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Surf & Sand Special – Fighting whiting

An eternally popular target for legions of beach fishermen, the humble whiting is fun to catch and great to eat. KEVIN SAVVAS outlines the skills, baits and gear needed to snare yourself a  good feed of tasty fillets this summer.

IN recent times, the humble sand whiting has gained some much-deserved notoriety as a sportfish along the east coast of Australia. Known primarily for its delectable table qualities, the whiting is now appreciated for its fighting prowess, voracious appetite and cunning behaviour. No doubt the “whiting-on-poppers” movement has had a tremendous impact on this attitude shift among fishermen. Nowadays countless anglers are wading the estuary flats targeting whiting on surface lures in inch-deep water. Seeing one come flying off a sand bank to engulf a popper should be seen to be believed. It’s an exciting fishery and one I recommend all fishos try out.

With the stereotype of this quintessential bread-and-butter species well and truly shattered, the way we approach catching them off the beach with traditional methods has changed also. Once the domain of long fibreglass rods, Alvey reels and monofilament lines, the approach is now more akin to lure fishing when you consider the gear used and the way we target them. To a large degree, we have put the sporting aspect back into surf fishing to give the aptly named “fighting whiting” a chance at freedom. While we still have one eye on the frying pan at home, the other is focused on having some fun. On the right gear they are a worthy adversary but don’t expect to rock up and expect easy results. Beach fishing is an art form that takes time to master. However, if you want to catch a few this summer and don’t know where to start, read on. Here’s a step by step of what to focus on to fast track your skills.

Start with the Basics

For those new to the sport, beach fishing can be a difficult learning curve. I see three major errors consistently made by beginners.

The first is picking the right location. A notable point to make is that not all beaches produce fish all the time. By selecting a beach that has an inlet to an estuary nearby you are dramatically tilting the odds in your favour. Take whiting for example. During summer they will migrate out of these protected waterways and head to adjacent beaches to spawn. Therefore beaches in the vicinity will naturally hold the most fish. There are many that fall into that broad category up and down the coast, so finding a good whiting beach shouldn’t be that difficult. I will note that beaches without an inlet nearby still can hold good whiting but other less overt factors will be at play such as an adjacent island, reef and rubble bottom or a localised food source. Local knowledge is usually essential to find these nuggets of whiting gold (or should that be silver?).

Now you have selected a beach, where do you wet a line? The next aspect to consider is “gutter” selection. Whiting will not be feeding along the entire beach. In fact, the fishable areas will be quite small so getting this part right will be important. Gutters are typically a deeper section of the beach protected by a shallow outer bank. Waves break on the bank and roll “white water” into the gutter giving whiting cover and dislodging food in the process. A gutter will also funnel water out through channels on either flank effectively creating a perimeter on all sides. The best advice is to select a high vantage point and look for darker patches along the beach indicating deep water. These will be your hot spots.

The second mistake I see from inexperienced anglers is lack of mobility. Like my mantra for lure fishing, mobility is the No.1 factor for success and is critical in finding and catching fish, especially on the beach. Once you suss out a few gutters, you need to walk between them and find out which one is holding fish. You might be lucky first go but if your bait isn’t snaffled in the first half hour I would be moving on. That’s why it’s handy to have all your bait and keeper bags connected to you in some way, negating the need for buckets and tackle boxes.

The third mistake is cast distance. Once you have selected your gutter, casts to the horizon are not needed. To catch a few “kidney slappers” I would be prospecting the entire gutter to see where the fish are holding. What that means is a few casts to the outer bank, a few casts to the side channels and also prospect in close to shore. In fact, challenge yourself to cast as close as possible. Whiting will be caught in water so close to your toes you will be astonished. The take home message here is don’t cast to the middle of the gutter and hope for the best.

Now you have an idea of what beach to target, where on the beach you should be looking, and where to be presenting your bait, the next component is timing. Whiting can be a fickle fish to catch at times then all of a sudden, as if someone flicked a switch, all hell breaks loose – everyone in eyesight is loading up. So when does this mayhem happen you ask? It’s a good question, and the answer will save you hours of waiting around for no result.
If you’ve just purchased or received this mag, finish this article then go catch some whiting. The best time is now. Summer and early autumn is spawning time for whiting and they congregate in huge numbers along our coastline. The season used to commence in early November many years ago but this has shifted to late December with January and February the pick of the months. That said, while the whiting may thin out over March, the bigger specimens seem to lurk around and 40cm plus fish are not uncommon at this time of year.
Anything over 45cms is a trophy fish in my eyes, but fish over 40cms are still impressive.
Basically, whiting are best targeted off the beach during the last two hours of a falling tide and the first hour of the rising tide. Effectively, a falling tide congregates fish in smaller areas and gutters are far easier to identify and target. High tide has a tendency to spread the fish out, making them harder to catch.

So really you have a two to three hour window to make hay. That’s your time to find the fish, present the right bait and catch your feed. It sounds difficult but once you get the hang of it, regularly catching quality whiting shouldn’t be a problem. Look for a falling tide coinciding with dawn or dusk for even more explosive results.

Modern Techniques

This is where the most progress has been made. The outfits are more akin to plastics fishing than beach fishing except rod lengths are still longer. Fibreglass rods have been replaced with crisp graphite models exhibiting greater sensitivity, strength and reduced weight. What this ultimately means is you can scale down your gear to put some sport back into the process.

We are now using the affordable Berkley Attack Combat Beach/Spin 3-5kg rod. It’s 10’ 6” so it still has the right length to aid in line control as well as detecting bites, yet has a light tip that folds nicely under weight. This rod is versatile and can double up as a good rod to fire out slugs if salmon and tailor are on the bite, which is pleasing if you want one rod that can cover multiple purposes.

Mated to this we have non-standard beach reels. By this I mean, the reels we use are typically considered spin reels and not surf-specific such as Alveys or long-cast spin reels designed for this environment. We use high quality 2500 sized reels meant for lure fishing. Well, everyone does but my pop. He still loves his cheap gear and good luck to him!

We load the reels with 8lb fluorocarbon and run it “straight through” similar to tactics used on luring bream. The onus is to find the balance between a finesse presentation and one that can also carry out the task. Using this gear, we think we have found it.
The next aspect to think about is the presentation. Now there are many rigs you can use to present the bait to the fish but I reckon only a few are deadly. First off, the standard running sinker rig is an absolute winner. See the diagram on the opening spread but effectively it’s a simple rig consisting of three terminals: a sinker, swivel and hook. You can play around with your length of fluorocarbon leader but my advice is to keep it fairly short – about 30cms is perfect. This rig catches plenty of fish and you shouldn’t get into too much trouble tying it. My leader is usually a piece of my mainline. I don’t beef it up on whiting as there’s no real need.

The other rig to consider is a twin hook rig. If you just read my article on “Advanced Soft Plastic Rigs” in the February issue we actually devised that rig from our experience with this surf rig. Basically, the rig has two leaders, two swivels and a running sinker (see diagram opposite) and is a bit different to the plastics rig. The top swivel has a short dropper and the bottom swivel has a standard length leader with the running sinker in between. Having two hooks out there does increase catch rates but if you’re not careful you may find yourself untangling the whole time. It is prone to tangles and how you cast it plays a huge part in its success. The fact we cast it only a few metres helps as long casts and big swells play havoc.

An interesting tip once again garnered from luring is to keep your bait moving. Anchoring your bait to the bottom attracts less attention from fish and more attention from pesky sand crabs, so every now and again lift-and-drop your bait to generate movement. Cast to the shallower outer banks and drop your bait into the gutter working the drop-offs. You will find you get better results constantly working your bait like this.

Gun Baits

While it is generally accepted worms are the best surf bait for whiting, I will never purchase bait. I just can’t do it. Once upon a time we did dig our own bloodworms and wrigglers but environmental restrictions have seen an end to that. If you’re cluey enough and have a good back, beachworms are your next best shot but once again, I don’t have the physical capabilities or the patience to catch my own beach worms.

My favourite whiting baits are live nippers. They tick all the right boxes. They are in plentiful supply, are legal to gather and are easy to source. Not to mention you get some exercise procuring them. Some days nippers will out fish worms used locally by old-timers on the beach, other days worms will triumph. It’s a day to day proposition, so the best advice if you’re serious is to have both on hand and vary your bait – nippers on the top hook, worms on the bottom one, for instance.

One handy tip is the use of a keeper hook. When you’re using nippers, even the use of bait holder shanks won’t stop the bait from bunching up on your hook. We employ a small keeper hook that runs freely along the leader above your main hook. Really it’s a small luderick hook around size 12 or 16. We pin it in the tail of the nipper once you have threaded it on your main hook. It stops the bait from bunching, resulting in better presented bait. The amount of times the little keeper hook has caught fish when the main hook has missed the mark is surprising. It’s worth the effort to use it and a great feeling when it catches you fish you may have lost.

Other baits to consider would be green nippers, if you can find them, and pippis and cockles.

So there you have it, a modern approach to an old technique. Whiting are an awesome fish to catch and they taste great. Make sure you take advantage now while they’re on the chew!

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