Whiting are a great introduction to the pleasures of beach fishing on the Gulf Coast.
The kids were splashing in the gentle summer surf at Gulf Shores State Park beach. Mom was under a beach umbrella reading a novel and keeping an eye on the kids. Dad, a little bored, grabbed up the light fishing rod he used for crappie and bass back home and waded into the waves. He cast out past the small breakers. His line immediately jumped, twitched, and moved down the beach.
When Dad set the hook, the kids ran to see what was going on. Whatever was out there wasn’t huge, and it didn’t take long to work the fish in.
“Dad, what kind of fish is that?” asked one of the kids.
Dad looked at the brown and white mottled fish. It had big eyes. Little bumps grew out of its chin. “I don’t know what this is,” he said as he unhooked the fish and released it back into the surf.
That same story happens hundreds of times every summer during the tourist season. I know this to be true because that’s what happened to me and my family on our first summer vacation to the beach. The sad thing is, that funny-looking brown and white mottled fish is one of the best-eating fish in the Gulf. It is not hard to catch enough of these whitings for a fish fry. Plus, the kids can help, too.
Again, What Do You Call These Things?
These funny-looking fish that taste so good go by a number of names here on the Gulf Coast. The most commonly used name is whiting, but there’s more to it than that.
Karon Radzik Aplin, a biologist with Alabama Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Natural Resources tells us the real name for this fish is the Gulf kingfish. Another closely related species, the southern kingfish, goes by the name of “ground mullet” down here on the coast. The Gulf kingfish tends to be more silver in color and often has a black blotch on the upper lobe of its tail. The southern kingfish tends to be more mottled brown and white. I call all of them “whiting.”
There’s another fish on the Atlantic Coast that goes by the same name, but it’s a totally different fish. The “whiting” sold in restaurants as fish sticks is that Atlantic critter.
Where Can You Go Fishing for Whiting, and When?
Members of the merling clan turn up nearly everywhere—passes, big bays, even the ICW—but the place where their concentration is highest is right off of the white sandy beaches. Sometimes whiting will be caught almost up on the dry sand as they chase small crustaceans uprooted by the action of the surf. Larger fish will usually be farther out in waist-deep water.
One of the best beach locations to catch the largest whiting—sometimes two and three pounders show up—is in those deeper, darker places that run out from the beach. These are the spots where the returning surf runs in channels back out into the Gulf.
Fishing these deeper channels will almost always produce some excellent whiting. Plus, other very desirable species such as pompano and the occasional flounder will be found in the same places.
One of the best things about fishing for whiting is that they are a year-round fish. In summer they will be right up in the breaking surf. As fall progresses into winter, the fish will pull away from the beaches just a little, but they are usually still within easy casting range.
No matter what time of year—I’ve caught some of my biggest whiting in cold weather—when fishing for whiting they will be close to the beach, and they will be biting.
How Do We Catch These Fish?
Now, here’s the best part of being successful when fishing for whiting. Whiting can be caught on nearly any kind of rig. From super heavy-duty orange-bead wire leader rigs on heavy king mackerel rods to ultra-light spinning rigs, they’ll all do fine for whiting. Whiting are not cautious, and they are not hard to trick—some folks might call them “dumb.” Well, they are dumb, and that’s what makes them so much fun. Everyone can catch them.
The key to making a catch when fishing for whiting is the bait. They love little chunks of shrimp on small hooks with just enough weight to hold the bait on the bottom. Fresh squid will work, but shrimp is always best. The only problem with using shrimp is that a hungry school of whiting will go through a bucket of shrimp or a cup of frozen shrimp in only a few minutes. No shrimp, no whiting. Here’s a little trick I learned on my last fishing expedition for whiting with my son this past fall.
“Well, they are dumb, and that’s what makes them so much fun. Everyone can catch them.”
Whiting loves the GULP artificial scented baits. We found this out by putting a thumbnail-sized chunk of GULP on a small 1/4 oz jighead, we’d get a bite every cast, and the GULP lasted much longer than real shrimp. This is a good way to use up every bit of those GULP baits that have been chewed up by mackerel or other sharp-toothed fish.
Are They Any Good to Eat?
Let’s be candid. Whiting are some of the best-tasting fish that swim. They do have small bones, which require a little care, but the largest ones fillet out just fine. When fried right, whiting is delicious.
My favorite way to cook whiting is to simply behead and gut the fish, split them open, and put them skin-and-scale-side down on a hot charcoal grill. Put a dab of butter on the open flesh side, add a little salt and pepper—Tony’s if you like—and let the whiting grill.
When the flesh turns opaque and the fins start to char and blacken, the merling is ready.
Oh, my, they are so good!
That’s my idea of the best ending possible for a family trip to the beach.