Run the raw prawn

A serve of boiled prawns (front) and chilli-seasoned wok-fried prawns (rear).

Wet your feet to land free catches across the coast

Thomas Cook

Seafood. Australians love it. And why not! We are surrounded by the sea, with a variety of glorious river systems weaving paths across the sunburnt land, carving their way out to the ocean. The food sources derived from water are abundant and astoundingly varied, with over 2000 species of fish alone. These can be caught from jetties, off boats, from rocks, in rivers and streams – there are so many options. We have barramundi in the north, King George whiting in the south, sailfish in the west and marlin in the east. We also have plenty of crustaceans. More specifically, prawns. Everywhere. Available to anyone in Australia accessing the water. In below waist-deep water too, I might add.

Thousands of prawns literally ‘run-out’ to sea from rivers throughout the year on departing tides. The little marine decapod crustaceans are moving from their homes in Australia’s riverways and estuaries and into the big blue sea. Most Australian river networks do actually have prawns. It varies depending on location and temperature but visiting the right estuary at the right time will result in a catch of prawns. You can grab tiger prawns in the north, for instance, but not the south. Essentially, all you will need is a net, a light source and a decent pair of shoes.

The best time to catch the prawns is at night when there is minimal moonlight. The less moon the better. At run-out tides there should be a bevy of prawns. They like to hide in weed banks, ribbon weeds and mud, which does hinder a catch. Be sure to investigate the water thoroughly with your torch as they will hide in there for their own survival. When using a hand-net be sure to sweep it up with a quick forearm movement as soon as you have scooped the prawns. Angle the net pointed side-down to prevent escape. If you are using the larger commercial-type net, spread it out slowly behind the prawns before disturbing the water in front of them. Gather the prawns up quickly when they are hit with the movement of the water.

Something a little more advanced is to become aware of the water flow from the previous season. Prawns that are ‘locked-in’ from the sea for longer will be much larger. You are wanting to find lagoons and river complexes that have been closed off for some time. Follow the rainfall and when it comes down and opens up a system, these larger prawns will run searching for food.

To assist with the sustainability there is a net/mesh limit, which allows for the smaller prawns to go through and grow up to a decent size in the ocean or even become a food source for other sea life. They actually grow very quickly so will be at a decent size in a matter of weeks. There are also bag limits to help with the ongoing survival of the prawn, which is actually measured in ‘litres’. Regulations vary from state to state so be sure to check with the relevant authorities. Queensland, for instance, has a bag limit of 10 litres. This basically means you can fill a 10L container or two 5L containers and so on. They must also be fully intact, unless for immediate consumption.

Along with your container for the prawns, it is important to come fully prepared. Be sure to bring a decent (legal-sized) mesh net. Most people use the hand-held variety but some use a larger trawler-type net, which will require the help of a prawning partner. Both varieties can be purchased from your local fishing store. A good light source is also important. It is the reflection off the prawn’s eyes that you will first notice. Invest in something decent if possible, as prawns tend to run to the dark for safety as a survival mechanism. Perhaps, if prawning with a partner, one could use a light mounted on their head – freeing up their hands, while the other uses a more powerful and agile hand or underwater torch. Again, it’s whatever best works for you, as any adequate light source will see the job done. Decent footwear is a must. There are dangers involved with prawning at night and there is a risk of stepping on a stonefish or other spiked fish like fortescues and even a blue-ring octopus. You may also want to consider wearing gloves for added protection.

Along those lines, additional items that are not essential to catching prawns but should be included with your prawning equipment are a sufficient first-aid kit, and of course, insect repellent. You are in the water in Australia, prawning at night, so the insect repellent is certainly something you will be grateful for once out there. In the case of an accident, the first-aid kit is a good idea. The chances of anything happening are slim but even a slice from your net can lead to infection from the sea water. The risk of infection can be greatly reduced and immediately cared for with a first-aid kit on hand.

With prawning there can often be by-catches too, as a bonus. That is, you might come across something else delectable while out there. Be diligent and you might also be able to land yourself some tasty octopus or some mouth-watering swimmer and mud crabs. Be sure to release anything that should be let go and if you happen to scoop up or see any plastic, metal, glass or other rubbish, hold onto it to dispose of accordingly when possible.

We here at Great Australian Outdoors are all about just that – Australia’s great and wonderful outdoors. We advocate sustainability and want future generations to enjoy what we do today. Sometimes, with this type of food-gathering (along with many others) regulations are not always adhered to and people can be seen taking more than their fair quota – often immediately cooking them up on the beach in front of those doing the right thing. This can occur along with not adhering to the net mesh sizes and subsequently taking undersized prawns. This is very unfortunate and is detrimental to the future of prawn numbers. The flow-on effect is that they don’t have a chance to grow and head out further to sea, enabling them to be caught at a decent size or potentially feeding something else that is. Although tempting to catch and keep smaller prawns for use as bait, be sure to let them go, as they are an important part of Australia’s aquatic world. So please, ‘don’t come the raw prawn.’

There you have it – Australia really is the lucky country! Our sublime habitat allows for anyone abled with pretty much a net, a torch and a pair of shoes to visit a river system at the right time and catch a heap of beautiful fresh prawns. Save your money and rejoice in the great outdoors. You can have your prawn and eat it too.

Catch a great segment on this method of prawning online at SSAA-TV. This includes cooking your catch. Enjoy!

Estuaries provide many opportunities in Australian waters.
Corey and Shane from Hunting the Menu decked out for a night’s catch.
Shallow water estuary prawning is becoming Australia’s worst kept secret.
Notice the torch reflection coming off the eyes of the prawn.
A fresh catch of prawns ready for cooking.
Cooking prawns is a very quick process.
Freshly cooked prawns at your fingertips.
The sun setting over an estuary signals that it’s almost time to hit the shallows.


Subscribe to the Great Australian Outdoors Magazine newsletter