Whiting: bait or lures?

The author was using live beachworms in this creek, and came up with a few stud whiting and a couple of bream. The rig was simple – a small running ball sinker down onto the bait.

by Gary Brown •

There are more than 20 species of whiting found throughout Australia that can be caught on bait. Some of those species are also regularly caught on lures. Here in NSW you will find sand, trumpeter, eastern school, King George, little weed, blue weed, weedy and yellowfin whiting.

The range of many whiting species often overlaps. As an example, on the east coast of Australia you may catch a sand whiting and a King George whiting in the same area because they both like sandy estuaries, shallow inshore flats, weed patches, and muddy and broken areas in estuaries, bays, rivers, beaches and creeks.

Where to find whiting

When you look at whiting you will notice that their mouth structure indicates that they are a bottom feeding fish; they spend their time moving over the bottom in search of their prey.

Many whiting species forage over shallow sand banks searching for worms, small molluscs and crustaceans, such as pink nippers and crabs. The whiting actively dig into the sand with their snouts and seem to prefer fast running or turbulent water. This water movement helps to dislodge worms, nippers, pipis and other tasty morsels.

In the estuaries you should be on the look out for whiting at the following places:

• The edges of the channels next to extensive flats of rivers and creeks;

• The edges of sea grass and weed beds;

• Sheltered deeper areas of estuaries and bays;

• Beaches, gutters that run parallel to rocky headlands and breakwalls;

• Pot holes or slight indentations that are formed in the estuaries by the incoming and outgoing tides;

• The edges of mangroves; and

• Anywhere with a good population of yabbies, worms, pipis, shrimps or prawns.

Tides

Tides play an important part in the feeding habits of whiting. These small predators use the rising tide to access yabby and worm beds in the estuaries, plus worms and pipis on the beaches where they like to feed. As the tide falls, the whiting tend to return to the edges of the channels and deeper water.

Bait or Lures?

Now for the age-old question: what are the best baits or lures for whiting?

I have targeted whiting for decades, and over the years I have mainly used bait to catch them. However, in the last 10 years or so I have been using lures much more often. To help you decide what you should try, I will discuss different techniques, locations and recommend effective bait and lures.

Baits and Techniques

Some of the best baits are squirt, blood, beach and tubeworms, nippers (yabbies), peeled or live prawns, pipis (eugaries/cockles), fillets of pilchard or bluebait, solider and spider crabs and strips of fresh squid and octopus, scallops, whitebait and mussels.

In no particular order, my four favourite baits are alive or dead beach and tubeworms, pipis and peeled prawns.

Technique A

First of all, you will need to learn how to ‘read’ a beach, as there are a number of underwater features that will hold whiting. I have included a photo of a beach break with this article, and I have marked the features 1 to 5:

1. The edge of where the whitewater starts to disappear.

2. A slightly deeper section of the beach in front of whitewater.

3. At the back of the beach break.

4. A fairly deep section off the edge of whitewater.

5. An area that has no features at all. Not worth a cast.

Technique B

Whiting, like most other fish, respond to berley. It can be as simple as mashed up old pilchards mixed with chicken pellets in a berley pot, or just a hessian or onion bag left to move around in the wash while you’re fishing off the beach. Just make sure that the bag is anchored in position. The smaller the berley particles the better, as you only want to attract the whiting, not feed them.

When I am using pipis, mussels or prawns, I throw my shells over the side – usually just a couple every three or four minutes or until I get a bite. Serious whiting anglers will take the trouble to shell molluscs like pipis and mussels the day before, and then smash up the shells and use them for berley.

Technique C

All cephalopods, including octopus, cuttlefish and squid, make excellent baits. The flesh can be shaved into thin strips with a very sharp knife, and softened with a tenderising mallet or rolling pin before going onto the hook.

While pilchards are rarely considered as bait for whiting in NSW, they do make excellent baits provided they are prepared correctly. You should remove a fillet with a sharp knife and then cut it into small strips, taking care to retain the skin. Without the skin, the bait will come off the hook.

Technique D

If you are fishing from the beach for whiting and you aren’t sure where the whiting might be, you can try what I call ‘probing’. To do this, cast out your bait and allow it to settle. If you don’t get a bite in the first few minutes, start a very slow retrieve while pausing for about 10-15 seconds all the way back to the shore break.

Once I have located where the whiting are feeding, I cast out the same distance. Bear in mind that this feeding position may change as the tide does, so be prepared to try the ‘pause and wait’ method if you aren’t getting any more bites.

This same technique can be used in the estuaries and bays, because whiting are very visual feeders and are highly attracted to a moving bait.

Technique E

Sometimes fish are difficult to hook when the tide is running and the line is tight. At the first sign of a tentative bite in a tidal stream, try taking the rod from the rod holder and move it forward, allowing the baited hook to move a short distance down the tide. Giving just this small amount of slack generally results in a strong bite, and then it should just be a matter of slowly striking to set the hook.

Hook sizes

Because whiting have a long slender head and mouth profile, it’s better to use a long shank hook. When targeting whiting off the beach I like to use a Mustad Bloodworm extra-long 90234NPNR size 4 hook for worms and squid, and the Owner Circle hook SSW-inline size 1 and 1/0 for pipis and pilly tails.

In the estuaries, I prefer to use Mustad Baitholder 132813NPBLM size 4 and 6 hooks, which have a shorter shaft. This will accommodate the worms, pipis and peeled prawns.

Lures and techniques

Poppers are the most popular lure choice when it comes to whiting fishing. The popper craze all started when whiting were taken as by-catch by anglers targeting bream and flathead on the surface, and it has really taken off.

Poppers are by no means the main way to catch whiting, however. You can catch these fish on surface stickbaits, sinking stickbaits, floating hardbodied lures, flies, blades, soft plastics and poppers. In my experience, none of these artificials are better than the others. It all depends on the fishing location and conditions, and choosing the correct lure for the given situation will often be the difference between a half-hearted follow or a crunching hit.

Here are some techniques that I use for each of the lure types listed above.

Surface stickbaits

Surface stickbaits are floating lures that can be worked across the surface with a walk-the-dog retrieve. These lures are very effective when the conditions are calm.

My favourite would have to be the 5.2cm Lucky Craft NW Pencil. It has a small bite-sized shape that becomes increasingly thin as it moves towards the end of the lure. The glass ball bearings in the head add a slight noise to help entice the fish during a hard bite. There are a lot of other effective surface stickbaits on the market, however, and it all comes down to personal preference.

When using a faster retrieve, surface stickbaits almost perfectly simulate a scurrying prawn. If I see a bow wave come up behind my stickbait, I don’t stop because the whiting will often hit it when it’s moving. Another important note is don’t use fluorocarbon as it sinks. Use monofilament as most tend to float.

Sub-surface stickbaits

Sometimes I use a surface stickbait only to find that it gets a lot of follows but no real takers. When this happens I change to a sub-surface stickbait – one that doesn’t suspend, but slowly sinks.

When you’re using one of these lures, allow it to sink for few seconds, then start the walk-the-dog retrieve under the water. I always use a fluorocarbon leader of about 1m in length. If chop on the water makes it difficult for the whiting to hit surface lures, this is when sinking lures come into their own.

Floating hardbodied lures

Even though I have caught whiting on both fat and slim profiled floating hardbodied lures, I prefer the slimmer shapes. I use ones that run between 0.5-1.2m in depth, and have a slight roll and a tight action. They can be worked over shallow sand flats, weed beds, over and down rock bars and beside lines of mangroves.

Over the years I have found that whiting more often strike at a continually moving floating hardbody, rather than one that stops and starts. If at first you don’t succeed with the speed of your retrieve and you know that the fish are following it, change the speed of the retrieve.

Flies

Whiting can be one of the most aggressive feeders on the flats, while still being extremely finicky. At times I have had to make a long cast over the top of weed beds and sandy flats to entice them. At times like these you have to keep that popper or shrimp-style fly moving and jumping while waiting for a horde of agro whiting to come and chase it down! It’s exhilarating.

The challenge is trying to select the correct fly, which is why I have so many.

Blades

When it comes to using blades, I find that the smaller the better. One of my favourites is the 1/8oz TT Switchblade. I have used this blade in water up to 12m using the ‘tea-bag method’ (slowly raising the rod tip in deep water) and I have also cast it long distances over the flats while using an 8’3” rod when the wind chop has been churning up the surface. The retrieves have been slow and steady so that the blade bangs into the bottom.

Soft plastics

Because whiting are predominantly bottom feeders, many anglers like to weigh down their soft plastics so that they can bounce them along and over the bottom.

This does work at times, but I have found that if I lightly weight the soft plastic it will slowly sink to the bottom. Once there, I slowly lift the rod so that the soft plastic and jighead only rises a centimetre or two off the bottom, and I allow very long pauses between lifts. Good soft plastics for this application include Berkley Gulp 6” Worms cut in half, Gulp Shrimps, 2-2.5” ZMan GrubZ, Slim SwimZ and TRD CrawZ.

I have also found that if I rig my plastic on a very light hidden weight jighead, I can slowly work it across the surface – much like a floating stickbait or popper.

Whiting have small, soft mouths and tend to miss the standard single hook, which is usually exposed near the middle of the plastic. Try rigging an assist hook that is either pinned close to the end of the plastic or trails behind.

Poppers

These lures create a lot of disturbance and can call fish in from a long way if they are actively feeding. However, if the fish are a bit on the skittish side or the water is very flat, they can often spook wary fish. Generally, poppers perform at their best when there’s a bit of surface chop.

Poppers with smaller cup faces often perform better as they can be worked across the surface with a spitting retrieve instead of a deeper blooping cadence. I was watching the Squidgy Secrets Part 5 DVD where Vicki Winter-Lear was using a Squidgy popper, and the whiting were trying to climb all over each other to get to it. Vicki’s little secret was she had put on a bit of catch scent.

Tackle Guide for Whiting

In this section of the article I will talk about the tackle I have been using over the past few years, and why. Every whiting angler has their own preferences though, and it can be worthwhile talking to your local tackle store staff to see what gear they recommend.

For some time now I have been using an Okuma LRF 7’4”, 2-5kg rod for both bait fishing and chucking a few lures about for bread-and-butter species. This rod has plenty of power in the butt while having the combination of sensitivity, strength and flexibility in the tip to allow you to feel those subtle bites of the whiting sucking down a worm or nipper when bait fishing. It also has the flexibility in the tip, the lower down strength and larger guides on the tip section to allow you to throw and then feel the lightest of soft plastics or lures.

As for the reel on this outfit, I have gone no larger than a 30 sized spool filled with 2kg (4lb) braid. The breaking strain of leader I use depends on the type of terrain I am fishing in. When it comes to fluorocarbon leader, I tend to use Berkley Vanish, as I find it denser than most. If I’m using mono, I prefer Platypus Super-100, which has UV inhibitors, heat stabilisers and an anti-abrasion coating.

I use a variety of soft plastics for whiting, and they range from 65mm Squidgy Wrigglers and Bugs through to the Ecogearaqua Bream Prawn, Berkley Gulp Worms and Shrimps, and 2-2.5” ZMan GrubZ, Slim SwimZ and TRD CrawZ. I rig them on TT HeadlockZ Finesse and HWS jigheads in a range of sizes.

When it comes to hardbodied lures, I don’t have particular favourites, and that’s why I tend to have way too many! If I tried to list them all I would run out of space. If I simply had to choose a few to recommend, I’d suggest the Atomic Hardz K9 Pup 47, Hardz Shad 50 Mid, Ecogear SX40F Bream Special, Lucky Craft Humpback Minnow 50 and the Tango Bevy Shad 45.

As for surface lures, I like the 5.2cm Lucky Craft NW Pencil, 55 and 65 Sammys, the Strike Pro Hot Dog 65 and the Berkley 3B Scum Dog. I also recommend Stiffy Poppers, if you happen to have any old ones left in your lure collection.

When it comes to blades, I have way too many! I’ll try to narrow it down to three: the TT Lures 1/12oz Ghostblade and the 1/8oz Switchblade, plus the Strike Pro Cyber Vibe 35. The Ghostblade is a transparent, polycarbonate vibration blade that offers me a more finesse option when blading. I believe that the transparent body makes the overall size of the blade appear smaller, and I tend to use it when the water is clear or when whiting are spooky.

The Switchblade has three different tow points, giving me the option to adjust the lure’s action to suit the water depth, current and technique being used. It can be hopped or slow-rolled across shallow flats, vertically jigged in deep water, or burned mid-water through schooled fish.

The Cyber Vibe has three tow points and two rear hook points, giving the lure up to six different actions.

GETTING STARTED

All in all, whiting are a fun fish to target, and they come up fantastically on the plate. Best of all, you don’t need a lot of high-tech gear to catch them – just a few swivels, sinker, hooks and a bit of bait, or a pocket full of lures. The choice is now up to you.