Category: High Risk
MANY anglers agree that baldies, as they are frequently referred to with affection, are one of the best eating fish in the sea. They would be in most anglers’ top five table fish, and justifiably so. Baldies are commonly found in coral and reef strewn shallows where they have developed a great ability to break fishing line in a couple of seconds, frequently before an angler has time to put the brakes on. Indeed, chasing baldies in the shallow waters around the Abrolhos Islands, where this species abounds, is a great way to catch a feed of fresh fish. Baldies use hit-and-run tactics in this rough country to great advantage, burying unsuspecting or under-gunned anglers in no time flat.
If you’re fortunate enough to survive that first burst of horsepower from these nuggetty reef-loving critters, you still have to deal with a spirited fight from any that weigh more than a kilo or so. They are not a fish that surrenders early. It’s as if they know that they are highly rated on the plate and fight accordingly. Baldchin groper should be cooked simply and with care and the result can be just superb. Baldies are worth looking after and, ideally, after spiking (ike jimi) they should be put straight into an esky of ice slurry. Hmm, delicious.
With their white and scaleless “bald” white chin, bigger baldchin groper are not too hard to distinguish, but in the north of WA juveniles may be confused with paler versions of the black-spot tusk fish. However, as its name suggests the black-spot tusk fish does have a black spot at the base of the middle of its dorsal fin. Another fish with a white “bald” chin in our northern waters is the blue tusk fish. Although similar in body shape and colour to the genuine baldie, the blue tusk fish has a white spot in the middle of its back and the tail carries a scribble marked pattern, whereas the baldie’s tail has no markings..
Baldies reportedly grow to a very solid 14 kilos, but a good fish is five or six kilos and those around three kilos are nice keepers. Due to fishing pressure the larger fish tend not to be found in very shallow water these days. Baldies are a slow-growing and long-living species that reach a maximum age of at least 20 years. In the Abrolhos area they reach the current legal minimum length of 40cm total length at 5-7 years. Around Shark Bay they reach the legal minimum length at about 5.5 years.
The baldie is endemic to WA and may be found in shallow water from Geographe Bay in the south to Coral Bay in the north, with some of the densest populations around the Abrolhos. There are also some great baldie spots for anglers fishing off the reefs from Carnarvon to Coral Bay, but this is very unforgiving country to fish. Baldies have often been misreported from the northern half of the state but they definitely do not occur north of Coral Bay.
Breeding and migration
Baldies are classed as protogynous hermaphrodites; that is, they undergo a sex change from female to male during their life. They are also considered to be monandric; that is, sex change occurs after maturing first as a female fish. The size at first maturity for female baldies is about 29cm. The size at sex change is variable and occurs over a range of sizes.
Baldies are a multiple spawner with a protracted spawning season from September to January at the Abrolhos. This period corresponds to an early spring through to mid-summer spawning season. Populations of baldies are considered to be resident within reef systems with movements between shallow and deep water. Movement between the coast and island populations is not known and remains to be investigated. Similarly, the degree of connectivity among populations of baldies remains to be investigated..
Recreational and commercial fishing can impact on baldchin stocks very quickly with the average size of fish caught in some areas dropping to just above the legal minimum size of 40cm in a very short time.
The fact that baldies taste so good results in a lot of fishing pressure in areas such as the Abrolhos, where they can be caught in the lee of an island even when the wind is blowing dogs off chains. Nature has made the baldie desirable and therefore vulnerable and so it’s inevitable that some specific management measures will be needed for this fish in the not-too-distant future.
Tackle and bait
My first baldie session – some years back now – was with a 100kg handline and a 7/0 hook baited with an occy leg. No weight needed as we fished the holes in the coral at close quarters – just the weight of the bait put it on the baldies’ coral-covered doorstep. The scars on my hands healed many years ago but the memory of the size and strength of the baldies we caught, and lost, that day lives on in my mind. These days I use a 6-8kg spin stick with a 24kg mono trace to 8kg mono main line. The country I fish in would be far too costly with braid. The baldies I catch these days in the coral shallows are half the size they used to be. The gear I use now would probably not have landed me a fish 20 years ago in the same area.
When anchored and berleying, the odd baldie can put in a welcome appearance in the berley trail and will fall to a bait on the bottom or even a floating mulie out the back. Mulies, strip baits, squid and of course occy all account for baldies at one time or another, but don’t bunch the bait up on the hook. Rather, allow an enticing piece to hang free of the hook and move in the current. Baiting this way also allows for immediate hookups which at times can be the difference between landing a baldie and not.
I like to look for shallow water, up to five metres deep, which contains some coral lumps and a mixture of broken coral and sand. I explore the area at the back of the boat by casting into likely looking gutters and channels. If baldies are there they generally don’t take long to put in an appearance but if the fish are small I tend to move on and try to find bigger fish.
It is quite common for anglers chasing dhufish to bag a few baldies when drifting for their main targets. Generally these days, baldchin taken as bycatch in deeper water tend to be bigger on average than those caught in the shallows, simply because they see less intense fishing pressure in deeper water.
References: Hutchins and Swainston Sea Fishes of Southern Australia 1986. Compiled with the assistance of the Marine Research Branch of the West Australian Department of Fisheries.