It turns out that the term “whiting” is pretty popular. There are towns named Whiting in Maine, Vermont, Kansas, Indiana, New Jersey and Wisconsin, for example. It’s interesting that none of these places is on the ocean and therefore nowhere near the whiting fish we enjoy here. Most of these towns were in fact cleverly named after people named Whiting. We also have the Whiting Door Manufacturing Corporation, located in Akron, N.Y.; they are the original maker of roll-up doors for the transportation industry. I should also point out that Whiting, Kansas, is the proud home of Schlaegel’s Homegrown Popcorn, no doubt a fine company making a fish-free consumer staple.
Best of all for many of us, Lowcountry waters are full of whiting. We’re talking about menticirrhus littoralis, a common food fish that looks somewhat like a very small cod. If you’ve ever enjoyed a fried fish basket locally, chances are pretty good you’ve dined on the mighty whiting, sometimes called kingfish.
Now for the first of several confessions. I’ve been fishing for over 50 years with fairly good success and have caught some nice cod in New England, including a decent bunch on our honeymoon (the innkeeper cooked and served them to us perfectly that night). But only after catching a couple dozen or so whiting down here did I even know what they were. Scrappy little fighters, yes, and pretty good live bait, but delicious, too? You bet. But I’m getting ahead of myself. How about I just get to the basics.
Basic #1: Think simple and secure
Whiting like cool to moderate temperature waters that are at least 5 feet deep over sandy or mud bottoms (didn’t Sandy Bottoms star in beach blanket movies in the 1960’s?). They like bits of shrimp or squid presented on small hooks (#1 or 2), fished with small sinkers (1-2 ounces). They also like the tail end of the outgoing tide. You should pay close attention to your rod, though. Don’t leave it unattended for very long. I’ve learned the hard way not to leave a baited rod resting against a boat rail or on a dock. A much larger game fish is liable to relieve you of your catch and your rod and reel, all in about five seconds.
Basic #2: Think small
Whiting average only about 7-10” and if you get one over a foot long you deserve a pat on the back (two pats for a double header that size). Make sure your knife is extra sharp so that when you fillet them, nothing is wasted. Try not to get so excited, as I have on occasion, that you leave your knife at the sink and don’t remember it until after it’s dark and you’re barefoot.
Basic #3: Think Cycling (OK, Recycling)
Whiting skins make good minnow bait and minnows are in turn excellent bait for local seatrout and redfish. Whiting heads and backbones can be stuffed into your crab trap to very good effect. This is a lot safer to do than trying to stuff a live toadfish into your bait holder, and I have a nice scar on my left pinkie to prove it.
Basic #4: Think savory
Fried whiting fillets are wonderful. Dredge them in flour or mix up a flour, beer and OldBay batter (to pancake thickness) and dip the fillets before frying in vegetable oil. Serve with whatever sides you like best — cole slaw, hush puppies, a green or tomato salad, for example — and a cold drink and you have a wonderful seafood treat. May I also recommend you turn the burner off when you’re done so you don’t torch your pan and create evacuation conditions in your house with a dense choking fog of burned oil and teflon (not an experience I want to repeat, despite the successful test of every smoke detector we had in the house).
So don’t hesitate to dial down your fishing preference a bit some day soon and try your luck with the mighty whiting. Take some kids along and impress your friends with your humility and your familiarity with one of the best little fish on the block. And send me some pictures!