The Whiting Puzzle

Shannon Kitchener stalks an elusive estuary prize

The sun is high and perfect for spotting fish on the flats. I sink into the water, moving slowly like the great egret that is stalking the bank. I see a good sign — a tiny prawn trying to skip away to safety, but it is not quick enough to escape from the whiting that keeps chasing until there is no more splash. I hear another disturbance and quickly turn to see several whiting chasing another prawn, racing to be the first to get it. A quick cast with a little Micro Shrimp and I tuck the rod under my arm for a double-handed strip — people would think I was chasing tuna, not whiting. A couple of strips as the pack turn their attention to the fly, then a tug on the line and the little 4-weight loads as a hooked whiting darts around the flat with its friends following to see what they’re missing out on. THE OBSESSION Living only minutes from a tidal creek plays a handy part in putting in the countless hours needed to try to work out some kind of system to regularly catch whiting on fly. My obsession started some six years ago, still yearning for my flats fix after leaving North Queensland. Having seen many of my friends get great whiting using surface poppers on their spin rods, it didn’t take long for my mind to start ticking. I had caught whiting in the ’90s but mainly as by-catch while fly fishing for bream on the flats at Narrabeen lakes. There have been many days walking the banks trying different approaches, different leaders, different flies and sometimes just pulling my hair out, and even now I can catch a dozen one day and only get a couple to bite the next. How can a fish that you have grown up catching on worms and prawns generate such an obsession? I think it’s because every whiting that comes to hand is special, and a large one seems like a unicorn. My biggest to date is just over 40 cm, a dream that I had been chasing for a while. It was the bottom of the tide down at the mouth of a creek system and I could see some big whiting chasing prawns trapped in a back eddy. On the first cast the fly line was pushed back into the main current, dragging the fly out of the zone. I knew the next cast had to be along the slack water where the eddy and the main current met, and with a quick back-cast the fly landed in just the right spot, just as a prawn started to skip away. I started stripping the fly as soon as it hit the water and what happened next remains permanently etched in my mind. A big camel-coloured back came straight up to kiss the back of the fly, then the line went tight and nearly pulled back through my hand. The fight would have put most bream to shame, darting and diving until I had it on the sandy bank. I’d achieved what I had wanted so much for such a long time — a big whiting on fly — and hence my obsession with chasing them. WORKING ON A PATTERN At the fly tying bench, I began by using foam and carving balsa-wood, trying to copy the popper lures my spin-mates were using. There was a lot of mess, with sudden inspirational splurges and a pile of flies waiting to be recycled, as they just didn’t have any mojo. I filled boxes with different patterns. I made poppers, pushers and sliders, trying to get the fly to sit and track perfectly in the water to mimic the fleeing prawn. I’m now happy with what I’ve created, the SK (Skipping Prawn). Tied on an articulated shank with a treble at the end, it looks just like the real thing, and the fish love it. Micro flies are the other patterns I’ve been working on, with Brian Henderson. Whiting eat small shrimps, crabs, worms and sand fleas, going down to small trout sizes in #8 to 14. This was a big breakthrough. Using tungsten beads or wire to get the fly down quickly was another key. These small flies don’t seem to spook the fish as much as patterns with larger dumbbell eyes, and once you can get one whiting tracking the fly, then it will often be joined by others battling to secure the prey. SEARCH & RETRIEVE Developing flies that would attract whiting was one thing, but getting them to switch from looking to actually hitting the fly was the next big challenge. With so much social media available, it’s not hard to research techniques preferred by those using conventional spin tackle, and most people agree that whiting like a fast retrieve, so that’s where I started. By tucking the rod and reel under my arm and using a hand-over-hand retrieve I can get the fly moving as fast as possible. This is the technique I use when wading the flats, in conjunction with polaroiding and searching for fish in the shallows, watching for moving shadows and flashes or for the gentle flicks or flurries as whiting try to catch a fleeing prawn. Sight-fishing to whiting is very exciting — making the cast, watching the fly in the shallows as it quickly draws past them, and seeing packs of whiting following until one hooks up. You start to forget the hard days when it comes together. Searching for whiting in the shallows depends a lot on knowing your local area and working out the best tides on the flats that hold fish. My good mate Bretto Wilson likes fishing the top of the tide in shallow bays and flats of the Forster Tuncurry lake system. When it comes to fishing deeper and faster flowing water, I go down at low tide and look for the little runs, drop-off edges, and areas where the stingrays have been sucking the bottom and leaving holes in the sand — the whiting love these areas. This is where I concentrate my efforts when I can’t polaroid fish, just knowing that there could be a whiting in one of the deeper sections ready to pounce on my fly. This style of blind fishing is mostly done in faster tidal flows, so I can cast the fly out and do a single handed retrieve, letting the fly drift with the current to cover more water. I’ve been catching a lot of my bigger fish this way, and I suspect that when feeding in the faster current they have less opportunity to inspect the fly, and hit knowing that if they hesitate they may miss a meal. Once you start to find the areas in a local estuary that hold good numbers of whiting, it makes it easier to transfer that knowledge to other systems. A FINE LINE Whiting aren’t huge fish, so really you could fish for them with any rod up to a 6-weight, depending on the wind, the current and the flies that you are casting. I’ve had best results using an Airflo Ridge Clear Tropical fly-line — it has a clear tip of about 20 feet. For leaders I prefer to use Sunline fluorocarbon on the subsurface flies and Sunline Super Z on surface flies as it floats. I start at about 10 feet and will go up to 16 feet if I’m spooking fish, using 2 to 6 lb in clear skinny water and up to 8 to 12 lb when fishing deeper flowing water. Whiting are one of those fish that will have you coming back for more once you’ve had a go. Just don’t be disheartened by not getting huge numbers every session. They will test you for sure. I’m lucky to have some great mates on the same path and willing to talk about the highs and lows in working out how best to catch them, and we are always keen to encourage new players. I’m not the first to try to assemble the pieces of this puzzle — many have come before me and many are still trying. All I can say is, pick up a fly rod and have a go, you might find the piece that we’re looking for.

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