The whiting, a member of the cod family, is an extremely common fish which is of great commercial importance. It also provides good sport for the boat or shore angler
The whiting, Merlangius merlangus, is probably the commonest sea fish around the British Isles, with a distribution from Iceland to the Mediterranean, and the fact that it comes into shallow water makes it a favourite with the beach angler.
The species is much smaller than its close relatives, cod, haddock, and pollack, boat-caught specimens being usually of l-2 lb, while from the beaches the average is slightly smaller. For its size, the whiting is a vicious predator. The body is slender and streamlined for speed, and the jaws are lined with needle-sharp teeth. Impaled on these, the unlucky prey stands little chance of escape.
The whiting’s coloration
Coloration varies slightly, depending on environment, but generally the back is a pinkish brown and the flanks are silver, blending into a white belly. Whiting in some areas have small black dots along the back, but this is more common in smaller fish.
Like all members of the Gadidae or cod family, the whiting has three dorsal fins, but the caudal or tail fin differs in being quite square. The vent is set very far forward, and the first anal fin is very long, while the second anal fin is much smaller and set close to the tail. The lateral line curves, as in the pollack, but the whiting is easily distinguished by its slightly protruding upper jaw, the pollack having instead a protruding lower jaw.
Spawning times vary considerably with the locality, and it can take place any time from February to June. Whiting spawn in most depths, but water of 15-20 fathoms is generally preferred. A large fish will lay up to 300,000 eggs, each approximately 1.2mm in diameter. The eggs are pelagic and the newly hatched larval whiting is carried by the tides for a considerable period before it becomes demersal when it reaches inshore waters.
Henceforth, growth can be very rapid, depending on the availability of food. At one year, the fish can be 6-7in long, and by the end of the second it may have attained 12in. The growth rate tends to slow down a little in the third year, and at four years old the whiting reaches about 18in. Both sexes mature at about 9-10in, which means that a two-year-old fish is capable of reproducing.
Whiting are predominantly shoal fishes, except immediately after spawning, when they tend to hunt individually to regain their weight and strength after the rigours of reproducing. Anything in the sea that is smaller represents food, provided they can catch it, and, more to the point, swallow it. Small fish make up a major proportion of the diet, the undiscriminating fish finding small whiting very acceptable. Were it not for these strong cannibalistic instincts, shoals of mature fish would be even more abundant.
Merciless pursuit of food
Apart from smaller whiting, other diminutive fish, such as gobies, whitebait, sandeels, sprats, young herring and pouting, and baby flatfish are pursued mercilessly. Pink and brown shrimps, small crabs and all forms of marine worms are also found in their stomachs. Although mainly a bottom-feeding species, larger whiting will come very close to the surface in pursuit of sprat and herring shoals, often ending up in the drifter’s nets in consequence. Whiting are found over all types of seabed, but sand, mud and gravel are usually preferred.
Undoubtedly, the best whiting fishing is during the autumn. During the summer the shoals of large fish tend to stay well offshore, but towards the end of August they start to move in to the shallow coastal waters and will travel well up into wider rivers such as the Thames and the Firth of Clyde.
These shoals remain inshore well into January, when they begin to return to their breeding grounds. Smaller, immature fish remain in the shallows the year round and only move out to deeper water with their first spawning.
The whiting’s lot is not a happy one, for the fry are often accidentally killed in considerable numbers by shrimpers, while the species is a prey to bigger fish throughout its life. Such fish as bass, tope and cod are numbered among the enemy, besides sharks, notably the mako. Man is probably the most efficient predator, annually trawling thousands of tons of whiting from the North Sea, the Irish Sea and other fishing grounds. In spite of all these hazards the whiting continues to thrive, and while commercial vessels have catch quotas for some species, for the time being it shows little sign of overfishing.
For the angler, the whiting is a very useful fish – its fighting qualities are excellent for its size, and it often provides sport when little else is available. Unfortunately, many anglers seeking this quarry use rods which are too stiff and gear that is much too heavy, thus denying a hooked fish the chance to show its paces. The rod-caught (boat) record stands at 6 lb 4oz, and was set by S Dearman, in West Bay, Bridport, Dorset in April 1977. The rod-caught (beach) record was set by L Peters at Abbotsbury Beach, Dorset in 1978 with 3 lb 7oz 6dr. Commercial boats occasionally take fish up to 8 lb, but the majority of fish caught by rod and line are under 3 lb, so that very light tackle can be employed to great advantage.
Despite the sharpness of the whiting’s teeth, hooks can be tied directly to ordinary nylon line, for the fish lacks the power in its jaws to bite through it. The size of hook largely depends on the bait being used. For worm baits, a size 1 is sufficient, but hooks one or two sizes larger are preferable when using fish baits – mackerel and herring strip, or sprats, for example. Favoured end tackle varies from one locality to another. If the water is coloured and the tide strong, a trace proves best, ioi the iish will be feeding very close to the bottom. On the other hand, a paternoster is usually better where the water is crystal clear, when the fish will be found swimming and feeding just off the bottom.
The savage whiting
The whiting’s attack on the bait is usually very savage, for it competes for food with the other fish in the shoal. Once hooked, the fish will fight all the way to the surface, and its silver flanks cutting through the water as it nears the boat are a pretty sight for the angler.
During the autumn months, whiting come almost to the water’s edge, giving the beach angler some good catches. The best localities are where the sea bed is sandy and harbours an abundance of the brown shrimps upon which the whiting come in to feed. Fish are taken during the daylight hours, but far greater numbers can be caught after dark. Some of the best whiting fishing is to be had on calm, frosty November evenings.
As the sprats and herrings move inshore, so the shoals of whiting increase. At these times, whiting become more difficult to catch, as they are no longer close to the sea bed, where the angler’s terminal tackle is. After making a cast he should, every two or three minutes, recover a few feet of line, thus dragging the weight along the seabed. The disturbance’ that this causes attracts the whiting.
As when boat fishing, the bite is usually very fierce and should always be struck immediately – before the fish makes off with the bait. If the fish are in a feeding frenzy, it is not unusual, when using three hooks, to catch three at a time. If the angler is catching pin whiting (immature, bait-robbing fish), whether it be from beach or boat, the first indication of larger whiting in the area is the disappearance of these bait robbers.
The whiting makes excellent eating, but it must be fresh. Ideally, the fish should be gutted and washed with clean sea water immediately upon capture and then stored in a cool place well out of the sun. If treated in this way and consumed within 24 hours, it has a delicate flavour all of its own. If not, the flesh becomes soft and it quickly loses its flavour.
Everyone knows that the haddock is famed for its smoking qualities, but many will be surprised to learn that whiting fillets can be just as tasty when smoked.