. They start congregating to spawn in late winter, when – unfortunately - most catches are made.

The flesh of the Bronze Bream is tasty but quite fatty, which means that most end up under the grill or over the coals.

 Conservation Status: Vulnerable. No fish under 30cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 2 fish per angler per day. Sale prohibited, but no closed season.

SASSI Status: Red – No Sale Species

Blue Hottentot (Pachymetopon aeneum)

The Blue Hottentot frequents deeper reefs off the Wild Coast and the KZN South Coast, and is seldom caught from shore. It is more elongated than its two cousins, and live specimens can easily be distinguished from them by its blue head and fine blue sheen on its flanks. Once dead, its colours quickly fade to brown/gray , and this causes less informed observers to confuse it with the Bronze Bream.

Despite its ominous SASSI status, it is a fairly common species off the Wild and South Coasts. Because of their diet (and small mouths) they are not caught as often as their numbers would indicate. They also prefer to frequent flat rock sheets, rather than the pinnacles ski boat skippers favour. On these flat reefs the fish feed on sponges, red bait, crabs and sea weed. It small, sharp teeth are perfectly suited to “grazing” over areas with a flat bedrock.

Blue Hottentots are extremely tasty – not as fatty as the Bronze Bream, and without the gamey innards of both other species. They taste best grilled or barbecued, and smaller specimens can be pan-seared to good effect.

Conservation Status: Stable. Bag limit of 5 fish per angler per day. No sales limit or closed season.

SASSI Status: Red – No Sale Species.

Scotsman (Polysteganus praeorbitalis)

This big, tough Caledonian has sadly been reduced to a fraction of its former numbers. The name conjures up memories of William Wallace’s lieutenant in “Braveheart” – ruddy-faced, big, strong and indomitable. They operate alone or in small “clans” along deep reefs, where they devour large crabs, crayfish, squid and small reef-dwelling fish. They only congregate in substantial numbers to spawn off the KZN coast in early spring.

The Scotsman is a fearless predator, and fiercely territorial to boot. This means that it is often the first species caught when bottom fisherman let their lines out over a deep-water reef. The powerful way in which they strike the bait means that they are easy to hook, and are seldom able to wriggle free. They do, however, often evade capture by breaking the leader or cutting it off on rocks or shells. Consequently, they are prized and respected by experienced line fishermen.

These dauntless fighters are not just a challenge to catch, but also seriously tasty. Smaller ones are best filleted and pan-fried or baked whole, while larger specimens are at their best barbecued or grilled with a buttery basting.   

Conservation Status: Rare. No fish under 40cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 1 fish per angler per day. Sale prohibited, but no closed season.

SASSI Status: Red – No Sale Species.

Seventy-Four (Polysteganus undulosus)

Talk about colourful names! In life the Seventy-Four sports lateral rows of glowing dots on its flanks, which resemble the rows of guns on a Victorian-era Royal Navy battleship in the 74-gun class. In years gone by this beautiful fish was a firm favourite among line fishermen and their customers, because it was both abundant and very, very tasty. Its popularity ultimately caused its downfall, because the Seventy-Four is territorial by nature and heavy fishing pressure soon had it teetering on the brink of extinction.

It is a deep-water fish, and there are no recorded catches from the shore. On the offshore reefs they frequent, Seventy-Fours feed on small fish, octopus, squid and crabs. They congregate in large shoals to spawn in early spring. Because this only happens over specific reefs during a certain time of year, unscrupulous fisherman have decimated their numbers by targeting areas such as the Illovo reefs during the spawning period.

The Seventy-Four is one of the tastiest and most versatile of our line fish. Whether pan-seared, grilled or deep-fried, they need no more than a squeeze of lemon (or tartar sauce), salt and pepper to become a feast. They are also scrumptious when a whole fish is stuffed with onion, tomato, lemon and herbs, wrapped in foil and cooked over medium braai coals.   

Conservation Status: Rare. No fish under 25cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 1 fish per angler per day. Sale prohibited, and a closed season from 1 September – 30 November.

SASSI Status: Red – No Sale Species.

Silver Steenbras (Sparodon durbanensis)

Anglers who frequent rocky shores on our southern and east coast are unanimous that this fish (also commonly known as “Musselcracker”) doesn’t just look tough – it is a fearsome adversary. It can reach a weight of 25kg, which makes it very hard to stop when it tries to wrap an angler’s line around the nearest rock. It occurs between St Helena Bay and the Tugela mouth, but is most common in the Southern Cape. It migrates seasonally, and is most often caught in KZN in late winter.

The Musselcracker is endowed with tremendously strong jaw muscles and teeth that resemble human molars.  This name is particularly apt, since their favourite food is the black mussel. Other molluscs, red bait, crabs and even crayfish are also consumed with gusto. They are more coast-bound than the Black Steenbras, so the vast majority of catches are made by rock and surf anglers or spear fishermen. Only a fraction of those hooked by anglers are landed, because they are infamous as “dirty fighters” that head straight for the nearest rocks.

From a culinary perspective they are very similar to the Black Steenbras: superb eating while young but becoming tough with age. Their heads are also highly prized in the Southern Cape;  according to the late Prof JLB Smith (the renowned ichthyologist who first described the Coelacanth) farmers who went holidaying on the coast would catch them in considerable numbers and cut off the heads. The fish would be given to servants or fed to domestic animals, while the masters ate the heads! My fondest memory of the Silver Steenbras dates back to the early ‘Nineties, when I had a sublime filet – pan seared without a coating – served with an avocado and dill sauce. Njammies!

Conservation Status: Vulnerable. No fish under 60cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 2 fish per angler per day. Sale prohibited, but no closed season.

SASSI Status: Red – No Sale Species.

Black Steenbras (Cymatoceps nasutus)

This bruiser is found along rocky shores and also on deep-water reefs.  In Afrikaans it is known as a “Biskop” (from the Dutch “Beestkop”) or “Poenskop”. It has huge, dog-like teeth that it uses to feed on all manner of molluscs and crabs. These teeth are so formidable that fisherman’s hooks caught between them have bent and broken – a fate I suffered once in Struisbaai. Capable of reaching a weight of more than 50kg, these fish are the front row forwards of the Sparidae family. They occur between Cape Point and Sodwana Bay, but its “home range” is rocky parts of the coast between Hermanus and Plettenberg Bay. Interestingly, few small ones are caught in KZN: the ones landed by boat anglers there are generally huge solitary fish or pairs.

Its dominating personality has been the Poenskop’s downfall. They are territorial creatures, with the biggest one in a given area inhabiting the prime “hole”. Should a tasty morsel suddenly descend from above, the Alpha fish will grab it. This is why large Black Steenbras have become rare; the big ones are normally the first to be caught. It is no wonder that the species which have benefitted most from the proclamation of marine reserves have been the likes of Red, Black and Silver Steenbras, Potato Bass and Seventy-Four.

Young Poenskop, up to about 5kg, are very tasty fish with firm flesh and superb flavour. They can be prepared in a variety of ways, including my favourite: butterflied and braaied over medium coals while being basted frequently with lemon butter. The flesh of larger ones, while still full of flavour, is very tough. If it is at all possible to release a big one alive, please do so. If for some reason you end up with a dead big one, I would recommend using it in fish cakes or pies, curries or pickled fish. The head of a big Poenskop is considered a delicacy by Southern Cape folk. The head is slowly oven-baked, and contains a lot of delicate morsels; the tongue and cheeks being the most popular. 

Conservation Status: Rare. No fish under 50cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 1 fish per angler per day. Sale prohibited, but no closed season.

SASSI Status: Red – No Sale Species.

White Stumpnose (Rhabdosargus globiceps)

These petite fish have traditionally been very important to the artisanal fishermen of Kalk Bay, as they make excellent eating and occur in fair numbers in False Bay. They prefer relatively shallow water – no more than 50m deep – and are most active at night. I had lots of fun trying to outsmart them in the Langebaan lagoon, and discovered that on a dark night they seldom turned down a juicy bloodworm or fresh clam. They are quintessential Cape fish; most common between St Helena Bay and Knysna. They are relatively small – 1kg is a decent fish; 3kg a trophy.

The White Stumpnose occurs alongside another member of the Stumpnose family in South-Eastern waters, namely the “Cape Stumpnose” (Rhabdosargus holubi). The latter is the smaller of the two; reaching a maximum weight of around 1.5kg. It is undoubtedly prettier, though; yellow-finned with a bright silver colour and fine golden stripes along its sides. It has similar habitat and likes the same prey as its larger cousin: small crabs, shrimps and cracker prawns, clams and marine worms.

Given the considerable similarity in their biology, these two species can be put to exactly the same culinary uses. Because they are generally small, they are ideal for steaming or baking whole, or fried, Chinese style, in a wok. Some might call me a heretic, but when I get hold of some small fish I prefer to poach them until just short of on the point and then flake the flesh for use in fish cakes. In South Africa, fish cakes have unfortunately become synonymous with leftovers or a means of masking the taste of less desirable fish. I defy you to make and eat the fish cakes described in “Free from the Sea” and still subscribe to that view...    

Conservation Status: Stable. No fish under 25cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 10 fish per angler per day.  No sales ban or closed season.

SASSI Status: Orange – Cause for concern.

Geelbek (Atractoscion aequidens)

Look into the mouth of a “Cape Salmon” and you’ll see where its Afrikaans name comes from.  Like its cousin the Kabeljou, the inside of its mouth is a golden, almost orange colour – the Geelbek’s brighter than the latter.  Unlike the Kabeljou, the Geelbek is an out-and-out deep sea fish, and never ventures close to the shore. It is a fish of the Southern and Eastern seaboard – in summer it prefers the cooler Southern Cape waters, and in winter it migrates to the warmer KZN seas, gorging itself on Sardines and spawning. The Agulhas Current carries the young back to the Cape, where the cycle re-commences.

Geelbek are deep-water fish, and only move close to the surface after dark. This means that, in order to catch them, one has to fish deep by day or – preferably – at night. My experience is that they are more plentiful in Cape waters in summer than in KZN waters in winter. The average size of fish caught in the Cape tends to be much smaller than those caught further north in winter. This is the result of natural selection; young fish of the same age congregate in huge shoals, but over time weaker individuals get weeded out so that fish are encountered in smaller numbers but greater size.

A Geelbek is a much sought-after fish from a culinary perspective. Its flesh is finer and its taste more delicate than that of a Kabeljou (which is a very tasty fish in its own right). While too soft for the braai (unless done wrapped in tin foil) it is scrumptious fried, grilled or baked. Personally, I love the taste of a hot-smoked Geelbek filet.

Conservation Status: Vulnerable. No fish under 60cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 2 fish per angler per day. No sales ban or closed season.

SASSI Status:  Orange – Cause for concern.

Silver fish (Argyrozona argyrozona)

This common line fish is known as the “Kapenaar” in Afrikaans; hence the English derivative “Carpenter” in the Eastern Cape.  It is a firm favourite among Cape fish-lovers, because its flesh is so delicate – even more so than the Hake’s. It is not a big fish; a 3kg specimen would be regarded as a trophy fish. It is a voracious feeder, and juveniles often make a pest of themselves by grabbing the fisherman’s bait before bigger fish can get to it.

The Silver Fish’s soft, moist flesh has a prominent yet pleasant flavour. Because it comes apart so easily once cooked it is best to deep-fry it, cut into goujons and batter-dipped. Another tasty way to prepare larger fish is to bake it whole with a tasty stuffing. Smaller fish can be used to good effect in fish cakes, bouillabaisse , fish pie and cold pâtés.

Conservation Status: Stable. No fish under 35cm in length may be kept. Bag limit of 4 fish per angler per day.  No sales ban or closed season.

SASSI Status:  Orange – Cause for concern.     

Cape Gurnard (Chelidonichthys capensis)

Without doubt one of the weirdest looking of our line fish, the Gurnard is nevertheless one of the tastiest. It has a large, bony head that resembles the front end of a Casspir armoured car, two pectoral fins that look like Chinese fans, and an elongated body. To add to its comical appearance, it utters pig-like grunts when taken from the water, hence its Afrikaans name “Knorhaan”.

It also sports barbel-like antennae on its chin, which it uses to detect small bottom-dwelling prey. This ability to hunt in low visibility enables the Gurnard to live in water of up to 300m in depth. It is present all the way from the Namaqualand coast in the West to Pondoland in the East, but not abundant anywhere. It has become popular among discerning seafood lovers, and is often seen at fishmongers’. Interestingly, as with monkfish, it is usually displayed without the head – perhaps in the belief that the weird shape of the head puts off potential customers?

Gurnards are often referred to as “the poor man’s Sole”, and they do have texture and taste not dissimilar to those of East Coast Sole. The flesh is firm yet succulent, and the flavour distinctive. Because if these qualities, it is a very versatile fish. Filets can be fried or grilled the same way as a sole, and it is equally tasty poached, baked steamed or served “Mornay”, “Thermidor” or “Veronique” style. I like to poach Gurnard until just on the point, and then use the flesh to make faux Maryland Crab Cakes.    

Conservation Status:  Stable – no catch or sale restriction, nor closed season.

SASSI Status:  Green – Sustainable Species.

Kingklip (Gerypterus capensis)

The Kingklip (after the Afrikaans “Koning-Klipvis”) vies with the East Coast Sole for the title of South Africa’s favourite dinner table fish. It is a deep water fish, and member of the cusk eel family. It can reach up to 2 metres in length and a weight of 20kg. It is related to the highly prized (and mistakenly named) “Golden Conger Eel” of Chile. It frequents really deep water, and is beyond the reach of shore and ski boat anglers. It is trawled (and increasingly caught with “long lines” all round the Cape, from Port Nolloth in the West to Port Elizabeth in the East.

 The flesh of a large Kingklip, while very tasty, is rather tough. For me first prize is a whole young Kingklip of around 1kg, which produces about 600g once beheaded and gutted. Grilled or fried whole, it is scrumptious! There are also no annoying little bones that stick in your throat – it is as easy to eat off the bone as a Sole. Just a word of warning: caveat emptor... Unscrupulous fishmongers and restauranteurs often offer “Baby Kingklip” that is actually the tail section of a large specimen. Make sure the fish has a stomach cavity; if not, ask for an explanation.

Given all its desirable qualities, Kingklip can be cooked in myriad ways. Pan-fried, deep-fried, grilled, baked or steamed or poached – every conceivable technique, except barbecuing, can be applied. Of all our endemic fish, it is by far the best suited to use in ceviche or sashimi. Unfortunately the price of Kingklip has risen steeply in recent years, but this should be seen in proper context. Table-ready Kingklip, which is 95% + wholesome protein, still costs less per kilo than lamb chops, more than half of which is made up by bone, sinew and fat!

Conservation Status:  Stable – catch quotas are enforced, but no sales restriction or closed season.

SASSI Status:  Green – Sustainable Species.

The video below celebrates the 20 special fish species I have described here.

“Marriage is like deep sea fishing. You never know what you’ve got until you get it in the boat.” – Dick Bothwell.