Although comparatively small, whiting are determined and pugnacious fighters that can be very finicky to catch but they are great on the table.
There are dozens of species of whiting all over Australia, although we will restrict ourselves here to catching sand whiting (Sillago ciliata), which is the commonest caught in NSW over the warmer months. The smaller trumpeter whiting can be caught in the cooler months and the coveted King George whiting is sometimes encountered on the South Coast but sand whiting are the dominant species over most of NSW.
Members of the whiting family have evolved to suit the different types of areas that they inhabit. Some hunt for their food over sandy and muddy bottoms, while others prefer to seek their prey among weed and gravel beds.
Whiting are bottom feeders which forage for their meals alone or in schools. Their mouth structure is a very good indication of their bottom-feeding habits.
Have a good look at a whiting’s mouth. Notice the underslung lower jaw that enables it to dig and sift through the sand and mud to find prey like worms, small crustaceans, bivalves and other small invertebrates.
To the untrained eye, looking for whiting over the sand flats can be a very daunting task. Along with many other fish, whiting can change colour to fit into their surroundings. Generally the upper body of a whiting is tan, while the under-belly is silver to white.
However, this will vary on the type of whiting you are targeting and where you are catching them. For example, I have caught sand whiting in Port Hacking near weed beds in 15 metres of water that have been a bronze-olive colour on top and dull grey on the bottom. Just 10 metres away on sand flats, members of the same species have been almost the colour of the sand and in clear water, smaller fish can be almost transparent.
Polarised sunglasses reduce the glare on the water and enable you to see further into the water so you can locate where the fish are.
In NSW the greatest concentration of sand whiting can be found during the Summer. Around this time they have an urge to spawn and then feed to bulk up for coming cooler months.
Whiting will move from the estuaries and bays and concentrate in numbers around the river mouths, surf beaches and coastal bars. During the Winter they tend to disperse throughout the estuary systems.
Not all sand whiting will spawn at the same time, as they can be influenced by a number of effects, such as rainfall, water temperature and available food. A dry season will see the fish remain in the upper reaches of the creeks and rivers but in a fairly warm Winter whiting feed more freely.
In northern NSW sand whiting are usually found in good numbers most of the year, although they are more prevalent from the beaches during Winter and enter the estuaries as the water warms.
Sand whiting forage for their food by digging with their snouts into the sand or mud on shallow flats, but they can also be seen actively scampering about in turbulent or fast-running water. Water moving over these areas helps dislodge worms, nippers, pipis and small crustaceans.
I have fished for sand whiting in water as shallow as 15cm all the way to 15 metres in estuaries, bays, creeks, rivers, surf beaches and even on inshore reefs.
When fishing estuary sand flats I have noticed that whiting of all sizes will wait in the channels for the first part of the tide to flood onto the flats.
Once the water has begun to cover the flats, the smaller fish usually venture out first in search of food, while the larger whiting will tend to wait until there is more cover before they move into the shallows.
As the tide starts to fall, the larger whiting then work their way back to the deeper parts of the channel, while the smaller ones will scurry about picking up food almost to low water. Along the edges of this deeper water the larger flathead wait for small whiting to come off the flats.
In the surf, wave action dislodges food for the whiting. This is one of the reasons that you will find the whiting working close behind the breaking waves, often just in the shore break. However, whiting don’t like to feed where the sand has been churned up continually because the sand irritates their gills.
For a newcomer to surf fishing, reading a beach can be frustrating, especially as the changing tide alters the way everything looks. For instance, if a gutter at high tide had waves breaking into it, the whiting would feed along the edge where the waves were just breaking. But that same gutter at low tide may carry very little water, the sand bar on the seaward side blocking access to the fish until the water rises again. Similar scenarios occur over sand bars and channels in the estuary.
Other spots worth trying include sandy areas between weed beds. The larger whiting will tend to patrol around the edge of these weed beds, while the smaller ones dart in and out of the weed. I have also caught sand whiting to 47cm on small live poddy mullet h while fishing for flathead.
Potholes can be found in the estuaries and on surf beaches. As with all fish, sand whiting will also try to conserve their energy, even when feeding. While drifting over sand flats at high tide I have observed sand whiting lying in these pot holes. The whiting would come out of the hole when ever a morsel of food came by.
A light rod is ideal for targeting whiting, whether you are fishing off the beach, from a boat, in the estuaries or from shore in a river or creek. It should have a medium to slow taper and be fitted with a sidecast or threadline reel spooled with 3kg to 5kg line. Hooks should be long-shank from No 2 to No 6.
The length of the rod will vary on whether you fish from the beach or in the estuary, with longer rods better suited to the surf, where casting distance is more of an issue. Suitable surf rods are three- to five-wrap up to around 3.7 metres, while estuary rods are usually around two metres.
What size sinker should you use? Enough to allow the bait to keep moving and looking as natural as possible under the conditions. When fishing in the estuaries I prefer to use a channel or a barrel sinker, as they tend to let the line move through the sinker hole much more freely.
If you are fishing in a narrow waterway and there is not much movement in the flow you could use no weight at all. In a fast-running river or creek I use a leader between 50cm and 1.8 metres. This length of line may be hard to cast with a shorter rod, but it does allow the bait to move around freely and look more natural.
In the surf I tend to use a double-hook paternoster rig with a small snapper sinker as the weight. This allows me to cast further and allows the hooks to trail the sinker, causing fewer tangles in the rig.
Once the rig has hit the bottom I slowly wind it back in, allowing me to have direct contact with the baits.
Try using a ball bearing or box swivel when fishing in a fast current, drifting in a boat or off the beach. These swivels are designed to stop the sand getting in and clogging them up. I also like to use a small bead or a piece of pink or red tubing just on top of the hook as an attractor.
I prefer bloodworms, tube worms, squirt worms, beach worms and sometimes even garden worms. Worms are the top bait for whiting because they are their preferred food. They are juicy, exude plenty of aromatic juices into the water and are soft and tasty.
As a general rule, beach worms are better in the surf, while squirt worms, tube worms and bloodworms more appropriately ‘match the hatch’ in the estuary. Live worms of any sort will outfish dead or frozen ones.
Depending on the size of the worm, you can thread the whole worm onto the hook or just sections.
I have also had some great success on pink nippers, fresh strips of squid or slimy mackerel, pipis, peeled prawns and mussels.
With all these baits it is important to remember the size of the mouth of the average whiting. Remember the mouth? These fish are suckers, not biters. Make your baits small enough for the whiting to suck in and you will convert more bites into hook-ups.
Many people say they love eating fish but don’t like the bones. Whiting do have a lot of small bones and they can be time-consuming to remove, but I find that if I have humanely killed and bled them, then placed them into an ice slurry, at the end of the day’s fishing they are ready to fillet and prepare for eating.
The flesh of a whiting is very delicate so you need to take the time to prepare it. I never scale my fish if I am going to skin it; leaving the scales on the fish will make it much easier to skin it.
Once I have filleted and skinned the whiting, I will spend a few minutes taking the bones out with a pair of tweezers and then place the fillets back in the fridge.
TEMPURA WHITING WITH WHITE WINE SAUCE
Boneless fillets (4 per person)
Plain flour (unsieved)
Half a teaspoon of custard powder
250 ml of fish stock
4 tablespoons of white wine
3 egg yolks
185g melted butter
Salt and pepper
The important part is that the water and the fillets have to be ice-cold. It is a good idea to put the fillets into the freezer while you are preparing the rest of the ingredients.
To make the batter, mix the custard powder and the flour in a bowl and then slowly stir in the iced water. If you rush this part you will end up with a lot of lumps and if this happens, pour the mixture through a sieve and flatten the lumps out. Then mix in the egg and place the mixture back into the fridge or freezer to keep it as cold as possible.
Heat the oil in a large frypan or wok until it begins to smoke. Dip each fillet into the batter and then gently place in the oil. Depending on the size of the fillets, one or two minutes is usually all they need. When golden, take them out of the pan and lay them onto a paper towel for a minute or two to drain off excess oil.
For the sauce, place the fish stock and the white wine into a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer uncovered until the stock is reduced by two-thirds. Place in a bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water, whisking in the butter gradually. As soon as the sauce thickens you should remove it from the heat. Season with the salt, pepper and lemon, and then over the fish. Serve with a light salad.
When putting a worm onto a hook, pierce the worm about 1cm down from the head.. This will allow you to do a half-hitch around the worm to stop it sliding down the hook.
Use a long-shanked hook with sliced bait keepers on the shaft. The keepers help hold the worm in place.
When using live nippers, thread the nipper onto the hook from the tail and just up into the head. You then can place a half-hitch around the tail to stop the whiting stripping the nipper off in one go.
Bronzed Long-shanked hooks are best for the easy release of undersized whiting, as some of the hook shank should still be outside the fish’s mouth. If a small fish has swallowed the hook entirely, simply cut off the hook and release the fish. Bronzed hooks rust away very quickly. Short-shanked hooks tend to go to far down any whiting’s throat.
When fishing from a boat, try hanging onto the bait and then opening the bail arm of your reel and letting the sinker go over the side. Once the sinker has reached the bottom, close the bail arm and release the bait, allowing it to float around freely until it reaches the bottom or a fish has taken it.