Whiting May Not Be Exciting, Big, or Glamourous, But they’re a Lot of Fun
A small, plain brown fish hangs from my hook. The gentle surf is rolling at my feet, and the breeze is pretty cool on this winter afternoon. There’s no one else on the beach, either.
That plain brown little fish and a few of its relatives already resting in my ice chest are making me smile. I didn’t have a strong or long fight with these fish. Also, I didn’t have to go far to find them.
Sometimes called “ground mullet”, “channel mullet”, or “merling” their most common name is whiting. These fish are not high jumpers or line breakers when they are hooked. Even with their size and fight limitations, whiting still make me smile every time I manage to find them.
By the way, there are two varieties of fish that go by “whiting” here on the Gulf Coast. The gulf kingfish and the southern kingfish both look very similar. They are found in the same places and eat the same things. Because of this, we’ll just lump the two varieties together and call them whiting. For many coastal anglers, whiting may be the first kind of fish they ever caught off the Alabama beaches. However, even for seasoned veterans, whiting should be on every angler’s regular “go and get’em” list.
Most anglers don’t hold these small fish in the same esteem as redfish, trout, or even flounder. Nonetheless, these fish, which you can often find near the beaches, are some of the most frequently caught fish by saltwater anglers. The things that set whiting apart and make them worthy of fishing efforts are twofold. First, they are almost always willing to bite when presented with a proper bait. Secondly, they are some of the best-eating fish to be found anywhere. It’s hard to not like a fish that is eager to come play and then is delicious when prepared for supper.
Where to Find Them off the Beach
From the Florida Panhandle west to the end of Dauphin Island as it meets Mississippi, coastal anglers can find whiting. They’re small fish, so 2-pounds is a good catch. These fish spend almost all of their time just off the surf of gulf beaches. Sometimes, they can be caught in the actual breakers of the surf as it meets the beach, but, sometimes, whiting may be as far as 50 yards off the beach in deeper water.
“Look for deeper, darker-colored waters where whiting can hold in position to search for mole crabs and other tiny crustaceans.”
Anglers who are serious about gathering up a mess of fish for a first-rate meal should look for irregularities in the water of the surf. Places where the breaking waves return to the surf line are prime whiting spots. Look for deeper, darker-colored waters where whiting can hold in position to search for mole crabs and other tiny crustaceans, which are their preferred food items.
Any places on a beach where anglers can see the tiny little V-shaped disruptions on the returning waters of waves are good places to try for these fish. These little V-shaped dimples in the water are the exposed parts of mole crabs straining their food from the salt water. Where there are mole crabs, whiting will usually be close at hand.
From the Pier
Anglers can gain a great advantage when finding good concentrations of whiting by elevating their line of sight. The wonderful fishing pier at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, AL. is a place where anglers can stand and watch for schools of whiting in the clear shallow waters of the breaking surf and then cast to the fish.
When seen from above by people on the pier deck, whiting look like shadows moving across the sand of the shallow waters. When anglers see a good group of whiting that seem to be actively moving in search of food, a cast with a suitable bait almost always results in a quick bite.
Newcomers to the whiting fishing game can spend some time with pier regulars as they concentrate on the surf zone on the closest part of the pier to the entry area. It’s a good idea to spend some time watching how these experienced anglers rig and where they fish from the pier. This kind of help from experienced whiting catchers is the best way to cut learning time down and also meet some first-rate anglers.
Rigging and Baiting to Catch Whiting
Whiting are not big fish. They can’t make scorching long runs when hooked like reds or king mackerel. That being said, you do not need heavy tackle. Using rigs and line that are too heavy can get in the way of good catching. In fact, most anglers who visit the Gulf Coast and bring along their freshwater bass and panfish rigs are in good shape to catch some of these fish. Even closed-face spin-casting rigs used to catch bluegills in freshwater ponds and creeks can be used to catch them off the sand.
A medium weight spinning or bait-casting rig with 12- to 15-pound-test line is perfect. Even rigs with 8-pound-test or lighter line can work well. The only reason to use heavier gear when whiting fishing is that sometimes very big redfish will cruise through the surf waters. When a 15-pound red takes a bait intended for a half-pound whiting, it helps to have line strong enough and gear stout enough to handle the big redfish.
Although whiting can be caught on artificial lures, such as 1/4-ounce jigs with a soft plastic scented grub body, there’s nothing like live bait to get a mess of whiting on the beach fastest.
A small Kahle hook and a 1/2-ounce egg sinker above the hook is the simplest and most effective rig. On the hook, pin a thumbnail-sized chunk of fresh shrimp or squid and cast it out past the breakers. Whiting will usually come to visit very quickly. It’s best to let the fish chew on the bait and not give a big sharp hookset at the first nibble. Whiting can work on a bait for a bit before they take it deep enough for a good hook set. In fact, most of the time, especially when using Kahle or circle hooks, all the angler has to do is reel in and the whiting will hook itself.
Most of the year, beach anglers can find good, fresh shrimp in all of the coastal bait and tackle shops. However, whiting also bite well on small pieces of scented soft-plastic lures. This is a good way to use up all of those half-eaten or damaged Gulp! bodies that most anglers collect from fishing trips. A small chunk of Gulp! on a Kahle hook is a very effective whiting bait.
Usually, whiting will run in loose schools for anglers to find and work. Catch one whiting at a certain distance from the surf and keep casting out to this spot.
After my long experience as a whiting angler, I can pass on help when it comes to catching these fish. The best way to catch them is to bait a rig or two. Then, cast into the clear waters of the gulf and then put the rods in good holders. Keep those reels up out of the sand. Then, find a nice beach chair, pop open the beach umbrella and get comfortable. Then, think about something else that needs your attention, like supper. By this time, usually at least one of the rod tips has started to bounce with the rapid bite of a whiting. Reel this fine fish in, drop it into the ice chest, rebait, cast out again and get comfortable. This is a very fine way to collect a mess of delicious fish for supper.
What to Do With Them
Catching whiting is fun, especially for small anglers or beginners. It’s one of the best kinds of fishing to introduce a newcomer to the saltwater fishing game.
However, once you catch a good mess of whiting, the best part of fishing is just getting ready to happen. Whiting are some of the very best eating fish you can find anywhere. Although their small size makes cleaning them something of a chore, the best way to clean whiting for a fish grilling session is easy.
First, try to keep any caught fish up and out of the loose beach sand. Once a fish has been dropped on the dry sand, it’s almost impossible to get all of the sand off the fish. It only takes a few grains of sand crunching between someone’s teeth to make a fish meal much less attractive.
You can fillet larger whiting, say 12 inches long and bigger, just like any other fish. These large fish fillets are wonderful for frying with hush puppies. The more commonly caught smaller fish may be too little to effectively fillet, but they’re still great for eating. Here’s a proven method for fixing a mess of fresh whiting.
For smaller whiting, just remove the head and guts. Then, split the fish lengthwise. Cut through one side of the ribs until just a thin layer of skin holds the divided fish together. It should open just like a book. There’s no need to skin or scale the whiting.
Then, use a brush to coat the fish on both sides with melted butter. Then you can season the flesh. A light dusting of Tony’s seasoning works very well. At this point, put the fish skin side down over a low bed of charcoal. You can also use gas burner on low heat. The idea here is to lightly char the skin side of the fish while not overcooking the tender white flesh.
The edges of the fish start to curl, show signs of charring, and the flesh turns opaque and white. This is how you know the fish is ready to leave the fire. You may need a slight brushing of butter during cooking to keep the fish from drying out.
If this doesn’t taste good to you, then let me know. I’ll be happy to take the rest of your fresh caught and quick-grilled whiting off your hands.