Whether you call them whiting or southern kingfish, depends on where you live. The whiting we catch on the Georgia coast are the same fish that folks in Virginia call southern kingfish. For all of us in Georgia, it’s simply whiting.
The Georgia DNR Coastal Resources Division tells us that the whiting is the second most sought after fish on the coast, only slightly trailing the spotted seatrout. There is good reason for this, first because whiting are abundant from early spring until late fall all along the Georgia coast, and second because they make very fine table fare.
Most whiting aficionados begin looking for whiting in late March and early April. Whiting are fun and easy to catch. Once you find and catch one, you will probably fill your cooler. The key is knowing where to fish, and there are numerous location options. Let’s start with one of my favorite locations, the Hampton River at St. Simons Island.
The Hampton winds its way from the coastal marshes to the ocean on the north shore of St. Simons. As you reach the ocean, hug the northern shoreline of Little St. Simons Island. The river channel, although unmarked by the Coast Guard, curves to the northeast and begins to shallow. I like to fish the area where the depth comes up to around 20 feet.
I fish either tide, although the incoming tide seems to work best for me. It takes a good anchor because the tidal current can be swift. Locate either edge of the channel as it approaches the shallow flat on each side, and anchor so that you can fish that edge. It does not matter which edge, but you may have to try both edges. Sometimes I find them on one edge on one day and on the other edge the next day. Whiting will be coming into the river on the incoming tide this month.
Moving north up the coast, we come to the Altamaha Sound. Here I like to move into the ocean a bit and anchor in about 20 feet of water. You will be a little more than a mile off the island, so choose a good weather day to fish here. Once again, anchor up and let the boat move itself to face the current. Fish down current.
Farther north is Doboy Sound. I fish either the edge of the channel close to the islands, or I move into the ocean and find that 20-foot water depth. I can find some fish back into the sounds, as well, so I will move inshore if the wind is blowing.
Sapelo Sound offers numerous locations to find whiting. The marked channel will take you out into the ocean a couple of miles to the 20-foot depth. Alternately, I move into the sound in more protected water and find an edge where deeper water comes up to 20 feet.
Perhaps you have noticed that I always look for 20 feet of water. There is no magic to that number, but over the years that’s the depth I seem to have the most success with. Can I catch whiting in deeper water? Sure, and I have done that. I’ve caught whiting way back in a coastal marsh creek, as well. But the bulk of the whiting I catch seem to come from around 20 feet of water.
Moving north again we come to St. Catherines, then Ossabaw, and then Wassaw sounds. Finding fish in these sounds is easy if you follow the same principles. Just look for 20 feet of water along an edge that drops to deeper water.
Along the southern coastline of Georgia, we fish the St. Marys River inlet at Cumberland Sound. At this location, I prefer to fish inside the inlet. It’s where I have found fish in the past. Close to the southern tip of Cumberland Island, I fish the northern edge of the shipping channel.
This sound is the entrance channel to the Kings Bay Naval submarine base. Submarines do move in and out of the sound on occasion. If you have not experienced seeing them, please do not do what I did the first time I saw one. I thought I would get a closer look, so I pulled anchor, cranked up and ran toward the sub. That was a big mistake. I had two Navy gun boats bearing down on me from different directions—loud speakers blaring for me to stop. I learned my lesson after being lectured for about 30 minutes. You must stop running and sit still in the water if a Navy submarine goes by. You are fine and can take all the pictures you like—as long as you are not moving. I have fished this area so frequently that sighting a submarine is not a particularly rare event any longer.
The northern end of Cumberland Island is at St. Andrews Sound. The same methods we use in the other sounds apply here, as well. North of Jekyll Island is St. Simons Sound where once again the same methods apply.
I have fished up and down coastal Georgia in the ocean. I have no favorite location because I have caught whiting in the ocean all along the coast. I am usually a mile or 2 off the beaches in 20 feet of water.
Whiting are almost exclusive bottom feeders. Look at the location of their mouth, and you can see that. Some remnants of former barbels are around the lower jaw.
Because they are bottom feeders, our bait needs to be right on the bottom. I like to use a standard terminal rig consisting of a slip sinker on the line, a swivel under the sinker, a 12-inch leader and a 2/0 hook. This rig gets your bait right on the bottom. If the current is not too strong, I sometimes use spinning tackle and a chicken rig where the sinker is at the end of the leader, and the hook or hooks are a foot or 2 up the leader. If the current is particularly heavy, as it will be on a full or new moon, I switch to a heavier, casting rod to accommodate a heavier sinker. A light rod with a heavy sinker makes setting the hook difficult because of the bend in the rod.
I usually begin fishing with the slip-sinker configuration. If I find the fish are in a school and really feeding, I will switch to a chicken rig with two hooks. In a feeding school, catching two whiting at the same time is easy with this rig.
I have tried chumming for whiting with little success using a standard mesh chum bag tied to the stern of my boat. The chum moves with the current and does not reach the bottom for 40 or 50 yards behind the boat. Casting that far to get your bait on the bottom is not feasible. But, I have found a chumming method that actually works. I use sand balls.
Sand balls will require some work beforehand. I thaw the frozen chum block in a small bucket. I stop and fill another bucket with sand. Then I mix the sand and the chum together. With the right consistency, you should be able to make a ball out of a handful of the mixture. Too wet and it won’t stay together. Too dry and you can’t make the ball. I make up a number of sand balls and keep them in another bucket.
Once I am anchored, I take a few sand balls and ease them into the water next to the boat. The sand immediately heads for the bottom, carrying the chum with it. When the current is heavy, I will sometimes take a small stone and build the sand ball around it. I want the chum to get to the bottom close enough to the boat to cast my bait there.
There is a chumming system that uses a weighted chum “bucket” to sit on the bottom. With these, the frozen chum is placed inside the bucket and the bucket is lowered to the bottom on a rope or heavy line. It does seem to work well, and it is a lot less messy to deal with. But, the last two of these systems I had were taken right off the bottom by some sea creature, and the line broke. You see, sharks are attracted to the chum, as well, and in my case, they ate the bucket. I prefer the sand balls.
We have talked about getting your bait to the bottom. And by bait I mean shrimp. There are other anglers who will use cut bait, like mullet, and yes, you can catch whiting with a small piece of mullet. I’ve even caught a whiting using a jig and a plastic screw-tail grub. But by far, my preference for bait is dead shrimp. Live shrimp will work, but they cost a lot more.
I take a whole shrimp and remove the shell. Then depending on the size of the shrimp, I cut it in half or thirds or quarters. The idea is to use a small bait. I use a short-shank 2/0 hook and one piece of shrimp large enough to cover the hook. Some anglers do not remove the shell and merely cut the shrimp up. In my experience, the peeled shrimp always works better. I believe it allows the smell of the shrimp to escape into the water. Whiting feed by smell, not necessarily by sight. So the more smell we can get out of the bait, the better off we will be.
During April, the whiting will be coming into the inlets and sounds I have mentioned. I believe that those inlets and sounds will be your best bet. As the summer months approach, you can find whiting farther into the sounds where there is a sandy bottom and my magic 20-foot depth.
Whiting are also pursued by surf anglers up and down the coast. The same terminal rig and bait on a surf rod can catch whiting that are on the inside of a sandbar. Jekyll Island is a favorite place for me to surf fish, and whiting will be in the surf there all summer long.
Whiting are prolific and numerous. There is no size or creel limit on whiting at this time in Georgia, so it’s possible to fill an ice chest with these fish. My advice would be that you keep only what you plan to eat as fresh fish. Whiting flesh tends to get mushy once frozen and thawed, and the flavor can become very “fishy.” Some anglers prefer the heavy fish flavor. I personally like the only slightly fishy taste of fresh whiting.
Plan to look for whiting this month, and don’t be surprised if you pick up a redfish or two in the same area when fishing your shrimp on the bottom. Reds are usually bottom feeders, as well. The whiting bite should be on all summer until the first big cold front in the fall.