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Elephant Fish - New Zealand's Surfcasting

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Elephant Fish
Callorhinchus milii - by Allan Burgess
Elephant Fish
A close-up picture of the head of an elephant fish. This unusual fish is occasional caught by surfcasters around the South Island. It is a species of shark and puts up a strong fight when hooked. Elephant fish are also very good eating.

The elephant fish is rather unusual. A large fleshy cartilaginous trunk protrudes from the snout and together with large wing-like pectoral fins combine to give a rather grotesque deformed appearance. The first dorsal fin has a large sharp folding spine.

The overall colour is a silver-grey with brown blotchy markings. This species is closely related to sharks and therefore has no boney skeleton; instead it has a back-bone of gristle. This means that it provides two large boneless fillets which have for a long time been used in the fish and chip trade. The odd appearance of the elephant fish would put-off most buyers should they see it whole in their fish monger's shop window. For this reason the fillets are sold with names like silver trumpeter and silver fish. They are excellent eating.

Discarded elephant fish egg capsule.They are thrust into the seabed when layed. It takes about five months for the embryo to develop before escaping out the tube at the end. Small slits in the sides allow oxygen to enter through the water.
Elephant fish egg capsules are larger than those of the carpet shark and skate. They measure some 250mm x 100mm. Note how the cavity in the capsule resembles the shape of the fully formed fish. At the time of emerging from the capsule the elephant fish weigh about 300g.

Female elephant fish come into the shallow waters of the South Island 's east coast between October to November to lay their egg capsules in the sand close to shore. It takes until April for the baby elephant fish to fully develop and emerge from their horny egg case. They do this by escaping down through the narrow passage at one end of the egg capsule that is normally close off by a special valve. At times large numbers of their discarded egg capsules are eventually washed ashore, particularly at Sumner and New Brighton Beaches . I have found these used egg capsules from Amberley to South Rakaia beaches.

They look much like just another piece of washed up seaweed. In the water they are a yellowish brown colour but darken to black under the sun much like a thin piece of old dried leather. The egg capsules of the elephant fish are almost pear shaped: being round at one end, and pointed towards the end with the escape tunnel. Egg capsules of the carpet shark and skate are smaller and square shaped. In the case of the skate they have tendrils at the corners. From April onwards sometimes very large numbers of elephant fish egg cases are washed up on the beaches between Sumner and the mouth of the Waikmakariri River making it most likely that the shallow inshore waters of Pegasus Bay are an important breeding ground for this species.

Elephant Fish
Elephant fish caught surfcasting at South Rakaia Huts.

Anglers surfcasting from Canterbury beaches twenty or more years ago were at times able to catch a dozen or more in a day on baited hooks. They are now only caught very occasionally in this way. It is now a good day's fishing if a single elephant fish is caught in this way. They are powerful swimmers and a large specimen, about 1.2 metres (4 feet long), will put up a spirited fight on rod and reel.

They are bottom feeders and according to biologists their diet consists almost entirely of shellfish and crustaceans - crabs, and shrimps. They seldom eat fish and when they do only very small ones. Elephant fish don't often take a baited hook. When they do the best baits are pipi, tuatua and toheroa.

A word of warning; toheroa are only allowed to be taken during a very limited season that is declared only about one day each year. Most of the elephant fish caught by anglers are taken on pipi baits, though on occasion they have been caught on squid, octopus and some times even yellow-eyed mullet fillets.

Unlike bony fish , elephant fish are like sharks having no bones; their skeleton is made of cartilage, which although tough and fibrous, it is not as hard as bone. This you get a considerable amount of firm fish fillets from an elephant fish.

Elephant fish
Elephant fish caught near the mouth of the Waimakariri River. Click to enlarge.

Steel traces are required as the elephant fish has powerful crushing teeth that will soon cut through monofilament. Big hooks aren't necessary. A size 2/0 being quite sufficient hook size.

The beach at Spencer Park just to the south of the mouth of the Waimakariri River seems to be a very good spot for surfcasting for elephant fish. They are also caught from the beaches of the Canterbury Bight from Birdlings Flat down to the Rangitata River. I'm sure they move about in schools as many experienced surfcasters report that when they have caught elephant fish they sometimes get quite a few at the same time. A mate of mine who has a bach on the south side of the Rangitata Rivermouth tells me that some evenings 20 or more elephant fish have been caught by him and his mates surfcasting across the road. I suspect they are moving around in sizeable schools.

Elephant fish are by no means confined to Canterbury. I have caught them on the West Coast of the South Island as far south as Haast. Elephant fish are strong hard fighter even when hooked on heavy surfcasting tackle. They swim strongly up and down the beach when hooked.

Elephant Fish Waimakariri Rivermouth.

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