The hunt for tigers

Even offshore in the middle of nowhere, tiger squid will live happily. This 1kg+ model was a surprise catch over a small bommie while collecting live baits for an offshore session.

• Elliot Fooks (first published May 2021)

Squid have to be one of the most user-friendly fishing targets. They’re easy to find, easy to catch, safe to handle and they are often found in the most picturesque shallow reef country around! The only downside is the occasional inky outburst, which is more than made up for by their eating qualities.

      While southern calamari have cemented themselves as a regular target amongst southern anglers, their northern counterparts are still a mystery to many. Bigfin reef squid, or tiger squid as they are known colloquially, can be located and caught with the same ease as southern calamari in places where they are common. So why aren’t more people doing it? It’s a really good question, and I still don’t have a definitive answer. But the fact remains: there is a seemingly untapped resource that replenishes readily, and so long as we’re not greedy it should continue to provide.

It’s easy to see they call them tiger squid. Larger males in particular develop the blue and white bands across the tube, which light up when the squid is agitated.
A good net is pretty much essential when squidding, and holding the net above the water like this while removing the jig is a good way to keep the mess outside the boat. Once the squid has used up all its ink, it will be safe to lift aboard.
Tiger squid seem to out-perform their southern counterparts on the end of the line, possibly due to their stockier make-up.
In summer and autumn juvenile specimens like this are common.
When the action picks up, it can get a bit chaotic. That’s four squid in the net from two people fishing.
Squid are a great target for kids, who are invariably fascinated by these alien-like critters.
Brisbane’s Moreton Bay has a healthy population of squid, which start to get active in the shallows around autumn every year.

LIFE OF A TIGER

      Tiger squid can be found in inshore and offshore waters across the northern half of Australia, from about Coffs Harbour in the east to Geraldton in the west. They’re also found throughout temperate and tropical waters in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and also the Mediterranean, the latter of which they gained access to via the Suez Canal.

      Like many cephalopods, they have a fairly short life cycle, in most cases living for only a year or so. In this time they can achieve a 40cm hood length and sometimes weigh over 3kg! This explains why tigers always seem to be hungry; a growth rate like that demands a healthy appetite!

      Tigers can be targeted year round, however if you want to focus on catching better numbers of larger specimens, winter and early spring coincides with their breeding and sees a better average size. During this time (the exact period varies from place to place) adult squid venture up onto shallow reefs to mate and deposit their eggs.

In breeding season, schools of 3-4 squid can be seen sticking close together, which is usually made up of one female, one male, and 1-2 smaller ‘sneaker’ males.

      This short life cycle means that with each season there is a new recruitment of squid that haven’t experienced years of angling pressure, and this is what keeps the squid fishing so good!

GOING ON A TIGER HUNT

      If you live within the tiger squid’s distribution and want to crack your first one, it’s worth thinking about which areas near you may hold them.

      The two main ingredients are clear, cool ocean water, and structure. Structure can take the form of rock, coral, weed, rubble, mangrove roots and so on. Anything that can house food items like baitfish, prawns and crabs is worth inspecting.

      A classic environment for tigers is around marinas and harbours. The retaining walls, jetties with lights and clean water make good real estate for squid, and if fishing is permitted in your local marina you can be in for some good action.

      River breakwalls are another easily accessible area to get amongst them, and are particularly favoured by those fishing without a boat.

      A little tip if fishing without a boat is to time your trips around the high tide. During the top of the tide, the water will be at its clearest and the squid will venture up as shallow as they can in search of prey, putting them well within your reach.

      If you own a boat, any shallow ground (between 1-4m) with weed, rubble, rock or coral should have squid on it somewhere, so long as the water is nice and clear. I find a little bit of current usually gets the squid out actively hunting, using the current to mooch along as they scan for their next victim.

      Many of the tiger’s most loyal fans choose to fish for them at night. New moons and dark nights seem to be favoured in squid circles, and while some will blind cast over likely areas in the dark, others will use a spotlight to locate the squid first before casting at them. They can also be found under artificial light sources, no doubt attracted to the bait that hovers around them like moths.

      Don’t ever be fooled into thinking these guys will only eat at night though. In fact, 95% of my squid fishing is done during the day, and I will even go as far as to say I think they feed more aggressively when the sun’s up! Being a sight-based hunter, it makes sense that they do their best work during daytime hours. Fishing during the daytime also has the added bonus of allowing you to watch the squid chase down and eat the jig. Watching a cruising tiger switch on and slide toward your jig, tactically changing colour to blend in with its environment, before shooting out the two ‘candle’ tentacles to snaffle your jig never gets old.

GEARING UP

      The simplicity of squid fishing is one of its big perks, and these weird suckers can be targeted comfortably with fairly inexpensive ‘bottom-of-the-line’ spin tackle. Of course, there are purpose-built ‘egi’ rods and reels (and even braided lines) with more substantial price tags attached, and these are absolutely worth the investment if chasing squid regularly.

      Egi rods generally feature a slow taper and a parabolic action when loaded up, and are designed with enough give to keep small prongs in soft squid tentacles. Egi reels usually have a shallow spool, a light but smooth drag and a slow gear ratio.

      Big brands such as Shimano, Daiwa, Atomic, and NS Blackhole have a range of squid specific rods and reels, but if you don’t want to spend too much there’s a few basic things to look for.

      Firstly, if fishing from the shore it will be easier to fish with a slightly longer rod. Something between 7’6”-8’6” will make shoregame squidding much easier and more comfortable. If in the boat, anything between 7-8’ is fine. In any case, a rod with a 2-5kg rating or thereabouts and 1000-3000 size reel is sufficient for hucking around most squid jigs, which can be quite heavy in larger sizes.

      Speaking of jigs, you’ll want to have a decent collection before you go out. The standard way to measure squid jig size is in inches, and most jigs from around the world have this information clearly displayed on the packaging. Jigs usually range between 1.6 and 4.0 sizes, and within these sizes are a range of different weights and sink rates.

      For any prospecting I do in new water, I usually reach for a 2.5 size to start. This seems to be a happy medium of not too small for larger models, and not too big for smaller, sub-500g squid. Anytime I’m fishing in the peak of the breeding season and there’s an abundance of 1kg+ tigers in the area, I’ll happily throw a 3.0-4.0 jig around, as big squid like a big meal. The only times I go down to a jig smaller than 2.0 is if there are only smaller squid in the area, which can be common in summer and early autumn, or if the squid are a bit gun shy.

      The subject of colours is where preference starts to diverge a little. There are a lot of theories out there relating to squid eyesight and jig colour, but I only have a few simple rules that I follow, and they work pretty well. Dull day means bright-coloured jig, and bright day means dull-coloured jig. Another rule of mine is if it’s not working, change it. If you fish for a while and don’t get any interest, tie on another jig. If you watch a few squid inspect your offering without eating it, that’s a no brainer – change it!

      Having a range of weights on hand is important too. In deeper water around 4m, you may want a faster sinking models, whereas over a very shallow flat you’ll want something that sinks slowly, nearly suspending. A little hack a friend taught me a while ago was to use a belt sander to file down the weight of heavier jigs. It works well, just remember that once it’s done it can’t be undone!

      There’s a great range of jigs out there these days, with brands such as Yamashita, Gan Craft, Black Magic, DTD and Daiwa all producing high-quality jigs ready for use straight out of the packet.

APPLYING YOUR KNOWLEDGE

      Once you have a decent idea of where your local tigers will be hanging out, it’s time to put everything into practise. Whether you’re in a boat, land-based or even on a pier, one of the main keys to success is mobility. Squid do move around, but when they’ve found a good patch they stick with it, so doing a bit of searching will help you to find these patches.

      When I’m on foot, walking along a rock wall for instance, I make casts along the length of the wall to keep the jig close to structure, and take a few steps between each cast. In this way, I can methodically work my way along it and in the process intercept any squid feeding. The same principle applies in a boat; be sure to keep moving! You can do this either by drifting with the wind or current, or you can control your movements with an electric motor.

      Working your jig is another contentious issue. I prefer to give my jig a few sharp rips with the rod, which sends it darting aggressively side to side, before allowing it to glide slowly back toward structure. The long, slow fall is usually when the jig gets eaten. Others prefer to slowly wind their jig, waiting for the tell-tale dead weight of a squid to gradually load up the rod. This latter technique works particularly well in shallow water less than a metre, where allowing the jig to sink just isn’t an option. I have caught many large squid this way.

      Once you’ve hooked a squid or you spot a few cruisers, then you can work an area more thoroughly. Squid tend to gather for common purpose (usually for food or breeding) in certain locations, so if you find one, you can almost be sure there’ll be others nearby. Quite often the commotion of a hooked squid can draw in several others – it’s then just a matter of working your way through them, which is easier if fishing with other people.

      A handy trick if working through a school is to keep a hooked squid in the water while another person throws a jig in, and once their jig gets eaten, the other squid can be landed. Keeping a hooked squid in the water at all times will keep the others interested while your partner readies their gear to catch another.

      I recommend using a net for all you squid fishing. Lifting them by the jig risks pulling the prongs out, and landing them by hand can see you with an inky mess on your hands.

      The best way to net a squid is from behind. If you swipe the net from in front of their eyes they will propel themselves in the opposite direction, however if you do this from the other side they should jet themselves nicely into the net.

ON THE PLATE

      Fresh calamari is one of the main reasons I took up this caper, and nothing beats the flavoursome flesh of a freshly dispatched tiger squid, which I argue has a better natural flavour than southern calamari. These animals have a few peculiarities, though, which can turn people off eating them. One of them is their thick flesh. Tigers have an extremely thick tube, about double the thickness of a southern calamari tube, which means a tiger will be much heavier than a southern calamari of the same length. This thick flesh can come out quite chewy if not prepared and cooked in the right way. Dealing with this challenge requires a little bit of preparation.

      As with any seafood, the first thing to do post-capture is to dispatch (either by ikejime spike or Karate chop method), and put on ice until stiff. Cleaning the animal is easier when it has stiffened up on ice, believe me. Tigers also have an extra thick skin that needs to come off, and this task is easier after icing.

      Once you have your tube, wings and tentacles, you have a few options. The easiest way to tenderise the flesh, and my favourite way, is to freeze and then defrost it in a plastic bag with all the air pushed out.

The other way is to marinate it in smashed kiwi fruit, paw paw or milk. These items have an enzyme in them that will start to break down the flesh, so be sure not to leave them in there for any longer than a few hours, or you’ll find that your squid flesh has been digested into sludgy, inedible jelly!

      Whether crumbing and deep frying or scoring and shallow frying, the key is not to cook it for too long. High heat and quick cook times are the best way to keep the sweet tasting flesh tender. Cooking for too long will see it revert back to being tough and chewy. If cooking with oil, I don’t like them to cook for any longer than a minute.

As with all squid, don’t throw away the tentacles! These naturally tender pieces of the animal are like the fillet or the backstrap; a prized cut!

HAVE A GO THIS SEASON

      We are moving into the best time to be fishing for tiger squid, so give yourself the best possible chance and take the opportunity to get yourself set up. It doesn’t have to be a complicated set-up, and if you find it’s something you’re into you can always start upgrading your gear from there. Any existing light outfits you may have for bass, bream, flathead or whiting are fine to tie a jig onto and start prospecting for squid!