Whiting have a loyal following of anglers, partly due to the numbers of places these little silver vacuums can be found, partly because they are relatively abundant, partly because they fight well for their size and, very importantly, they are absolutely delicious.
When I was a kid, whiting were among the first fish I ever caught and I know a lot of anglers who can say the same. They are so plentiful in some areas that if you don’t get onto them during the warmer months there is something definitely wrong with the tactics you’re using.
Sand whiting are common in every NSW estuary and are also found in good numbers along almost every beach. They have silver sides, yellowy pectoral and anal fins and grow to about 50cm, although a 40cm fish is a real beauty and the legal size is 27cm.
The trumpeter whiting, a cousin of sorts, is identified by brownish blotches on its sides and is generally much smaller than the sand whiting. There is a bag limit of 20 of both species combined, but no size limit on trumpeters.
Both of these muscular little fish live mainly on what they can hoover up from the sandy or muddy bottom, in the form of worms, crustaceans and molluscs. They can be found fossicking over nipper beds, soldier crab flats, around weed beds and over mud banks looking for critters ranging from a few millimetres long to full-grown school prawns.
Whiting will take a massive variety of baits in different areas. Put the right bait out in that spot and you will usually come up trumps.
You can catch sand whiting off surf beaches and off breakwalls and rocks adjoining sandy shallows.
In the estuaries, sandies and trumpeters can be caught from wharfs, jetties, piers and beaches. They can spread out all over an estuary, so drifting from a boat is probably the best way to locate them.
You can read a beach by how the water disperses its waves on an angle to run off a sandy bank. From a height you can see the darker patches of deeper water that channels the main ebb and flow of the waves back out to sea.
Sometimes, if the sea is rolling in with a good swell and an incoming tide, feeding fish will be able to follow it in.
Whiting on the beach love two natural baits that are right under your feet – pipis and sand worms.
Pipis aren’t that hard to get, although they are thinning out in many areas due to overharvesting and poor stock management, but with a bit of determination you can usually get a few.
The trick is to be on the beach as the tide is half-way in and start shuffling your feet until you feel the shell. Then dig down with your hand and you will soon have a pipi. If you find one, there are usually a few more close by.
Remember, pipis aren’t to be removed from beaches any further than 50m above the high-tide mark – you have to use them as bait right where you are fishing and the bag limit is 50.
Beach anglers fall into two groups: those who can catch worms and those who can’t. I am with the latter, although I can pull enough heads off and get one or two full worms to get enough bait for a session on the whiting.
The same tidal phase that is used to gather pipis is best for worms. A ‘smell bait’ of a bag of fish heads and frames is waved around as a wave recedes and the fine particles stimulate the worms to stick up their heads to see where the aroma is coming from.
As the worm comes to the surface, the angler places a ‘hand bait’, usually a pipi or tough piece of squid, next to it. As it bites on the pipi you grab the worm behind the head and in one smooth motion you lift out the worm. It sounds easy but I assure you it takes a lot of practice.
On the beach you can use heavier gear but you should still stay with the lightest rig possible. On a surf beach sand whiting are the ones you’ll catch. They are pure silver with yellow fins; there’s no mistaking them. They bite freely and fight all the way to the beach.
With a boat you can drift over sand flats and catch many fish.
Try sandbars and shallow spots that get covered at high tide. Whiting can move into ankle-deep water over a nipper or worm bed and sometimes you can even spot their tails out of the water while their extendable noses and mouths vacuum the sandy holes for worms and yabbies.
In some estuaries whiting will eat nothing but worm baits, although at times they can also be caught on live nippers, pipis, pipi strips, and fresh prawns. Trumpeter whiting will also take small strips of squid and even fish flesh at times.
If you really wanted the best chances for a good feed of estuary whiting, especially sand whiting, it’s hard to go past worms, especially bloodworms dug from the muddy mangroves or squirt worms dug or pumped from the sandy banks.
If that’s all a bit hard, you can always go back to the beach worms or the cultivated tube worms available from your tackle store. The preserved/dried tube worms also catch fish.
Live nippers are also great whiting bait but tend to be destroyed by pickers at times, and a live prawn is particularly deadly at night.
When the whiting really come on it can be easy to get your bag limit of 20 very fast. If you want to keep some alive and put the smaller ones back as you catch the bigger models, this is legal if you don’t have more than your limit on board. Make sure you release them from your holding tank in good condition.
Poppers around 50mm, especially clear ones, walking surface lures up to 75mm long and small metal blades are catching a lot of whiting these days.
A few years ago, people would think you were crazy to throw any sort of lure to target whiting but they certainly take their fair share of fish and who doesn’t love to see that surface crash – you never get tired of it.
Retrieve speeds vary according to the conditions, with walking lures working best in calm conditions and poppers when the wind ruffles the surface.
One thing is common to all lure fishing for whiting: when you stop the lure, the fish rapidly lose interest.
Flies tied with red feathers and a touch of split shot seem to work also.
I love fishing for whiting. You rarely go home empty-handed and often with plenty of by-catch as well. Bream, flathead, flounder, dart and even jewfish all love the same baits as whiting.
Whiting put up a great fight for their size, especially if you’re using fine (1kg to 3kg) braid and light tackle. The lighter you go, the more fun you will have.
Rods should be light, fairly long (2m to 3m) and fairly soft, especially in the tip, because you don’t want to pull the hook out of the fish’s rubbery lips. If you use braid and fluorocarbon there isn’t much stretch in the system so the rod has to do the work.
A running sinker above a swivel and about 1m of trace is good. Fluorocarbon is great, especially in clear water, because there’s less chance of fish seeing it than conventional nylon mono.
Long-shank hooks have long been favourites for whiting because you can load them up with worms, pipis or pipi pieces and they will also present a yabby or fresh prawn quite well. Sizes range from a No 1 for sand whiting in the surf to about a No 6 for small trumpeter whiting.
Long-shank hooks also make it easier to unhook an undersized fish for safe release, although even a small fish can inhale a relatively large hook.
Whiting rigs can be enhanced by sliding a few centimetres of red plastic tubing over the line and down to eye of your hook. You can even cut it so some dangles around and invites a fish to bite. Red beads also work well, put them on your line when fishing with peeled prawns or yabbies.