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Hook & Cook the Yellowbelly

While not having the grand proportions or hype of the Murray Cod, the humble Yellowbelly is a fish to be admired.

First of all they are smart. The yellowbelly knows to guard itself under the surface of the water away from the watchful eye of hungry birds.

Secondly they put up a good fight with a strong thrash of their paddle like tail. You will have a challenge on your hands if you are lucky enough to have one take your bait.

Known by other names such as Murray Perch and Callop, the Yellowbelly usually weighs in at 2 kilos and 35cm long, but can reach up to 75cm and 23 kilo. Females grow to larger sizes than males. Males mature at 2-3 years of age and females at 4-5 years. Extraordinarily, the Yellowbelly can live up to 26 years.

Breeding season is from spring to summer. The Yellowbelly like other native fish of southeast Australia, live long lives as part of their survival strategy. Longevity allows the Yellowbelly to spawn in the ideal conditions every ten to twenty years, during the uncharacteristically wet La Nina years.

The Yellowbelly prefers the warm inland waters, backwaters and billabongs that are spread throughout the Murray-Darling basin. Wild Yellowbellys tend to be leaner in shape and more intensely golden in colour, and some say better eating. Wild populations have fallen significantly, especially in upper reaches of rivers, due to dams and weirs impacting on migration and spawning.

Early morning and evening are the best times of the day to catch a Yellowbelly. When the water is rising you can catch them along the river bank. When water is still or falling, cast your bait in close to snags, their hiding spots, such as fallen timber or rocky outcrops.

The fishing season is open all year, however the Yellowbelly has bag limits and minimum size limits. The bag limit is how many fish you are allowed to keep in one day, the daily limit is 5 Yellowbellys in NSW. A minimum size limit is how big a fish needs to be in order for you to keep it, in NSW, the minimum legal length for Yellowbelly is 30cm.

Catching Yellowbelly

There are many ways to catch the cunning Yellowbelly. Fishing from the shore, with live baits like yabbies' or scrub worms are your best chance. A bronze long shank hook, with a ball sinker tied tight to the hook, is a favourite method. Deep diving plug lures such as spinnerbaits are popular, as are the "Jackalls" vibration lures. You can try a live yabby, with a ball sinker next to the hook under the tail, bobbed near Yellowbelly snags.

Gill nets are also good to use when fishing in dams for Yellow bellies. Some people stock their dams with yellowbellies, which take around two years to reach a good eating size. Fish swim into a gill nets which have been suspended in a dam, allowing you to simply lift them out.

When you catch the Yellowbelly be careful not to handle the gill plate, which has sharp plates. There are also sharp spines at the front of the dorsal fin, which need to be avoided. Fisherman say the carp to native fish ratio is 50 to 1, so be prepared to hook carp. The practice is to kill the carp, a feral fish, before returning them to the water.

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Cooking Yellowbelly

Many people consider the Yellowbelly excellent eating fish. If you are a food gourmet or a local, you will like its the white flesh and mild taste. Freshwater fish can have subtle muddy flavours, just as sea fish have a salty flavor. Bushies and purists love this authentic taste, while the less adventurous may want try the old bushie trick to soaking them first in egg and milk.

Yellowbelly are very good fried, smoked, steamed or baked. Try them on the barbeque wrapped in foil, rubbed with herbs and olive oil, or make cuts down the side of the fish, and fill with garlic butter and parsley.

Here are some tips for cooking and eating Yellowbelly:

Remove the fat strip along the top of the back and belly by hand, empty the belly cavity. If you soak the fillets in water for a couple of hours the fat will be clearly visible.

Bake Yellowbellys whole if they are 35 to 45 cm. When they get over 45cm fillet them, removing the fat from the back and dusting in salt, pepper and flour and fried in olive oil.

Fishing gear for Yellowbellys can be purchased or hired at the Forbes Visitor Information Centre. Ask for the list of the best Yellowbelly fishing spots and the "how to catch a Yellowbelly guide".

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