Witch or Megrim Flatfish – Arnoglossus scapha

Witch Flounder - Arnoglossus scapha.
Witch Flounder - Arnoglossus scapha.

Witch or Megrim Flatfish – Arnoglossus scapha 

By Dick Marquand

The light slowly came to the clear Fiordland sky. With breakfast out of the way, I turned my attention to the big diesel motor in preparation for a day on the high seas. We were in Thompson Sound, having spent the night on a mooring in Deas Cove, close to the open sea in an area noted for the activity of southern bluefin tuna. But this story is about the peculiar flatfish known as the witch.

The engine sounded sweet and with the check completed, I yelled out to my crew to cast off.

“What do you want me to do with these fish?” asked Pete.

“We’ll give them to the chaps in the Viscount,” I replied.

“A mean trick,” said Pete.

“Hey!” I yelled out. “Would you chaps be interested in a couple of flounder?”

“Hell yes,” replied one of the crew. “They’ll do nicely for breakfast.”

“We got them last night,” I said, fighting to keep a straight face.

“You heading out to chase the bluefin?” asked Pete.

“Yeah,” he replied, “as soon as we’ve eaten these flatties, we’ll head north to the mouth of Nancy Sound. “Thanks for the fish, very decent of you.”

I smiled as we headed out from the cove, towards the mouth of Thompson Sound. The much-appreciated flatfish would certainly not be appreciated when the crew of the small boat tried to eat them. They were in fact witch or megrim. The flesh of which could best be described as fish flavoured Steelo Pads. The species became very well known amongst Fiordland anglers with many new chums being initiated into the delicacies of the witch.

The right eye flounders (Family Pleuronectidae) include flatfish such as the flounders, brill, sole and turbot, all well known for their fine eating qualities. Not so the witch, the eyes of which lie on the left side of the head. It belongs to the (Family Bothidae), which includes all of the left-eye flounders. If you hold a witch horizontally with the coloured side facing you (as in the illustration above) with the gills at the bottom, you’ll note that the eyes are facing left. Hence, it is a left-eye flounder or flatfish. This makes it very easy to distinguish from similar-looking flatfish like sand flounder, greenbacks, and so on.

The witch grows to a length of around 40cm and is a common species found in shallow inshore waters around our southern coastline. They can be caught on baited hooks and jigged lures, especially over muddy or sandy bottoms. The Maori name mahue means to be left behind.

In A Treasury of New Zealand Fishes, author David H. Graham notes that at Port Chalmers, the fish became known as cadgers-fish. Commercial fishermen would save all of the witch caught in their trawls and give them to those persons who frequented the wharf when a commercial boat berthed, expecting a free feed of flatfish.

Many years ago, I can remember being sucked in myself. A rough sea meant we were forced to spend the day on our mooring in Deas Cove.

“Fancy an entree of scallops and flounder everyone?” asked Brent A few minutes later he donned his wet suit and slipped over the side into the dark waters Twenty minutes later, I heard a rattle as an onion sack of perhaps a dozen big juicy scallops was lifted onto the boarding platform.

“Scallops or flounder Dick?” asked Brent

“Definitely flounder for me,” I replied.

“Good,” said Brent, “I managed to get a beauty Dick, so it’s all yours.”

Looking back on it I should have realised that something was amiss. While Brent and the other crew had their entree of fried scallops, I placed a piece of fish on the fork and put it in my mouth.

“What the hell did you do to the flounder Brent it is full of bones.”

“Allow me to introduce you to the curse of the witch,” he said, roaring with laughter.

“Sucked in well and truly,” I said as I scraped my plate over the side. On entering the cabin, I couldn’t help but notice four fat juicy scallops ‘n the pan on the gas ring.

Witch Facts

The witch is found only in New Zealand waters. It is light grey-brown in colour with many small black and yellow spots. Its underside is white. A mature specimen will measure just over a foot in length.

This species is related to the flounder. However, unlike that popular table fish, it is poor eating, being very thin and full of bones. The flesh is also watery and tasteless. They are often caught by trawlers operating off our coast but have no commercial value.

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