Words and Images: Peter Morris
While targeting whiting on lures is nothing new, there are still countless anglers who walk away with only one or two fish from what they consider a good session. With successful lures and a technique that is obviously working, the question becomes what you are able to do to tilt the scales in your favour. Being able to turn those one-fish sessions into half a dozen, or even, say, 10 quality fish (possibly destined for the table), is most definitely achievable with a small amount of thought. Tidal movement, chosen location and weather conditions will always govern success and it should be your goal to be on the water at those peak periods to strike gold.
Let’s begin with the most important factor: tides and water movement. Tides govern the movement of fish and, if possible (with available time being the enemy here), your sessions should be carefully based around tidal flow. To look at things very basically, when the tide is high, or ‘full’, fish are able to gain access to areas they simply cannot reach at low tide. The trickier part of the equation is picking the right part of that tide, where you can intercept fish looking to actively feed. This is why it is advantageous to look at tidal movement in greater detail.
The run-in tide is an exciting period across the flats and a stage where fish immediately look to move onto those previously exposed banks. Naturally, they are doing this with a strong intention to feed and each stage of this roughly six-hour period offers differing opportunities. I like to look at the tides in three stages, whereby the first two hours will have a nice steady flow, while the following two (or middle ones) will feature much stronger flow and the final two begin to slow again, leading to an eventual full tide. The run-in phase is my preferred time to be casting lures, in particular the first half of the tide (or first three hours), which I consider one of the peak periods for whiting. It is a time where fish make their move and aggressively feed and anglers can intercept these fish in the slight deeper channels running between the flats and up onto the flooding banks themselves. The second half of the tide is far less productive and it has always been my belief that the fish spread out far and wide, becoming more difficult to locate in numbers. The common scenario is one where the fish have huge expanses of flats to roam and this is what they will look to do. Here is your first key to increasing catch rates on lures: concentrate your efforts on the first half of the run-in tide phase.
With a now full tide, the subsequent turn and run-out phase sees very differing scenarios emerge as fish are now forced to retreat. Once again the initial turn will be relatively slow, water movement will pick up in the middle part of its run and will slow again during its final hours. The excellent news here is that whiting will still very happily feed and I have had many sensational sessions on the run-out phase. I prefer the second half of the run-out tide where whiting are forced to sit in the deeper channels and banks running between the flats. The fish will cleverly use the tidal flow to their advantage and, facing up-current, will ambush any potential meal caught up in the flow of water. Prawns can often be seen skipping the surface when a hungry pack of whiting is on the charge and surface luring in particular is highly successful when bringing your lure back with the flow of this water. While many anglers seem to turn their back on the low tide phase (in preference for a rising tide), the outgoing tide can turn on some great sessions where whiting take advantage of bait being flushed off the sand flats. Always bear in mind that whiting are an opportunistic feeder and will never knock back an easy passing meal.
Are my sand flats any good?
Good sand flats can be defined well as those that are ‘busy’ on the exposed low tide phase. If you are looking at flats rich in birdlife such as terns, sand pipers and pelicans this is not by chance, and these birds are attracted by the smorgasbord of food. Large colonies of soldier crabs, sand crabs, marine worms and other crustacea are all readily consumed while the low tide allows easy access. With this bounty waiting you can be confident that larger whiting will move across your flats to feed as the tide allows.
Although every angler has their favourite lures, let’s immediately say that a good all-round selection should include small poppers, stickbaits and if desired, soft plastics. All will work well and by covering all bases you are then able to sum up the situations you may find yourself in. There are those days where a surface-walking stickbait will obliterate the field while in some instances a small popper will out-fish all others. It will often come down to actual presentation and how the angler works their chosen lure.
Small poppers: Although these have lost some ground in the popularity stakes (due to the evolution of surface-walking stickbaits), they remain deadly for larger whiting. What we are talking about here are smaller poppers in the 50-70mm range that are largely transparent and feature an ultra-realistic finish. The reality is that you DO NOT need some flashy Japanese-made lure to do this job and some my greatest sessions have come using lures that can only be labelled as cheap. If you discover these in a discount bin at your local tackle store and they do not feature flashy packaging, it doesn’t mean they won’t work and as long as they feature the desired clear to transparent finish and are worked correctly by the angler, they will catch many big whiting.
The bonus of small poppers is that they feature a ‘cup-faced’ design that enables you to gently push water across the surface – on those days where the wind may be up this can be a huge advantage. This can generate enough surface disturbance to really attract whiting that will often hug the bottom in their search for food. A push of water and subsequent ‘noise’ can immediately look like a fleeing prawn and the desired retrieve is one where you shuffle the popper across the surface with light ‘bloops’ to gently push water and create a small amount of spray or splash. These movements are rather easily generated via short backward stabs of your rod tip while under a slow to medium retrieve. I believe that the lure is best kept moving at all times and I often find if whiting are in hot pursuit they will simply shy away if a pause is incorporated. While I have heard others anglers suggest they love to pause their lure, my experience has only seen fish lose interest very quickly. What I always say here is that if a prawn is being pursued by a pack of hungry whiting, he is not pausing or sitting still, but dancing the surface at speed and this is what you should look to replicate.
Surface stickbaits: In this department we are again discussing smaller surface stickbaits in the same 48-70mm size range in the desired transparent finishes. Given the slimmer profile and body shape of these lures they are, in my opinion, more realistic, and smaller stickbaits can imitate a small jelly prawn like no other. When the wind is down and you are greeted with still, glass-like conditions, a surface-walking stickbait silently darting from left to right along the surface is about as stealth-like as you can hope for. It is also the undoing of many big whiting across our sand flats.
Many newcomers still struggle with the concept behind a small stickbait as they look of the shape of the lure and ask themselves, ‘How on earth do I work such a lure?’. Yes, they do look somewhat different from your conventional lures, with the absence of a ‘bib’ or even cup face like that of a small popper, but the design is very specific and the desired action is a very subtle walk across the water’s surface. In saying this, however, whiting can very often charge down a stickbait that is anything but subtle and become excited by a rather speedy retrieve. The reason behind this is – again – it imitates a fast-fleeing prawn so well. Stickbaits are superb presentations for whiting and should always feature in any whiting enthusiast’s luring kit.
Soft plastics: These have lost a certain amount of popularity as far more anglers cannot break away (understandably) from the visual excitement that surface luring offers. The facts are, however, that soft plastics are deadly effective when presented correctly. Always think first about what food source you may be trying to imitate and base lure section on this. It is well-known that whiting adore worms and small prawns and we are fortunate enough to have an enormous artificial selection of these within our lure market. In particular, there are offerings laced with scent and more realistic patterns within the Gulp range. The Nemesis and Sandworm soft baits are about as close to the real thing as you can get.
Another important aspect is to work these offerings as they would appear doing their natural thing. A worm, for example, DOES NOT move quickly, whereas a prawn imitation could be worked much faster. I have caught whiting using a very, very slow roll along the bottom with a Nemesis tail (looking like a worm), and I have caught fish using the floating shrimp along the surface worked rather quickly, to imitate a prawn. Always think about what you are looking to imitate and this will only lead to success in fooling your targets.
The whiting gear box
Although this is a very simple topic it is also a very important one, which will help beginners understand how we are able to cast such small, lightweight presentations such a distance. Your set-up begins with a very lightweight rod rated no more than 1-3kg and around 7ft in length. A reel in the 2000 size range will complete and balance your outfit and by spooling your reel with 3-4 lb braid you will have a set-up capable of casting very small lures a considerable distance. Another point worth emphasising is that you will do yourself an enormous favour if you stick with a fused braid, which does not carry the walloping price tag that many conventional braids do. A lightweight fused braid offers reliability, superior line-lay on your reel and will not have you frustrated while picking out constant wind knots each and every session.
Spring and summer
Now that we are well into spring and staring down the barrel of our long hot Australian summer, the time to start casting lures across your local sand flats now. Having whiting charge down and crash-tackle a small surface lure is a highly addictive form of angling and if there is one thing that can be guaranteed, it’s that you will come back time and time again.