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Surf Fishing For Whiting: A Complete Guide For Beginners

whiting fish
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Whiting (which are also known as Southern kingfish or ground mullet) is a type of surf-dwelling fish known for their firm, delicate white flesh. 

To successfully catch whiting you need the right tackle and bait that are appropriate to the job, and you need to pick a good spot to fish at the right time to do it. Whiting is easy to catch if you know a little bit about where to find them and what kind of lures, and bait they’re attracted to. 

While there are not many commercial fisheries for whiting, it is a popular game fish due to its culinary value and how easy it can be to catch. Read on to find out more about these tasty little fish and how you can catch a pan full of them for yourself. 

What Whiting Are And Why You Should Catch Them

Whiting (also known as Southern kingfish or ground mullet) is a coastal schooling fish commonly found on the southern end of the Atlantic seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico. 

While not common in commercial fishing, whiting is a popular game fish due to their meaty texture and relatively delicate white meat.

Because of their abundance, and because they are so easy to catch compared to some other species. Whiting has been harvested by coastal fishermen as cheap, delicious table fare for hundreds of years. 

The primary diet of whiting is shellfish and shrimp, and this diet translates to a nice flavor in their flesh.

Even though whiting isn’t farmed commercially very often. Whiting is a significant percentage of shrimping trawlers’ by-catch since where shrimp go, these insatiable little fish often follow. 

Whiting Catch Limits

One of the significant benefits of fishing for whiting is that these fish are mostly unregulated by state or federal fish and game units, due to their abundance.

This contrasts with some coastal fish such as rockfish, which are protected under wildlife management regulations in some areas. 

This means that a surf angler can typically take as many whiting as he or she likes without worrying about a bag limit.

This is good since whiting typically does not exceed a foot and four inches long or get over two and a half pounds.

Therefore, to cook up a bait of whiting for a group of people, you’ll likely need several of them. 

Best Time To Surf Fish For Whiting

When fishing for “surf zone” targets, the best time to go fishing from the beach is an hour or so before high tide, or any time when the light conditions are low (dawn and dusk). 

This is because whiting is a migrating schooling fish that travel with the tides. The movement of the currents going in and out is a major determinant of where you can find them at any given hour. 

One advantage of whiting is that they are very aggressive towards live or fresh bait like clams and shrimp.

If you use live bait, you’re more likely to get abundant strikes and vigorous feeding behavior from a whiting school regardless of what time of day it is. 

By fishing for whiting at dawn and dusk, not only are you taking advantage of the natural pattern of tidal movement to bring the fish to you.

You’re also avoiding the busiest times on the beach for pedestrian and swimmer activity, so you won’t have to be as worried about casting into anyone in the surf zone or walking behind you. 

 Since it can be somewhat challenging to rig a rod in near-dark conditions at dawn or dusk. It’s a good idea to set up your lines on the rods ahead of time and bring a flashlight in case you have to make any adjustments.

It’s also a good idea to get a rigged backup rod if your first lure is snapped off or something similar just so you don’t lose any time re-rigging. 

Where To Go Surf Fishing For Whiting

Whiting prefers to hunt in “troughs,” which are the deep areas beyond the breakers on the shoreline that are cut by the breaking waves.

This is commonplace to also find mollusks, sand fleas, and other small crustaceans, which form the basis of the whiting’s diet. 

The reason whiting prefers to hunt in the surf zone is that the sand is most stirred by the current, forcing small shellfish and crustaceans to constantly be on the move.

The waves’ disorienting tumble leaves many prey animals vulnerable to attack from quick-moving fish like the whiting. 

Like many fish that hunt the surf zone, whiting move fast and are nomadic hunters. If you find a fishing spot that looks good but don’t immediately see any activity, stick around a while, and be patient.

Many coastal fish schools spend their hours moving up and down the shoreline, so it may take them some time to reach you.  

Once you’ve posted up in a suitable area, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for any sure signs of fish activity.

If you see a flock of seagulls over the water, a churning spot, or the dolphins and sharks make an appearance, that typically means game fish on the move. 

Supplies Needed To Surf Fish For Whiting

You don’t need a bunch of supplies to go surf fishing, but you’ll need more than just your rod and reel.

Here is some other equipment you should bring when you surf fish for whiting:

  • Rod and reel (light tackle is recommended due to the small size of the fish)
  • Fishing net (can be useful both for bringing in fish and dredging the sand for bait)
  • Hooks, weights, and lures 
  • Live bait (clams and shrimp preferred)
  • Fish-cleaning knife (also used for cutting line)
  • Bait bucket and battery-powered air pump
  • Fishing line
  • Pliers for releasing fish
  • First aid kit
  • Fishing license (while whiting is not regulated, surf fishing is) 
  • Wading boots or water shoes

While this might seem like a ton of gear for a simple beach fishing trip, most of these supplies are packed easily in a small backpack or another travel bag.

Don’t forget to bring a copy of your fishing license, as authorities can ask to see this at any time if you are fishing in a public area. 

Fishing for whiting is not regulated, but you still have to possess a fishing license to fish anywhere. Other than a public pier in most areas where whiting is found.

Since a fishing license is significantly cheaper than a fine for unlicensed fishing, make sure to pick one up. 

Before you leave for your fishing trip, check off your list of supplies and make sure you remembered everything.

Once you’re out on the beach, you might think you can get by without a drink or sunscreen, but after you’ve been out by the water a few hours and the sun starts blazing, you’ll have likely changed your tune. 

Best Whiting Tackle And Lures

Due to their feeding habits and small size, the kind of lures and tackle that work best for catching whiting tend to be small jigs or flies.

Whiting prefers live bait because they hunt primarily through their sense of smell and be tempted with artificial lures. Especially if the water is clear and can easily see them. 

Whiting stays small, so you want to be sure not to bring heavy tackle with you. If you bring hooks and tackle that are too large, the whiting will not strike.

If your rod is too large and stiff, you won’t be able to feel when the whiting is interested in your lure, which can potentially lead to a lot of stolen bait. 

One piece of tackle you should be sure to bring is a few weighted sinkersOpens in a new tab.. The reason is that whiting is largely bottom-feeding fish that cruise the sandy seafloor for shellfish and other prey.

So you’ll need to be dropping your lure close to the ocean floor to tempt them. 

Here are the types of tackle you should generally bring with you if you’re fishing specifically for whiting: 

Hook size/type: #3 or #4 long shank J-hooks; 1/0 or 2/0 circle hooksOpens in a new tab.

Sinker size/type: This varies depending on how rough the surf is, but a good general sinker size for surf fishingOpens in a new tab. is 1/4th ounce to 1 ounce; choose a pyramid sinkerOpens in a new tab. or sputnik sinker to keep the lure steady in surf currents

Line: Fluorocarbon monofilamentOpens in a new tab. (fluorocarbon is resistant to the abrasion of the surf zone and will take more wear before degrading) 

What you use as a lure on your tackle is just as important as the tackle itself. Here are some excellent artificial lures for catching whiting while surf fishing: 

Saltwater flies: Saltwater fliesOpens in a new tab. are small artificial lures designed to emulate shrimp, tiny baitfish, and other common prey of surf zone game fish. Saltwater flies can be purchased, or anglers can even learn to tie their own fishing flies as a creative and entertaining side hobby. 

Bucktail jigs: Bucktail jigsOpens in a new tab. are similar to fishing flies and feature a small, usually hard head attached to a fuzzy, vivid tail. Designed to attract fish visually through their colorful reflective appearance. Bucktails are traditionally intended to emulate a small baitfish. 

FishBites: FishBitesOpens in a new tab. are scented lures and bait that mimic the fragrance of whiting’s natural prey sources such as shrimp and sand flea. These scented baits are popular among surf anglers because they can draw a large number of fish to a fishing spot in a short amount of time. 

Light Tackle Vs. Heavy Tackle For Catching Whiting

You can catch whiting on any size of tackle, but using lighter tackle is usually recommended. Why? Because whiting is a small-sized fish (most that you catch will only be around a pound or so) so you need a small tackle to match–small hooks, small pieces of bait, small lures. 

If you use hooks or lures that are too large, you will find it difficult to get the whiting to set the hook with its mouth, especially since the whiting’s mouth is pointed downwards.

If you use bait pieces that are too large, you’ll end up with a bunch of missing bait and no fish. 

Surf rods and light-to-medium action reels are preferred for whiting since you’ll need a rod and line that are light enough that you can sense the lightweight whiting on your line.

Since you’ll be fishing very close to shore, you won’t really have to worry as much about larger fish taking your lure most of the time. 

Besides making whiting easier to catch, a lighter rod and reel allow the whiting to have a little fight and makes for a more fun reeling experience once you’ve hooked one.

Live Bait For Catching Whiting

One of the most preferred ways to surf fish for whiting is to use live bait since whiting is dependent on their sense of smell for hunting and will be drawn to the scent of fresh live bait in the water. 

Using live or cut bait usually increases your chances of catching overall, since the smell of real food in the water will draw all sorts of fish activity to your lure. 

Here are some of the most popular forms of bait used for catching whiting: 

Clams: 

Coquina clams are commonly found in the whiting habitat. And can be foraged directly on the beach by digging them up in the breakers or on the wet part of the seashore where the water washes up. 

Coquina clams (similar to their Australian mollusk cousins called “pipis”) are a favorite prey of whiting.

While coquina clams caught at your fishing spot will probably be too small to keep on a hook, live-eating saltwater clams and mussels are very attractive substitutes to tempt whiting. 

Coquina clams are also a good indicator of where to find schools of whiting. If you find an area of the shore that is awash with coquina shells, then schools of whiting are likely to be found nearby.

Fishing a shrimp or sand flea over a coquina bed is a good way to catch whiting. 

Sand fleas: 

Sand fleas are also known as sand crabs or mole crabs and are other natural prey. Sand fleas can forage at the spot that you’re fishing, and (like the coquina clams) finding lots of sand fleas in one stretch of surf is a good indicator that it’s a decent spot to fish for whiting. 

Live shrimp: 

Live shrimpOpens in a new tab. (ghost shrimp is a popular species used for baiting) is a good choice to use as live bait for whiting. It retains a lot of active movement if hooked correctly and is a natural prey that the whiting prefers.  

Live bait should be rigged to cause the least amount of damage to the animal while ensuring it is secured on the hook.

Live bait can be quick to lose its scent in the surf zone and should be replaced every twenty to thirty minutes, depending on how it survives on the hook. 

When using live bait, store the bait in a seawater bucket with a battery-powered air pump running into the bucket.

This will keep the bait oxygenated and keep it from suffocating.

Fish will not be as attracted to dead or dying bait as they will be to lively and struggling bait, so keep them fresh, and you’ll likely catch more fish.  

How To Avoid Bait Thieves When Surf Fishing

Like much smaller surf zone fish, whiting can be bait thieves, stripping a hook of live or cut bait without actually taking the hook into their mouths.

Fish can learn this trick from swimming near public piers and other popular fishing spots.

Many amateur anglers will miss-hook their bait in one place and give fish an easy opportunity to steal. 

The best way to avoid whiting or other surf fish stealing your baitOpens in a new tab. is to make sure to use both a small hook and a small piece of bait.

If the hook’s size is too large, the whiting may not strike, and if the bait is too large, the whiting can pull it off the hook without a proper set. 

Circle hooksOpens in a new tab. are another good option for experienced anglers. Circle hooks are an effective choice if you are going after other fish and whiting or planning to catch and release. 

Best Weather Conditions For Surf Fishing 

Regardless of what species of coastal fish you are going after. If you are going after them, the surf will be your greatest indicator of where and when to fish.

Tide, current, wind, and the water’s clarity all affect whether the fish will be biting or hunkered down. 

During low tide, surf zone fish tend to not strike at bait or lures because the water is relatively calm and still. Most fish will take this time to either move areas or rest. 

When the tide comes in, the incoming and outgoing currentOpens in a new tab. act to stir up both detritus and activity, causing the baitfish and crustaceans to move.

This then causes larger game fish such as surfperch and whiting to move with the baitfish. 

Climate For Catching Whiting

When the water is cool, whiting tends to be found a bit further from shore, though most can still be caught within casting distance.

However, when the water is warm, whiting moves closer to the part of the shore where the waves break. 

After a storm, it can be a good time to fish for whiting. Since they can be tempted close to shore by the prey that has been swept in by the tides. 

Best Water Conditions To Catch Whiting 

The water conditions that fish in the surf zone favor are strong currents (to stir up prey) and a steep drop-off in the trough or cut closest to shore.

These conditions are not good for swimming, and in fact, can be quite dangerous for swimmers due to problems like rip tides and water that is deeper than it first appears. 

 However, these same conditions are great for surf fishing. When searching the water for a good spot to fish for whiting, check for darker water areas close to shore.

This will look like a dark stripe between the shore and a lighter water patch that typically indicates a sandbar. 

This troughOpens in a new tab. is the preferred hunting ground of whiting, so search for water with this appearance. Another indicator to look for in a good whiting area is gentle surf and a sandy ocean floor.

Whiting will swim further from the shoreline if the waves are too rough and do not prefer areas with a sharp rocky bottom since their preferred prey lives in the sand. 

Tips For Catching Whiting

Surf fishing is largely a matter of learning how to rig a line properly to deal with surf conditions. Also, how to place the lure in an area where you’re likely to see fish feeding activity. 

You should get used to casting in very shallow water where the waves break. This is a favorite feeding area of whiting, especially in warmer weather.

If you don’t get any action in one spot, try casting to a few different areas along the coastline.

Cast a few times, and if you don’t get any bites, walk down the beach a few yards and cast again. 

Whiting moves very quickly up and down the coastline’s trough as they feed and chase prey.

So if you don’t get any activity right away, settle in for an hour or so and put in the time.

Chances are fish will make their way to your location eventually, especially if you are using live, cut, or scented bait to draw them in. 

While they aren’t one of the most prized game fish that are a common target of saltwater anglers, whiting is a tasty treat for those willing to put in the work to catch a bushel of them.

Over the years, people have collected tons of tricks for the best ways to get whiting biting. 

Here are some surf fishing tips for catching more whiting: 

Use live bait. Whiting is a scent-driven predator and will quickly be drawn to any strong-smelling bait such as shrimp or clams. Sand flea scented chum can also increase the likelihood of a strike. 

Cast close to shore. Be careful not to cast out too far, or you’ll be casting over many target fish heads. Especially in warmer temperatures, whiting prefers to stick close to shore, in less than three water feet. Get used to casting directly into the surf. 

Don’t pull too hard. It’s very easy to accidentally pull the hook straight out of a whiting’s mouth if you jerk too sharply. Instead, lean back on the rod and make sure the hook is firmly set before striking. 

If you get a hit, don’t move. Whiting is schooling fish that tend to bunch together as they move down the coastline, so if you pull one from a trough, you’re likely to get more if you keep casting that same area.  

The most important thing to consider when surf fishing for whiting is that you need tackle and bait that are appropriate to the job, and you need to pick a good spot to fish at the right time to do it. Once you take care of those variables, it’s just a matter of patience. 

Whiting Are a Great Introduction to Surf Fishing

Beloved by chefs and three-year-old fishermen alike, many surf anglers began a lifelong hobby off these silvery little fish’s backs. Using the correct bait and with just a basic understanding of how tides and weather affect fish behavior, almost anyone can catch more whiting than they know what to do with. 

Sources:

Zaldy G.

I love feeling the cool ocean spray every time I hit the beach with a rod and a bucket of bait. I love the thrill of feeling bites on my line whenever I hook a big one. And I especially love the pride that comes with cooking a fresh catch and sharing it with my friends and family. Thank you for stopping by. Let's go catch some fish!

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