The whiting-on-surface-lures fishery is only relatively new, but has attracted quite a lot of press already. In this article, Scott Amon offers up the real secrets to this style of fishing — much of which has never been published before.
Not much more than half a decade ago, consistent whiting captures were strictly the realm of the bait fisher. The ‘ghost of the flats’ was hunted by dedicated ghost-busters using baits of marine worms, molluscs and crustaceans. The better whiting baits like blood and squirt worms were quite difficult to procure. Well what a turn-around we have witnessed in recent years, to see whiting now caught in large numbers using hard-bodied surface lures! It has been documented previously that this fishery appeared to have been born on the south coast of New South Wales through the likes of Kev Gleed, Bushy, Starlo and others. It began with the use of small cup-faced poppers, but quickly advanced to stickbait style hard-bodies that better imitated a fleeing prawn. Like all new styles of fishing, the whiting-on-surface-lures phenomenon has been developed and re!ned as time has passed. As would be expected, the most dramatic developments occurred quite early in the discovery of the technique, and then tailed off somewhat with time. In essence, this fishery is still in its infancy, so the learning curve is quite steep. I have been heavily involved in this progression due to the sheer volume of time that I devote to this style of fishing, and despite lots of hours and experience under my belt, I’m still discovering new things every time I chase whiting on surface lures. The two major things that I have learned over the past couple of seasons are the fact that walk-the-dog style surface lures are often more productive than poppers, and secondly, that in certain conditions it is better to park the boat on a sandbank and work the area on foot rather than on the drift. There are also other subtle, though extremely important, alterations to my previous approach to this style of Fishing that have taken my catch rates to the next level. While whiting are capable of being very aggressive surface feeders, they can also be extremely fussy in exactly what they will eat. They are also prone to sudden and dramatic mood swings, so the greater number of finer details that you understand, the better your results will be.
When and Where The basis for this technique is that whiting adore a feed of prawns. The warmer months when eastern school and king prawns run the gauntlet from their estuary nurseries to the open sea are when the whiting are looking upwards for a feed, rather than poking their snouts into the sand, as they do for much of the year. In essence, the entire fishery revolves around these two prawn species exiting the estuaries. It can vary somewhat from season to season and location to location, but certainly the months from about November through to March or April are the prime periods. On the north coast of NSW, the 2009 and 2010 run began in earnest at the beginning of November. However, in 2011 it came a little later at around mid to late December. During this season, some estuaries changed from just scatterings of whiting to being virtually choked with them over a period of just a week. They materialised as if a switch had been thrown.
When the whiting finally turn up in numbers, they can be spread throughout the system, from the very upper tannin-stained brackish reaches, right down to the crystalline flats at the mouths of the creeks and rivers. The fishing can be red hot throughout this range; they might are at one end or the other, or possibly even somewhere in-between. It doesn’t take much homework to sort out where the fish are — or are not. Also, some systems are naturally great surface lure fisheries and others are only average. A bit of experimenting in your local area will establish the better fisheries very quickly. Obviously, those waterways that are associated with good runs of prawns are a walk-up start. Prawns run to sea en-masse during the darker phases of the moon. They also make their break during strong run-out tides that have some component of darkness to them. Fish the bigger tides near the new moon and look for the last half of a dropping tide occurring just after sunrise, or the first half of a dropping tide going onto sunset. Having said all that, you can still have some surprisingly good sessions smack-bang in the middle of a hot sunny day — moreso of course during the absolute peak periods and particularly when the tide is moving quite fast. Channels and draining sand flats that are littered with pink nipper holes are prime locations. Channels that are 1-2m deep and have an undulating sandy bottom formed by strong tidal movement can be real hotspots, especially if ribbon weed beds flank them. In this slightly deeper water, whiting sit in the depressions out of the main water flow waiting for food items to come to them, or as rest stops between movements. As the flats drain out on the dropping tide, you can cast lures right up into the shallowest of water with great success. Whiting are often cruising water just deep enough to cover their backs. Surprisingly, these fish can be extremely difficult to spot, even on a sunny day using polarised sunglasses! Whiting are masters of camouflage and often it is just the shadow they cast that is noticed first. A bit of wind chop rather than extremely calm conditions appears conducive to better whiting catches. "at bit of broken surface water probably neutralises some of their built-in wariness. Calm surface conditions offer far greater visibility and that bit of broken surface water also mutes sound and movement to a significant extent.
Pop or Walk? There is no doubt that small cup-faced poppers account for plenty of whiting. The fact is though, that they simply can’t replicate a surface-flicking prawn as well as a carefully worked walk-the-dog (WTD) stickbait lure. We started using poppers with quite good success, but after fiddling with various WTD lures, they really did leave the poppers for dead in 90 per cent of situations. We fished the two lure styles side-by-side over many sessions, and still do so on occasions, just to confirm which lure yields the best results. The only time that a popper might outperform a well-worked WTD is when the wind is quite strong and it proves extremely difficult to work them properly. Further on in this article we’ll look at how to work both poppers and WTDs, but it is worth making the point here that there is a great deal more effort and subtle technique in fishing a WTD than what is required for successfully working a popper for whiting. For that reason it’s probably best for beginners to start their whiting-on-lures journey using poppers and progress from there. Also a little later in this article, we’ll discuss the most effective lure makes and models. Walking the Walk While drifting channel edges and sand and ribbon weed flats from an electric motor-equipped boat is an essential part of targeting whiting on surface lures, so too is the concept of parking the boat and working exposed and very shallow sand flats on foot. Wind proved the catalyst for me in establishing the effectiveness of walking the sand flats rather than drifting and casting from a boat. It was during a stiff nor’easter that the ‘whiting walk’ penny dropped. My son Coen and I were keen to !sh a particular south-facing edge of sandbank. "e strong wind made it impossible to work effectively from the boat. Even the bigger lures would only cast short distances into the wind, and then the boat would be quickly pushed well out into the main channel away from the more productive edges. Being the bottom half of the falling tide, the main bank was high and dry, so we simply pulled the boat up onto the edge and starting casting with the wind. With 20-30kts of wind at our backs, we could virtually empty half a spool of line in a single cast from our little 1000 and 2500 sized threadlines. The WTD lures retained altitude and sailed with the wind, reaching cast distances that were out of this world! Long casts are a major ingredient in the whiting-on-lures recipe, and this wind assistance was a great advantage. We could even stand 10-15m back from the water’s edge and still cover loads of fish-worthy water. Another plus was that this protected edge had well-ruled water, but not large waves like the more exposed areas. The first time we decided to approach our whiting luring this way we were pretty close to packing up and going home because we deemed conditions close to unfishable. However, once we had a crack at this walking game with the strong wind at our back, we quickly changed our minds. The fishing was on fire. We used big WTD lures (more on them shortly) and worked them hard in order to create plenty of flicking splashes amongst the choppy water. The whiting showed virtually no caution, absolutely smashing our lures in explosive surface strikes. Now the bigger whiting, that’s those over 40cm, can prove very cagey fish to fool, but we caught more 40cm plus whiting in that session than ever before. It was quite a revelation and gave us loads of confidence to tackle those real windy days that we’d previously written off. From that day on we spent more time parking the boat and walking sections of exposed sand flats, even when the wind wasn’t blowing its backside off. We found plenty of willing fish and walking and casting WTD lures now plays a major role in how we approach our whiting lure fishing in any conditions, but is most definitely a go-to method when the wind is up. It is also worth noting that in extremely windy conditions when you cannot fish sheltered areas, then poppers may be the only lure that can generate enough surface commotion amongst the chop to create interest.
Moody Little Suckers Whiting can be incredibly temperamental fish, and their moods can change in an instant. Some days they are so focused on surface lures that they act like a pack of rampaging kingfish muscling each other out of the way to be the first to eat a garfish skipping away in terror. The way that whiting crash-tackle a surface lure when in this mood is awe-inspiring — they will physically climb over each other to get to it. It really is great visual fishing and as exciting as fishing can get on any species, anywhere! Then, for no apparent reason, they can switch to an aggressive follow but no strike mood. This can be extremely frustrating, but it is important to plug away at the job and work out what lure or action, or combination of both, that might flick the switch back on. This is when you need to make numerous quick lure changes and experiment with varying retrieves and different lure styles, shapes and sizes in order to break the code. Don’t just keep plugging away if the same lure is attracting plenty of follows but no serious strikes. Good Dogs While this fishery was originally founded on small poppers, we rarely use poppers nowadays, as the results from WTD lures is nearly always significantly better. That said, poppers are the first lure we tie on for a newcomer to this style of fishing because they are much easier and less work to operate effectively than WTD (more on popper working technique shortly). There are a number of very good poppers for this style of fishing, the best of them being the Rebel Pop-R in a clear configuration, and the Bushy Stiffy Popper in Pearl White or Gold Top. There is simply no single WTD lure that is the best. Lures that we have found to be the best whiting takers include Smith’s Towadi in transparent colours, Daiwa 5F 50mm Popper in clear, Smith’s Crystal Alive Shrimp (these three lures are most productive in very calm conditions), Lucky Craft Sammy, Bushy Stiffy Top Dogs in both sizes, Bassday Sugar Pens and Atomic K9 Pup and Bulldog — all in transparent or semi-transparent colour patterns. These are by no means the only good whiting surface lures, but they are the lures we know well and use regularly. Like all switched-on fishos, we are constantly on the lookout for additional lures that might suit our needs.
Retrieve Styles Ah, retrieve techniques… one of the main ingredients to success. The first point worth noting is that there is no one or two retrieve styles that work with all lures and in the varied conditions found on an estuary. Having said that, there are some basic principles to adhere to. Poppers first. The main recipe with poppers is to keep that popper continually moving and constantly pushing a water plume into the air. It needs to be constantly moving, but relatively slowly – not at high speed like some proponents have advocated. Surface disturbance is more important than a fast speed, keeping in mind that the lure should not stop. This is achieved by a slow, constant winding of the reel handle, while regular jabs of the rod tip transmit (very effectively with braided line – a must for this style of fishing) a blooping action to the lure. Generally speaking, these jabs will be at somewhere between 1-2 per second. Now to those real whiting wonders, the stickbaits. These require a great deal more finesse and technique than poppers, but when delivered correctly, they imitate a skipping, skittering surface-fleeing prawn extremely well. Now each WTD lure requires a slightly different technique to work to its full potential. Water movement and wind, the infinitely variable combinations of them, and the surface conditions they create are the real dictators of what lure should or should not be used and how it should be worked. Each lure will have a set of conditions that allow it to work at optimal performance. The angler judges this by how regularly the lure flicks up splashes of water without burying its nose for extended periods, and how constantly it can be kept moving. Note the word constantly and not high speed. That’s the secret; not super fast, but continual forward motion and almost constant flicks of water. You will find that wrist flicking of about two beats per second are better for WTD lures and that those wrist flicks need to be exaggerated in certain conditions — usually when more wind or current is present — to keep the lure flicking well. This can be done by altering the simple wrist flick to more of a full-arm wobble. Fiddle with it and you’ll get the idea. You will also need to adjust the height of your rod tip to keep the lure working correctly, and it may well need to be adjusted constantly to keep that lure working right. Often, this means a high rod tip when the lure is furthest away at the full extent of the cast, and then gradually lower the rod tip throughout the retrieve so that it finishes right down near water level. It can mean very aggressive rod work at times and if your arm is not aching and cramping part way through a session, you simply haven’t been working the lure actively enough! The real art is being able to constantly adjust the jabbing action with one arm while also constantly altering the wind rate with the winding arm. It’s all pretty tricky, but your lure will let you know when you are doing it right. If you can’t get it flicking nicely, then change lures and techniques until you do! A lot of newcomers find effectively working WTD lures a frustrating process, but they all agree that it is worth the effort and a bunch of creamy backs fighting each other to eat your lure is a worthy reward. That said, clutching a 40cm plus elbow-slapper is the ultimate reward!