The Mitchelson family have been catching fish in East Gippsland since 1888. 

The Mitchelson family have been fishing the waters off the coast of East Gippsland since 1888. A multigenerational fishing family, they have a small fleet of fishing boats moored in Lakes Entrance, 320km east of Melbourne. Their three boats, Maasbanker, Nina 1, and Aquastrong, all operate in Victorian waters. 

The family of fishers spend several days at sea at a time, keeping their catch of wild-caught fish and octopus fresh in a near-freezing ice slurry. They used to fish the Gippsland Lakes for mullet and target Australian salmon off the coast. Today, they’re best known in the fishing and restaurant industry for their impeccable sardines. 

“For the past 30 years, Australians have been obsessed with delicate, white-fleshed fish,” says Harry Mitchelson. “Thankfully, people are beginning to understand the beautiful flavour of sardines.” 

Sardines used to be called pilchards, bloaters, blue bait, or mulies. They’re fully grown at three years old, measuring 15cm to 18cm. Striated blue on top with a silver belly, they congregate in great shoals. Under their fine skin is dark pink flesh and a cage of very fine bones. Sardine flesh is dense and has quite a meaty flavour; it’s packed with healthy omega-3 fatty acids. 

When the boats land back on shore, the fish are sorted, and some are sent to the individual quick freezing machine and packed for the market. Many fresh sardines are packed in polystyrene boxes and trucked to Sydney and Melbourne markets the following day. 

“They’re really great quality,” says chef Mark Briggs from nearby Paynesville restaurant Sardine. “They are just half an hour down the road, and we get them so firm and fresh.” He brines the sardines, hot-smokes them, then mashes them down into a pâté – a delicate and fresh-tasting version of the classic English anchovy condiment Gentleman’s Relish. 

Mitchelson enjoys his sardines dusted in flour, salted, then fried in a hot pan with plenty of bubbling butter or cooked in a hot oven with a little olive oil and lemon juice.