New Zealand Sea Fishes

Elephant Fish – Callorhinchus milii – How to Catch Elephant Fish – Updated

Elephant Fish can be caught close to shore in Spring and Summer

Callorhinchus milii

Callorhynchus milii (Tas): Elephant fish, by Frank Edward Clarke. Purchased 1921. Te Papa (1992-0035-2278/121)

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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.

Other names for elephant fish: silver trumpeter, reperepe

Paul Newbigging caught this solid 6.5kg elephant fish recently while surfcasting at Woodend Beach, near Christchurch. Some anglers are very good at catching elephant fish while others never seem to be able to hook one! Well done Paul.

The overall colour is silver-grey with brown blotchy markings. This species is closely related to sharks and therefore has no bony skeleton; instead, it has a backbone 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. This species is very good eating.

The odd appearance of the elephant fish would put off most buyers should they see it whole in their fishmonger’s shop window. For this reason, the fillets are sold with names like silver trumpeter and silverfish.

Elephant fish are very good to eat

Elephant fish make a tasty meal. The firm white boneless flesh is suitable for all cooking methods. It is one of the species that is regularly used to make battered fish sold in fish and chip shop takeaways. 

It is generally accepted that the flavour is greatly improved by cutting, and heading them immediately after capture and then chilling down as soon as possible.

The elephant fish is a rather unusual species related to sharks. Average size 60 to 90 cm. It has smooth skin which is bright silver with dark blotches when first caught. Will take cut-bait but is best targeted with shellfish and crab baits. The elephant fish is a strong fighter on rod and line.

Elephant fish are very strong fighters when hooked even on surfcasting gear. They will often swim strongly back and forth before being landed.


The best time of year to catch elephant fish

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 closed 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.

Elephant fish.

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 Waimakariri River making it most likely that the shallow inshore waters of Pegasus Bay are an important breeding ground for this species.

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 one 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.

From a video, I watched on the internet of an elephant fish filmed underwater they appear to get a lot of forward thrust from their large pectoral fins rather than from their whole body in the way a typical shark does.

The best bait for Elephant Fish

Elephant fish 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 hook baited with cut fish fillets. Good baits include pipi, mussel, tuatua and toheroa. Like rig shark elephant fish feed on animals, they find living on or under the seafloor. When surfcasting for elephant fish you are far more likely to catch them if you are using crab or shellfish bait. It is possible to fish a certain beach for years using squid or cut-fish baits without ever catching this species.

David H. Graham examined the stomach contents of many specimens and found the shells of the shellfish they had eaten were crushed to pieces indicating they must have very powerful jaws. Graham also found that elephant fish had eaten lemon sole measuring up to two and a half inches in length, along with red cod four or five inches long. Graham said it was hard to understand how these small fish had been caught by the elephant fish. On another occasion on bringing in a large haul in a trawl net, they were found to have been eating nothing else other than small crabs.   

Crustaceans like crab and lobster are also excellent bait for elephant fish. Both cooked and uncooked shrimps and prawns obtainable from any supermarket are also good baits for this species. I’d go for uncooked preferably. Possibly the best baits to use are small crabs split open and tied on the hook with bait elastic. If they are too big then cut the crabs in half. Shellfish and crab are probably the best baits for elephant fish that will out-fish anything else. But I have caught elephantfish from time to time on yellow-eyed mullet, and even pre-frozen squid. 

A word of warning; toheroa is only allowed to be taken during a very limited season that is declared only about one day each year.

We think this is the egg capsule of an elephant fish – later verified by Te Papa. It was also found on the beach at South Rangitata, a well-known elephant fish spawning ground. The egg cases are tethered to the bottom and hatch some 6 to 8 months later. Photograph Allan Burgess.

Most of the elephant fish caught by anglers are taken on pipi and tuatua baits, though on occasion they have been caught on squid, octopus and sometimes even yellow-eyed mullet fillets. If you have fished a particular beach for many years and not caught any elephant fish you will be surprised what a difference changing over to crab and shellfish can make. The time of year

The best places to catch elephant fish

The best time of year to fish for them in Canterbury seems to be during December and January. However, I have caught elephant fish on the South Island’s West Coast on several occasions during mid-winter. Plenty of elephant fish are caught along the Canterbury coast by surfcasters.

As mentioned the right bait makes a big difference when targeting this species. The beaches from South Rangitata up to Birdlings Flat are top spots for them. At times when conditions are right, they can be caught in big numbers very close in behind the first row of breakers. The ocean beaches around Wellington are also well-known spots for these fish.  

The elephant fish is a rather unusual species related to sharks. Average size 60 to 90 cm. It has smooth skin which is bright silver with dark blotches when first caught. Will take cut-bait but is best targeted with shellfish and crab baits. The elephant fish is a strong fighter on rod and line. It is one of the top target species for surfcasters around the South Island and lower North Island.

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Elephant fish are very strong fighters when hooked even on surfcasting gear. They will often swim strongly back and forth before being landed.

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

Best hooks and rigs

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 a sufficient hook size. Traces can also be tied from heavy monofilament (37kg or 80lb). I prefer the latter.  

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 River mouth tells me that some evenings 20 or more 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. They are strong hard fighters even when hooked on heavy, surfcasting tackle. They swim strongly up and down the beach when hooked.

How big do elephant fish get?

Club records for elephant fish caught by members of the Wellington Surfcasting and Angling Club published in 1998 show that the heaviest shore-caught specimen weighed 6.123kg (13.08 lbs) caught by B. Jupp at Flat Rock in February 1965. While the record for a boat-caught specimen was 6.084kg (15 lb) caught at Mahanga Bay in January 1975. Note the time of year they were caught.

Tony Ayling and Geoffrey J. Cox in the Collins Guide to the Sea Fishes of New Zealand says the average length is 60cm to 1m. Reaching a maximum length of 1.2m. I caught one at Haast weighing 6.8kg (15 lbs) – see Dick Marquand’s article below. David H. Graham reports that commercial fishermen have caught elephant fish weighing up to 20 lbs (9kg).

Ministry of Primary Industries Bag Limits

Keep in mind that the daily bag limits, net size and fish length may vary around the country in different MPI regions. Currently, as of 2021 the limits for elephant fish in the MPI South-East region (Canterbury and Otago coast) are: There is no minimum fish length. The maximum daily limit per fisher is 5. The minimum mesh size for nets is 150mm. In the Central New Zealand region, the daily bag limit for elephant fish is 20.

Elephant fish also count towards your daily bag limit of finfish, which also varies around the country. It is your responsibility to check the catch limits which you can do here: MPI Recreational Fishing Rules  

Elephant fish and kahawai caught surfcasting near Haast, Westland.
This elephant fish was taken surfcasting near Haast, on the South Island’s West Coast.
Elephant fish taken on crayfish legs or crab surfcasting at Birdlings Flat.
Ian’s son Marlin Robertson, 7 years old, with his first elephant fish caught at Birdlings Flat/Bayleys Beach on 11 January 2011 at 5.30 pm on cooked prawn bait.
Elephant fish caught surfcasting at Birdlings Flat.
Kahawai caught at Birdlings Flat and a couple of strong fighting elephant fish. Many thanks to Ian for sharing his excellent surfcasting photographs.

Video: Elephant fish caught with Pete Lamb Fishing Charters Wellington

The Elephant Fish by Dick Marquand

The secret to catching elephant fish is not only knowing where to go but also what bait to use. The elephant fish (Callerhinchus milii) along with the ghost sharks and spook fish belong to a group of fish known as chimaeras. Like the sharks, skates, and rays, the chimaeras are cartilaginous fish, that is, they lack bony skeletons.
The elephant fish can be immediately recognised by the unusual trunk-like snout which it apparently uses to detect its prey on the soft sandy seafloor. Other obvious features are smooth skin, a high first dorsal fin with a large spine on the leading edge, an elongated upper lobe on the tail and a small gill opening on each side, just ahead of the paddle-like pectoral fins.

An elephant fish fresh from the sea is an amazing sight. Colouration is an intense silvery-white with brown blotches on the sides. The fins share this colourful display and also appear to be almost translucent.

The elephant fish preys on shellfish and crustaceans; these are crushed in the very powerful jaws between plate-like teeth in both jaws. There is an additional pair of tooth plates in the upper jaw.

In David H. Graham’s excellent book A Treasury of New Zealand Fishes,” this Portobello based marine biologist reports finding fifteen species of hard-shelled molluscs in the stomach contents of elephant fish, along with salps, jellyfish, sea eggs and crustaceans such as crabs and shrimps. Small red cod, lemon soles, seahorses, and pipefish are also recorded as being taken as food by elephant fish.”

Elephant fish prefer cool temperate waters and are found more commonly in the waters surrounding the South Island. They are known to venture into waters as deep as 100 fathoms.

During spring and early summer, adult elephant fish tend to move inshore where they mate. Reproduction is oviparous; each fertilised egg is contained within a light brown spindle-shaped capsule that is laid on the seafloor. Some six to eight months later, the egg hatches and a young elephant fish emerges from the capsule. The young fish grows slowly with maturity being reached after five years.

The elephant fish grows to a maximum length of around 1.2 meters and is reported to weigh up to 9 kg. The largest specimen that I have seen was caught by Allan Burgess at Haast in June of 1994. This magnificent catch weighed 6.8kg (15 lbs).

The elephant fish is a prized catch, particularly by surf casters who fish the gutters on open surf beaches.
The most preferred bait appears to be molluscs, either squid, octopus or bivalve shellfish such as tuatuas. When surf fishing with tuatuas, it is advisable to bind the bait with cotton so that it will not fly off the hook when you cast.

Malcolm Bell from The Complete Angler in Christchurch caught this cool elephant fish surfcasting at Birdlings Flat December 2016.

Use a ledger rig with 4/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks

A ledger rig with chemically sharpened 4/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks is an ideal set-up. Some anglers prefer to use alight steel trace when fishing for elephant fish although I am sure that this is primarily because of the school sharks that also frequent the beach gutters. The powerful jaws of the elephant fish make short work of large tuatuas so I am sure they also have the capability of grinding through light monofilament nylon traces.

You have probably read in some articles in fishing magazines and books that this species rarely take a baited hook. If so, someone forgot to tell the four elephant fish that Allan Burgess caught at Haast on one day.

Allan Burgess with a 6.8kg (15 lbs) elephantfish caught surfcasting near Haast, Westland. 

Elephant fish put up an impressive fight when caught on light tackle. A lot of the fighting power comes from the use of the large pectoral fins. The eating qualities of elephant fish are particularly popular with the fish and chip trade. The flesh is firm, tasty, and has a high protein content. In order to get the best quality out of the flesh, it is important to fillet your fish as soon as possible after capture. I immediately put the fillets into plastic bags and place them into a chilli bin of ice. They are usually taken in set nets and trawls, with the total commercial catch in New Zealand waters being around 1000 tonnes.

Callorhinchus milii is also found in South Australian waters.


This post was last modified on 19/11/2021 4:23 pm

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