BASED in the southern half of the country along the Victorian and South Australian inshore coastline resides a shy and timid species that is well established as a prime angling target – the humble king George (KG) whiting. These fish school up hard in big numbers throughout winter and early spring on the inshore grounds whilst in summer they tend to somewhat disperse and push out a little deeper but in essence they remain a year round target. Hundreds if not thousands of anglers hunt the coastal regions in search of these whiting that essentially tick all the boxes as a prime bread and butter species.
The gear required to chase them is not overly complicated and whiting can even pull some reasonable string on very lightly weighted outfits. KGs are also a very sulky and temperamental fish that offers a reasonable test for many anglers looking to challenge themselves but most importantly they’re considered to be very good tucker. Now I wouldn’t go as far as saying that they are the best eating fish to be found along the southern coastline of Australia. However with their fine white flesh and a delicate taste they really are quite versatile on the plate and therefore remain somewhere up the top of the hit list for many. The fish mongers seem to agree too and it’s not uncommon these days to find a few tasty KG fillets going for anywhere between $60-80 per kilo. In fact at the very time of writing this piece one of the local shops had them for sale at $78.99/kg. At this sort of costing it makes complete sense to treat your KG catch in the best possible way in order to experience the seafood delicacy on offer and not allow it to go to waste. I really do hate seeing the mistreatment of a KG bounty (or any fish kept to eat for that matter) when some very simple mistakes could be avoided. There is a slight knack to the catch care of these spotty buggers and whilst everyone no doubt has their own take or version of it this is essentially the way I like to go about it.
Ice, Ice Baby
Ice should really accompany most if not all intended fish catches. There’s nothing worse to me than seeing a bunch of fish stew away in their own juices in the bottom of a bucket or esky, let alone one that is left out in the sun. So irrespective of the weather or climate I’ll always ensure I have a good quality esky filled with ice on-board and ready to roll when embarking on a KG mission. Speaking of which, if any shade is available on the boat then store your esky in the coolest location. Even the best esky in the world is not exempt from warming up in direct sunlight especially in the harshness of summer. When fish come aboard look to place any legal ones straight into the esky and onto ice and keep the lid closed at all times in-between catching them. This avoids letting too much cool air escape. You could throw in some saltwater at this stage however I don’t like to go too heavy handed with any water just yet purely due to the processes to follow. The fish will still remain cold amongst the ice so their flesh really won’t be compromised at this stage. Keep only what you need as well. If the fish will likely go to waste then you really don’t need to fill the esky with the maximum allowable catch. Whilst it may sound cool to “bag out” we really do need to consider sustainability and looking after such precious resources such as the KG whiting fishery given the importance it has in the recreational fishing world.
Scales & Slime
Onto the scaling process and this is where the variations really open up. Scaling your catch of whiting on the boat basically involves the use of a specifically designed scaler bag dragged behind the boat in the face of the first wake. The fish rub against themselves and the mesh of the bag which in turn causes the scales to be removed. This process also removes the protective slimy layer covering the skin of a KG whiting and it really is a blessing to not have to deal with this back at the filleting station. Those who’ve experienced this slime and the difficulties it causes with filleting can no doubt relate to me here! But do you really need to scale your fish in this manner? Some KG perfectionists may argue that dragging your fish in a scaler bag behind the boat can bruise the flesh but the trade-off is the amount of time and mess that you save. If you’re more of a traditionalist like this then using a hand scaling device back at the cleaning station is the alternative option. But just to reiterate you’ll have a stack of slime and slippery fish to deal with. Believe it or not I even know of an older fella a little set in his ways that used to use an old (clean) concrete mixer once back at home to scale his fish. He really was dead set in avoiding the scaler bag but after many years of persistence we eventually peer pressured him in to trying one and it’s fair to say he hasn’t looked back since!The scaler bag itself was originally designed as a thick outer nylon mesh bag with a finer inner mesh pouch that the whiting would sit in. This version used to bounce around and smash about a lot as it required a little more speed to get the scaling process happening. Fast forward to a few years ago and a new breed of scaler bags hit the market, many of which were actually developed in South Australia. This is the tumbler or cyclone style scaler bag that basically has a nylon mesh cage formed around a few large solid rings. In comparison this bag has been a significant improvement to the whole process as you get a much nicer finish in my opinion and the scaler bag only needs to roll or tumble in the boat wake rather than thrash and smash around.
One very important point to note however is that scaler bagging has the potential to hack up the whiting’s tail a little and this can be of concern if you have any just legal sized fish on-board. A quick run in the scaler bag could easily see these whiting return back to the boat as undersized if they lose a centimetre or so off the tail so I therefore opt to leave any of those just on-legal fish out of the scaler bag process.
Scaling itself can usually take around 5 minutes or so depending on the amount of fish you have and how fussy you want to be. If a couple of scales remain at the end of it they can always be quickly tidied up when the filleting process is underway later on. And with the whiting in the water you also want to clean the esky a little to make way for the fish to return and it’s at this point when you can make a decent slurry with a mixture of ice and saltwater. Not only is this important to look after the flesh but it will also firm them right up which makes the whiting much easier to fillet compared to a floppy, mushy version. Filleting a KG whiting is a relatively simple process provided you have the right tool on hand – a very sharp knife. My go-to whiting knife is a 6-inch Martiini and these high quality blades will make quick work of your fish. The easiest way to go about it is to run your knife down each flank from head to tail and knock off two separate fillets. When doing this gentle press your palm down onto the fish to flatten it out and allow the knife to run along the back bone or spine with the knife tip slightly angled back towards the head. This allows it to glide better through the fish and avoid any hacking or sawing motions that ruin the fillet in the same way a blunt knife would. Keep your fingers pointing up and out of the way for obvious safety reasons. Cutting out the rib cage on each fillet is the final part but probably the most difficult in my books. There’s various ways to do this but once again with a sharp knife you should be able to get in underneath it fairly easily to slice it out. At this stage you’ll be left with a few very small pin bones down the centre of the fish towards the fatter head end and whilst some like to remove this with a small v-shaped cut I often leave them in as they cook out quite well. More adventurous fisho’s can attempt to butterfly fillet whiting too but it really doesn’t save too much in the way of time or provide any significant extra flesh on your fillets. They do look pretty cool though when done well I must admit!
If the fillets are a little bloody or moist then pat them dry with some paper towel or rinse very lightly with some saltwater. Don’t use fresh water as this can certainly reduce the flavour and quality of the fillet. Standard freezer bags are probably the most common method of storing fillets but they won’t see your catch last very long at all. Freezer burn can quickly find its way in and the flesh will start to dry out and turn a little yellow or even brown in areas. If this is your only option then squeeze out as much air as you can from the bag before tying it up. The better alternative is to invest in a quality vacuum sealer and seal your fish in this way. Removing air and keeping them flat will maintain a freshness for a very long time and also help with storage and freezer room. I’ve even pulled out vacuum sealed fillets to eat that are ten months old and you really wouldn’t know any different. It does all hinge on the whole process however from start to finish and if you don’t look after the fish from the get go then it doesn’t matter how good your vacuum sealer is the quality just won’t be there. Whiting command the extra care and effort to truly appreciate what they have to offer as a prime eating fish. And once you’ve devised your own little system there really is no looking back when you’ve experienced them to their full potential.