Summer is here and that means one thing to Margaret River anglers: dhufish season.
Flaky, rich, delicate and full of flavor, the fillets from a dhufish are the most prized by fishermen and usually the most expensive at the fishmonger.
Add to that the patience needed to locate one in the Indian Ocean depths, the strategy needed to hook one and the fight to land one, and it’s clear why “dhuies” are the jewel in the fishing crown of the Margaret River region. Endemic to Western Australia, they are found nowhere else on Earth, reaching up to 25kg and 40 years of age.
One of the best in the business at finding and catching dhufish is Legend Charters, a family-run company who specialize in whale watching in the offseason but turn their full attention to the rod and reel when dhufish season opens on December 16.
They recently starred on network TEN’s fishing program iFish. Armed with 30 years’ experience and plenty of local knowledge, they take anglers on full-day fishing expeditions aboard their 18m vessel, aptly named “Dhu Force”.
Born and bred Margaret River local and Legend Charters skipper Luke Thom – whose biggest dhuie was a 17.6kg whopper caught off Dunsborough – has been scouring the reefs between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin armed with a bag of bait and a rod and reel for almost as long as he can remember, and he knows a thing or two about the iconic fish.
“There’s nowhere else in the world where you can catch these fish. As well as being bloody good to eat, they’re some of best targeting fish for the fight you get and the size they can go to,” he says.
Here are Thom’s top nine tips to help you bag a dhufish for dinner:
Leave the land
You’ll need a boat to bag a dhuie. WA’s fisheries department says dhufish live close to the seabed and are “typically found on reefs 20m-50m deep”. That means launching at one of the region’s boat ramps and heading out to sea. Thom says the best ground “really depends on the size of your boat and how far you’re heading out”. As a general rule, search for coral bombies, large rocky outcrops, ledges and caves. The species are sedentary, and will generally not travel far from home once they find ideal habitat.
Fresh is best
When it comes to bait, dhufish are as fussy as a MasterChef judge. “They love herring, octopus and squid but above all it’s got to be fresh,” says Thom. “Fresh is the key. If you can, get out the morning before and catch 15 herring to take out in the boat – that’s always better than buying your bait from the shop. The dhuies definitely know.” If you hook a king wrasse, consider using it for bait as well. “Cut a fillet and throw that on the hook. It often works because it’s so fresh and the red colour seems to attract the dhufish,” Thom says. You’ll know when you hook a dhufish: they have cavernous mouths that allow them to ambush prey, striking with plenty of power.
Dance a jig
When it comes to equipment, there are two choices for catching a dhufish. “There’s the old school way of using bait and an 8-10kg rod with 40-50 pound braid,” says Thom. “Or you’ve got the new school way of jigging, which a lot of people are into these days.” Jigging involves using a soft plastic bait designed to “flutter” down to the seabed and attract the fish’s attention. “You bring it up 5m, then drop it back down again and repeat that as you drift over a lump. For jigging, you need a lighter rod and lighter line, maybe 30-40 pound, or you’ll end up with a sore arm from lifting it up and dropping it down all day,” Thom says. Which is best? Thom reckons combining both is the sure-fire way. “They do love the bait, but then on some days they just seem to go for the jigs. I recommend combining both into your fishing,” he says.
Chart your course
Veteran fishermen have spent decades finding and fishing the best dhufish ground and honing their techniques, but for the rest of us it’s hard to beat the added know-how that comes with jumping on a fishing charter. Legend Charters caught the bag limit for dhufish on four out of every five charters last season. “The crew and the deckhands will show you the rigs to use and the bait, and you’ll probably pick up some techniques at the same time. The boys on the deck are all seasoned fishermen,” says Thom. Let’s not forget a hot breakfast and delicious lunch and snacks, served in the spacious lounge or on the back deck if you don’t want to take a break from the action. Bait, tackle and top-of-the-line rods and reels are also supplied. “You’re getting on a bigger boat and not getting bashed around and getting wet. It’s a lot more comfortable than fishing out of your tinny,” says Thom. Legend Charters also guarantee a feed of fish at the end of the day.
For those with their own boat, Thom reckons a quality sounder is essential to spot dhufish and identify ground where they are likely to be found. “It’s pretty much essential to be running a good sounder set up. You need at least a 1kw transducer with a quality sounder”. The sort of equipment you’ll need can be quite expensive depending on what brand of electronics you use but fishing with Legend Charters you’ll get the state-of-the-art gear. They have Simrad 3kw chirp electronics and also have an integrated 3D max sea-plotting system to put you on the fish every single time. Dhufish show up as a “big blob” on a fish finder, Thom says, thanks to their large swim bladder, making them easy to differentiate from other fish.
Time it right
Thom says time of day is not a crucial factor for catching dhuies, but timing your fishing with the tides can play a big part in success or failure. “The change of tides definitely seems to be the best. Coming in and then when the tide is running out again is when they can be more active, although it doesn’t always go that way,” he says. The time of the year is also important, with dhufish legally protected between October 15 and December 15 every year when the species is spawning as water temperatures start to rise. Thom says dhufish are caught throughout the remaining 10 months of the year, but as soon as the season opens is “prime time” for bagging one.
Reel em’ in
You’ve found the fish, hooked it and now it’s time to start reeling in. So what’s the best tactic? The first few seconds after the strike are crucial moments, says Thom. “When you’ve got him on the hook you want to go hard at the start, get 6-10 metres on him, get him off the bottom. He knows the piece of coral or the cave you’ve pulled him out of and he’s going to go straight for it and try to bust you off,” he says. But it’s a delicate balance and one that comes only with experience, because “at the same time you don’t want to go too hard or you’ll pull the hooks out”. After those first crucial seconds, Thom’s advice is to reel in “slow and steady”. “You’ll feel him, he’ll want to go down but once you’ve got him up off the bottom there’s nowhere for him to go,” he says.
Just a little patience
Patience and persistence are other key factors to catching dhufish. “If you do the time, you’ll catch the fish,” Thom reckons. “They move with the tides and the time of year, and you’ve got to work out where they go, figure out their patterns and what they feed on. It takes years, not days. You might go fishing 10 times and only catch two dhuies. But then over the years you might find a real nice set of rocks and get two fish every time.” Above all, enjoy the experience of being out on the ocean. “Everybody is after that big dhuie but fishing is fishing. Some days they’re there, some days they’re not. That’s what makes it fun,” he says.
Sizzle that fillet
Back on dry land after a day of sea, it’s time to savor the catch and feed the family (or keep it all for yourself!). The catch might also include pink snapper, breaksea cod, nannygai, yellow tail kingfish, bronze whaler or baldchin groper, but if you’ve got a prized dhufish Thom recommends crumbing a piece of fillet and lightly frying it in butter and oil. “Add a bit of parsley and salt in the crumb, and serve with potato salad and coleslaw. Just talking about it makes me hungry,” he says. Don’t throw away the fish frame or the “wings” either. “Cook it whole on the barbecue and pick out the meat between the bones. It’s some of the best eating on the whole fish,” Thom says.
Legend Charters – Fast Facts:
A day trip with Legend Charters is all inclusive. You’ll receive top quality fishing gear, bait, ice, tackle and support from the friendly crew. You’ll also be well-fed, receiving a fully cooked bacon and egg breakfast, and food, drinks, and snacks while out on the boat.
You’ll be emailed a photo with your catch of the day, which crew will fillet and bag for you before you head home.
Charters depart from Dunsborough Professional Fisherman’s boat ramp, or Cowaramup Bay boat ramp in Gracetown.
A day out will set you back $330 per person including GST (this includes a fishing license for the day).
Fishing season runs December 16th through to mid-May.