Whiting In March, Before The Sharks
Now is the time to load the cooler before the sharks and rays get thick.
Georgia is without a doubt blessed with one of the best inshore fisheries along the Atlantic coast. Trout, flounder, redfish and a host of other species all thrive in our inshore creeks and rivers, offering up a chance for anglers to have plenty of fun and bring home dinner while they’re at it. Twelve months out of the year there is something biting, providing you know where to look.
March is no exception to the rule. As the water temperature begins to rise a little more each week, the sound of fish flopping around on ice can be heard throughout the marsh. Though you can target pretty much anything you want this month, whiting is where the action really is, and they’re down right fun to catch.
“Whiting spawn from March through September, with April and May being the peak of the spawn,” said Donna McDowell, marine biologist with Coastal Resources Division (CRD). “Whiting can be found along beaches, nearshore waters and lower sounds during this time. They will live in a variety of depths, but 15 to 20 feet seems to be where the majority of anglers focus their efforts.”
Proud anglers could make an argument that Georgia is the Southeastern poster child for a whiting fishery.
“Catch rates over the last three years from our surveys indicate Georgia angler harvest rates for whiting were slightly higher than sister states Florida and South Carolina. Normally, though, they are pretty well even,” said Dawn Franco, CRD marine biologist.
When I was assigned a “how-to” fishing story for whiting, I reached out to good friend and avid inshore fisherman Jimmy Crews to get his take on Georgia’s whiting fishery.
“Whiting fishing is a southern tradition, and it’s just plain, old-fashioned fun,” said Jimmy. “I love to catch anything that swims, but it’s hard to beat a good whiting bite. You can catch 100 before lunch, go home, clean your catch and have a top-notch fish fry with all your friends before the sun sets. It’s simple, cheap and a great way to introduce kids to fishing.”
I planned a trip with Jimmy prior to GON going to press, but high winds prevented us from going out. I did manage to spend an afternoon talking about whiting techniques with Jimmy and am looking forward to a trip with him later this month.
When it comes to catching whiting in March, it’s all about location, and Jimmy says the fish aren’t going to be too hard to find. As an added bonus this month, you won’t have to deal with all the sharks and stingrays like you do once the summer months arrive. In March, the water is still too cool for them to really move in thick.
“Anywhere within a mile or two of the ocean is going to be the place to be,” said Jimmy. “You can find whiting anywhere there is saltwater, but your biggest concentration of fish will be in the sounds this month.”
Depth also plays a big factor into Jimmy’s success, and he says 10 to 20 feet seems to be the best range to target them.
“They don’t really relate to structure like other saltwater species,” said Jimmy. “If you can stay in the proper depth range, that will keep your rod bent.”
Jimmy says that expensive electronics aren’t important for whiting fishing, but you do need a good unit that you can clearly see how deep the water is.
“I don’t really look for fish on the screen,” said Jimmy. “I’m looking for the conditions the fish prefer. If you’re in the right place, it usually doesn’t take long for a school of hungry whiting to come along.”
Whiting, like many saltwater fish, seem to bite the best from two hours before low tide to two hours after, with a normal lull in the bite while the tide is slack at dead low. Like all fish, they will turn on and off periodically, but for the most part, they are pretty easy to target.
“It’s not like other saltwater fishing where you have to know 10 secret spots, and when to be where to catch fish. Find that 10- to 20-foot range, and you will find the whiting,” Jimmy said.
If you don’t have electronics on your boat, Jimmy mentioned a good place to locate whiting is anywhere you have a creek mouth in the main river. Oftentimes the water will drop suddenly from 5 to 15 feet at the mouth of the creek, and whiting will hold in the vicinity.
After you’re in the right place, then comes the easy part. Jimmy leaves his Calcutta reels at home, choosing an old-fashioned Zebco 33 for whiting fishing.
“You don’t want to over complicate whiting fishing,” said Jimmy. “It’s hard to beat an old Zebco push-button reel, especially when you’re fishing with kids.”
Jimmy spools his reels with 12-lb. Berkley Big Game line and prefers a 6-foot medium-action rod for this kind of fishing.
“A bull whiting on this kind of tackle will give you a fight like any gator trout or giant redfish,” said Jimmy. “They are a pile of fun to catch, especially on light equipment,” said Jimmy.
Jimmy uses a Carolina rig with a 1- or 2-oz. weight, depending on the strength of the tide. He will use egg sinkers but prefers to fish with the pyramid-shaped weights due to their ability to hold tight in the current.
“You can use either, and they both work pretty well,” said Jimmy. “I find when fishing with several people in the boat, that the pyramid weights will keep the tangles to a minimum. Kids especially can drop them right over the side, and they will go directly to the bottom and stay there until a fish takes the bait.”
Hook size is important when it comes to whiting fishing, and Jimmy prefers a simple No. 2 bait-holder hook for putting whiting in the boat. Jimmy cautioned that anything bigger will keep you from putting a pile of fish in the boat due to the small mouth on a whiting.
When it comes to bait, frozen shrimp is hard to beat. Let it thaw on your way to the water, and be sure to keep a small knife or pair of scissors handy for cutting it to size.
“A good rule is to use a piece of bait about the size of your fingernail,” said Jimmy. “It doesn’t take much to tempt a bull whiting, and a small piece of bait will stay on the hook better.”
Jimmy did add that peeling the shell off the shrimp tends to get a few more bites for you, especially on slower days, but said he rarely has to use that trick due to the whiting’s usual willingness to bite.
Once you’re in the right place with the right bait, it’s a waiting game that usually doesn’t take too long. Jimmy will usually give the fish at least an hour or so before moving on, as schools will often move up and down the river with the tide.
“You don’t want to get into that big of a hurry changing places,” said Jimmy. “You might go a half hour without a bite, and then a school will come in so thick the entire depthfinder screen will turn black, and you will catch a hundred fish in an hour. If you’re in the right depth, you will get bit sooner or later.”
If there’s one thing better than catching whiting, it’s eating them. Once you get these tasty fish home, plan a fish fry for as soon as possible. The fresher the fish, the better.
Jimmy likes to cook his fish the same day when time allows, and says there isn’t much better-tasting fish than a fresh piece of fried whiting.
“The biggest thing about eating whiting is they need to be fresh,” said Jimmy. “They don’t keep well for more than a few weeks in the freezer, and after that, the quality really suffers.”
Jimmy will clean smaller fish by scaling, gutting and frying them whole. With larger fish, he filets and fries the boneless pieces. Keep all you want for eating because there is no creel or size limits on whiting.
With a full summer of fishing ahead, now’s the time to get out the boat, gas up the motor and head for the salt. Just be sure you have plenty of propane for the ol’ fish cooker. In March when targeting whiting to eat, you’re going to need it.
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