Scorpion Fish – Scorpaena cardinalis

Scorpaena cardinalis ( Red Scorpion fish), 1874, New Zealand, by Frank Edward Clarke. Purchased 1921. Te Papa (1992-0035-2278/4)
Scorpaena cardinalis ( Red Scorpion fish), 1874, New Zealand, by Frank Edward Clarke. Purchased 1921. Te Papa (1992-0035-2278/4)

Scorpion fish – Scorpaena cardinalis 

Other Names: Red scorpion fish, Grandfather hapuku, red rock cod, pahuiakaroa


The scorpion fish has a disproportionately large head and equally large cavernous mouth. They have many rows of small abrasive teeth that although rough to the touch are not particularly sharp. Anglers can safely pick this fish up by placing their thumb in its mouth and lifting it by the lower jaw in order to avoid the dangerous spines, a jab from which is very painful and the wound often becomes infected.

Scorpion fish are red in colour. There can be some colour variation, including dark blotches, and a mottled orangery red-brown appearance that provides perfect camouflage as they rest on the bottom sitting up on their fan-shaped pectoral fins. The head and gill cover feature ridges and many sharp spines.

Their dorsal fin has 11 or 12 sharp solid spines that can easily pierce the skin of a careless angler. Make no mistake, being stabbed by any of the venomous sharp spines of this fish causes severe pain and can be life-threatening. The rear part of the dorsal fin has 11 soft rays. The anal fin has 3 sharp spines at the front and 5 soft rays at the rear. Note the conspicuous long black blotch on the rear of the first dorsal fin.

The body is rounded and tapers towards the tail.

An unusual feature of the Scorpion fish is that it has no swim bladder. Instead, it uses its pectoral fins to hover in the water.

Where are scorpion fish found?

Although found all around New Zealand scorpion fish is more common in the North Island. It is most common in eastern Northland where large specimens can reach 60 cm and weigh over 5 kg. Most fish are smaller and measure 25 to 45cm in length. The species is also found along Australia’s southern Queensland and northern New South Wales coasts.


They are found over reefs and rocky shorelines from low tide level down to about 100m.

It is a well-camouflaged ambush predator feeding mostly at night during which time they range out over the bottom and up and down cliff faces looking for prey in holes and crevices. Larger specimens are also known to hunt during the day. 

The late Wade Doak, New Zealand marine conservationist, scuba diver, photographer and filmmaker, when describing the behaviour of scorpion fish said, 

“It was the only creature that ever attacked me and caused pain while diving.” 

“Many other divers have suffered similar harassment.”

Such is the fearlessness of the scorpion fish when it comes to driving intruders from its territory! 

Scorpion fish are Viviparous

According to Tony Ayling in the Collins Guide To The Sea Fishes of New Zealand, an unusual feature of the scorpion fish is that it doesn’t lay eggs. Fertilisation and development of the young take place inside the female fish. The small larval young are born alive and spend a short time in the plankton before settling to the bottom as tiny versions of their parents to live out their lives and complete the cycle.  

What do scorpion fish eat?

According to Wade Doak, large scorpion fish eat mainly blennies, demoiselles, blue maomao, and sea perch, along with crabs, shrimps and small octopuses.


Scorpion fish, being bottom dwellers, are best targeted with a 6/0 two-hook Ledger rig. However, it would be fair to say that very few anglers would target scorpion fish. 

A sacrificial sinker tied on with a lighter line is a good idea when fishing over foul ground. Then if your sinker becomes snagged at least you will still have a good chance of being able to wind any hooked fish up to the surface. When they are wound to the surface with their mouths open, anglers often think they have caught something bigger only to be disappointed when it comes into view.

Metal jigs and soft baits bounced off the bottom will also take grandfather hapuku. Again there is also a good chance of getting snagged on the rocky seabed and losing your lure.


This is one species that is not in the least bit fussy when it comes to bait. They will take pretty much anything. Rather than picking at, or mouthing, your baited hooks they just suck the whole thing straight in and swallow. Therefore they are almost always gut hooked.

Are scorpion fish good to eat?

Grandfather hapuka, or scorpion fish, despite their ugly appearance and spiny skin surface, produce firm white fillets that are excellent eating. Many say they taste similar to lobster. You will of course have to be very careful when filleting them in order to avoid their sharp poisonous spines.

Red Scorpion Fish – Scorpaena papillosa

There is another very similar species of Scorpion fish found in New Zealand and southern Australia called a Red Rock Cod – Scorpaena papillosa. The average size of which is 10-20 cm.


Sea Anglers Fishes of New Zealand by Arthur W. Parrott.

Collins Guide To The Sea Fishes of New Zealand by Tony Ayling, illustrated by Geffrey J. Cox.

All About New Zealand’s Favourite Fish by Steve Sneddon and Gary Kemsley

Marine Fishes of New Zealand 1. by Larry Paul, Illustrated by Eric Heath.

Wade Doak’s World of New Zealand Fishes. 

Grant’s Guide to Fishes. Guide to the fishes of Australia. ISBN: 978-0-646-14106-0. Format: Hardback Pages: 880. Weight: 2.5kg. Size: 25cm long, 18cm wide and 5cm deep.


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