New Zealand Sea Fishes

Leatherjacket – Parika scaber – Good eating – Use long-shank hooks

Leatherjacket – Parika scaber – Good eating – Use long-shank hooks

Leatherjacket – Parika scaber – By Allan Burgess

Description 

The leatherjacket is a small diamond-shaped fish. Average size is 20 cm to 30 cm (8 to 12 inches), and the maximum is 40 cm (16 inches). They are generally a grayish brown color, but there is considerable colour variation between individuals. Some can be a very light gray tending almost white while others are darker brown. They have a sharp rectangle shaped spine where the first dorsal would be that can be folded flat along the top of the body.  

This species grows very quickly reaching 20cm (8 inches) in its first year. Thay reach full size by the end of their second year. Although they can live for six or seven years, they don’t grow any longer which is unusual for fish. 

Males 

Males are a uniform gray all over with vertical lines near the ends of their mostly yellow tail fins. The dorsal and anal fins are yellowish in colour. There are also vertical blotchy lines that run more or less from the top of the head towards the mouth. During the breeding season males become darker in color with their heads especially becoming much darker. 

Females 

Females and juveniles have the same basic gray colour but with an added mottled blotchy pattern as well. Their tail fins are yellow in colour. 

The skin surface of leatherjackets is covered in small leathery sandpaper-like scales. The gill openings are small being just a short vertical slit below the eyes. 

The mouth, which is very small for the size of the fish, contains very sharp teeth.  

What do leatherjackets eat? 

According to Tony Ayling and Geoffrey Cox in the Collins Guide to the Sea Fishes of New Zealand, the leatherjacket is the only fish species in New Zealand that feeds mainly on encrusting animals. That means they mostly eat barnacles, sponges, sea squirts, seaweeds, aquatic invertebrates, and jellyfish. Their small mouths with sharp chisel-like teeth are well designed for grazing over rocks. They have a lever mechanism in their jaw bones that enables them to exert enormous cutting pressure. They even eat the spines of sea urchins.  

Spawning 

Leather jackets spawn between June and the end of September. 

Are leather jackets edible? 

Leatherjackets are one of the best eating fish in the sea. They have few bones and are very easy to cook. They are sold in shops as cream fish. The flesh is very good eating being firm and white. Just coat with flower and cook in a pan with butter or oil. They are easy to prepare and are almost always cooked whole. They would be too fiddly to fillet. Just remove the head and the sandpaper like skin comes off easily. Sometimes you see them for sale at the supermarket already headed and skinned. If you haven’t tried leather jacket before buy some and cook them. You are in for a treat. 

What does leatherjacket taste like?

Leatherjacket doesn’t have a strong fishy flavour at all. The taste is similar to flounder and isone of the best eating fish you can catch or purchase at the supermarket. 

Where to find leatherjacket fish 

Found all around New Zealand including the Chatham Islands but more common in the North Island and parts of the upper South Island.  

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They are usually found near and over weed beds, along rocky coast lines, and especially around jetties and wharf piles. Sometimes that can stray a long way from cover and be caught over sandy or muddy bottoms. Leatherjackets have been taken in trawl nets down to 100 meters. 

Best baits 

Ho to catch leatherjacket fish. Leatherjackets will take almost any bait. They have small mouths so if targeting them you need to use very small baits. Pieces of mussel, crab and squid all work well. The tougher the bait the better to prevent the leatherjacket from stealing it without being caught.  

Rigs for leatherjacket 

Some anglers recommend the use of fine wire traces as their sharp teeth can easily chop through monofilament. If you leave you gear unattended it isn’t unusual to wind in only to find your hooks have been stripped of bait or the hooks bitten-off altogether. 

A simple Paternoster rig using small three-way swivels is a good choice when fishing from a jetty. Make the mainline of 10 – 20 lb. monofilament and the branching traces of fine Twist Weld type wire. The wire is twisted back along itself and then heated with a match or lighter to fuse the plastic coating together. Apply just enough heat to melt the plastic. Too much and you will burn the coating off altogether. 

A simpler solution is to tie up a similar rig with long shank hooks keeping the bait down at the bend only. This will work better if you keep your rod in hand and lift when you feel a nibble so as to decrease the time the fish has to steal the bait or cut your monofilament traces.  Long shank size 4 – 10 trout hooks are the ideal size. An unfortunate problem when catching leatherjackets on these small hooks is that they can be very difficult to remove from their small mouths making “extensive surgery” neccessary to retrieve it.

If fishing from rocks you might like to try a float rig with the same long shank hooks and split shot or a small sinker to take the hooks down to the fish. The advantage of the float, rig especially when used with split shot, is that you are less likely to become snagged in the rocks and weed. 

Best time of year to catch leatherjackets 

Leatherjackets can be caught all year round. 

Tips 

Leather jackets can inflict a painful bite. They are one of the few fish around New Zealand that will deliberately nip divers. You would do well to keep your hands and fingers away from their mouths when removing them from the hook.

If you are fishing for more desirable species like snapper from the rocks and find your bait keeps disappearing from your larger hooks without any fish being caught leather jackets along with spotties are the likely culprits. 

According to David H. Graham in A Treasury of New Zealand Sea Fishes leatherjackets are devoured by Ling, Kingfish, Red Cod, Trumpeter and Sea Perch.

Leatherjackets cooking in butter. Coat in flower and drop them straight in the frying pan. In the shops they are sold as cream fish.
 

This post was last modified on 23/10/2021 9:09 pm

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