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The piers are opening in the Carolinas, and bottom fishermen are ready to fill their coolers. The fishing season usually takes a little while to start, especially ocean-side. One fish that often shows up early is the whiting. A dependable pier and surf catch, and a tasty dish, whiting are the bread and butter of our local piers until the spot decide to make an appearance.
Whiting are an important food fish for sportsmen along the entire Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. They are called by many names regionally, including kingfish up north. Here most people refer to them as mullet, sea mullet or Virginia mullet, although they are actually unrelated to real striped (or jumping) mullet, which are vegetarians. Actually there are three species of whiting that overlap in our area, all similar and in the family of fish that includes red drum, speckled trout and spot.
Whiting are found here in all but the coldest months. They are one of the last panfish to leave in the winter and one of the first to arrive in the spring. They provide good action for bottom anglers on the piers before the spot show up and after they are gone.
Usually the surf just behind the breakers is the best place to find whiting. In many places there are “holes” known to locals (which can shift, so beware) where whiting are known to congregate. Sometimes these places are out deep on the piers than you would usually bottom fish.
Fishing for whiting is easy, since all you do is use the standard high-low two hook rig, usually with a pyramid or bank weight of about 2 ounces. Don’t use big hooks, as size 4 is probably about right. The same rods you use to catch spot are what you use to catch whiting.
For bait, whiting love fresh shrimp. They also hit bloodworms and earthworms like spot, and will strike the synthetic styles of the same baits you can buy in the Fishbites or Gulp! packages. You use a small piece of bait for a whiting.
Whiting are more tolerant than spot of other baits. They will strike cut squid just fine, where a spot usually won’t. They also occasionally hit cut fish someone is using to fish for bluefish. Another not-so-secret bait for whiting is sand fleas, which people often associate with fishing for pompano. Whiting will strike sand fleas as well, which make up a part of their natural diet.
Large whiting can be taken on lures (again, something you don’t see with spot). Tandem jigs with small bucktails (like spec rigs) fished on the bottom will sometimes tempt whiting, especially when tipped with a piece of fresh shrimp or a Fishbites bit.
Whiting range from small to around 2 pounds. Because of their torpedo-shaped bodies (with underslug mouths for gobbling up shellfish) whiting can be fillet a bit more efficiently than spot or croaker.
On the table, whiting are an excellent fish to eat. They are usually breaded and fried for good reason, as they are thought of as one of the tastiest panfish. You can bake them as well, but whiting are such a perfect size and so tasty fried few people do anything else.
Wonderful Wilmington Whiting
4 whiting (dressed)
½ cup flour
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons lemon juice
teaspoon chopped parsley
dash salt and pepper
1 cup milk
Mix the flour, paprika, parsley and salt and pepper. Combine the milk and lemon juice, dip the whiting in the liquid, then cover with mixture and shake (a plastic bag is good for this). In large stove top pan heat ½ inch of vegetable oil. Add whiting when oil is hot and cook until both sides are brown. Serves two.
Jeffrey Weeks is a fishing columnist for the Beacon. Reach him at email@example.com.