Let me kick off with some advice that even the most experienced lure tosser can’t argue with. If your major objective when fishing for yellowfin whiting is to catch a personal bag limit of 20 each time out, go and pump a mess of clickers or dig some worms. There’s simply nothing that will catch these delightful little fish like fresh, lively bait taken from the same area you’ll be fishing.
However, if you’re looking for a more exciting and definitely more challenging way of hooking inshore whiting, leave the hooks, sinkers and bait at home and instead pack a selection of small surface poppers.
Catching yellowfin whiting on lures certainly didn’t originate here. It was pioneered in southern NSW estuaries by a handful of thinking anglers who were primarily targeting shallow water bream. Whiting were a by-catch for these guys in the early stages, but as they refined technique and experimented with different lures, the ratio of whiting to bream began to change. I kept a close eye on what guys like Kaj Busch, Steve Starling and Brett Wilson were up to, and was intrigued by their results.
I should point out here that the estuary whiting these guys were chasing isn’t the same species as the yellowfin that we get down here in South Australia, but the two are closely related and very similar in many ways.
The East Coast sand whiting (Sillago ciliata) is a slightly bigger, chunkier fish than our yellowfin (Sillago schomburgkii). It’s found from Cape York, Queensland southward along the coast and the Great Barrier Reef to Eastern Victoria and the East coast of Tassie down to Southport. They’ve been caught on surf beaches, sand flats in many estuaries and occasionally in some coastal rivers and lakes. Although superficially similar in appearance, the East Coast fish has a taller first dorsal fin, a more raked forehead and is generally stockier.
The yellowfin whiting or Western sand whiting (Sillago schomburgkii) is endemic to the waters of the eastern Indian Ocean off South West Australia, and is believed to exist as two separate populations, one in Western Australia and the other in South Australia. The western population extends from Dampier south to Albany, with no records of the species between Albany and Spencer Gulf further west. The southern population occurs in Spencer Gulf and Gulf St Vincent, extending eastward to the Fleurieu Peninsula.
Like a lot of Aussies who enjoy wading the flats with ultra-light tackle in pursuit of yellowfin, I decided to try the surface popper thing. I’d heard whispers of some nice whiting taken on lures in the Port Gawler area, as well as on the opposite side of Gulf St Vincent around Ardrossan, so I managed to scrounge up a few poppers of the right size and gave it a shot.
Initial results showed little promise, however. I had the odd fish follow my lure from time to time, but regularly found myself reverting to bait to bag a feed. It wasn’t until I sat down with Kaj (Bushy) Busch during one of his SA visits and fired off a string of relevant questions, that things started to turn around. Those who know Bushy by reputation will appreciate just how valuable his advice really is, and it was the half hour I spent with him over at Tumby Bay that essentially set me on the right track. Bushy flicked me a handful of his Stiffy poppers to try as well, and my yellowfin-on-lures quest was suddenly headed in the right direction.
According to studies and my own research and experience, I’d have to agree that yellowfin and sand whiting do not rely on visual cues when feeding, instead using a system based on the vibrations emitted by their prey. This must be why they are so quickly distracted by a surface lure fleeing the area.
These days I’m always confident of catching whiting on surface poppers if they are about and feeding. I’ve done a lot of work to find productive areas, mainly on Yorke and Eyre Peninsulas, and my hits now outnumber the misses by a considerable margin. Finding the fish is naturally essential, and to catch them on lures they need to be in good numbers and competing strongly for the available food source.
Let’s take an in-depth look at all aspects of catching whiting on lures. Bear in mind that these are my personal observations, but they might just short cut the process for you and get you catching yellowfin on poppers a bit quicker.
If you have experience in chasing yellowfin with bait, chances are you’ll know where and when to look for them. Generally speaking, you need a rising tide and a sand flat or tidal estuary that carries plenty of natural whiting food like clickers, shrimps, worms and bivalve shellfish. The Australian coastline has endless expanses of inshore flats, and most of these are readily accessible for those prepared to wade.
The same applies to the eastern shore of Yorke Peninsula, from Price all the way down to Stansbury, and also to Eyre Peninsula from Whyalla down to Port Lincoln. Put in the hours with fresh bait to find the yellowfin in your area before even thinking about trying to catch them on lures.
If you’re into yellowfin whiting on a serious level, you’ll know how important it is to fish with the right equipment. Because they feed in such shallow water and can be fussy about what they eat, there’s simply no room for heavy gear. You’ve got to adopt a subtle approach, both with the way you move around on the flats and the fishing methods you use.
I own a stack of rods that are used for inshore flats fishing. They vary in length between 1.8-2.7m and most are built to handle lines of between 2-4kg. When I first started out throwing poppers at yellowfin, I used a couple of my favourite bait rods, but on Bushy’s advice I put these away and opted for something a tad shorter and slightly stiffer in the tip. I have now settled on the Shimano T-Curve TK3G as the ultimate stick for the job. At 2.06m long with a medium/fast action, it seems to work perfectly with my poppers of choice. Not only does this rod cast light lures well, it also keeps the hooks in once they are set.
Another favorite of mine is the Shimano Starlo Flats Spin, which is a bit longer and faster again in action.
I use several fishing reels for my popper fishing on the flats, but my favourite is definitely the Shimano Sustain FG 1000. It’s a great little threadline equipped with Shimano’s super-smooth gearing and drag system, and really is a delight to fish with over an extended lure casting session. Steer away from the cheapies if you’re looking for a reel that will continue to perform well around sandy locations with minimal maintenance.
It’s virtually impossible to fish with poppers efficiently unless you’re using braid. There’s simply too much stretch in monofilament to work a surface lure properly, so spool up with a good quality braid and you’ll find things a lot easier. I use Power Pro a lot these days, as it casts beautifully and has never let me down. Again, if you can, steer clear of the cheap, untested braids. You will definitely be better off in the long run.
One of the important things I learned from Bushy about whiting and poppers was the need to use heavier leader line than you would when bait fishing. In most of his NSW estuary work Bushy uses 12 pound fluorocarbon, connected to his braid with a double uni knot. Around 60cm of leader is ample. He ties his lure to the leader with a locked clinch knot, which serves to keep the whole terminal set-up stiff. I’ll go into why this works better than the traditional loop knot system a little later.
Up until the last couple of years there were relatively few small surface poppers readily available. Walk through just about any well-stocked tackle store these days and you’ll find dozens of options. It’s amazing how the popularity explosion of a particular style of fishing quickly spawns a rapidly expanding market to go with it.
There is one whiting surface popper that I use more than any other – Bushy’s Stiffy popper. I fish with these because I have supreme confidence in them, which is half the battle. The Stiffy is my go-to ‘searching’ lure. Basically, a searching lure is one that you feel works more than any other. It makes sense to go with the favourites to help locate the fish, especially if you intend on trying out different types and colours.
The Stiffy Popper comes in one size – 50mm – and several colour combinations. It’s a good lure to cast and puts out plenty of ‘bloop’ on a slow to medium retrieve. I like to downsize the rear treble on the Stiffy, as for some reason this tends to increase the hook up rate.
I’m certain that popper colour actually makes a difference. The underside of the lure is the only visible part that bottom feeding whiting actually see, and I tend to opt for the light red/pink colour to try and match clickers, prawns and shrimp. Having said that, it certainly pays to carry a sensible selection, just in case there’s a day when one colour seems to be outfishing the rest for some reason or another. As well as colour, the profile of the popper against the water’s surface is also a key. 50mm seems to be the optimum size, as it’s similar to the clickers and prawns that are a major food source for yellowfin.
Whichever popper brand you choose, make sure it is equipped with high quality, chemically sharpened trebles and that it makes plenty of surface disturbance on a slow to medium, stabbing retrieve.
Exactly where you put your popper and how you retrieve it are the true keys to successful inshore whiting fishing. You can have a $600 outfit in your hands, the best popper tied to your leader and a mob of hungry yellowfin in front of you, but unless you work the tackle correctly, chances are you won’t catch them. I know this from bitter experience, and there are plenty of frustrated yellowfin chasers out there who are currently going through the same phase.
Thinking like a hungry yellowfin whiting is the first step. Generally, these fish venture onto the flats during the flood tide with one thing in mind – food. I’ve watched them often, and they are truly opportunistic hunters. Most of the time they will be mooching along in schools of like-sized fish, flashing silver in the sunlight and tantalising you in the process. Occasionally they will come up off the bottom to chase a baitfish or fleeing shrimp, and this is when you have the best chance of hooking one on a popper.
Most estuary and sand flat crustaceans use speed to escape from predators, and the quickest way for a small prawn to evade the jaws of a hungry whiting is to take to the air. Prawns tend to skip across the surface in a straight line and at regular intervals. If you’ve ever been down to your local estuary or lake on a still, warm evening when the prawns are around, you’ll know exactly what I mean. They don’t jump erratically from side to side or make radical changes of direction as they try to get away from a predatory fish. They track dead straight and leave the water with the precision of a metronome. This, my fellow yellowfin whiting chasers, is the key to the door of success. Keeping your popper tracking in a straight line and blooping with a regular pattern is absolutely essential.
Which leads me back to where I left you earlier with the clinch knot and stiffer than normal leader material.
Most minnow lures and soft plastics work best when attached to the leader with a loop knot. Sub-surface lures are generally designed to dart and dive to imitate a wounded baitfish or crustacean, and tying them up hard to the towing point would seriously affect their intended action. This is why the clinch knot (or a uni if you prefer) tied up tight to the front of your whiting popper is so effective. It makes the popper travel in a straight line, not dart intermittently from side to side, which is exactly what you are trying to avoid.
As mentioned, in my early days of whiting popping I would habitually attach the lure with a loop, and look on with frustration as a bunch of yellowfin would pop up while it went past them, then turn away with disdain. It wasn’t until I followed Bushy’s advice and tied the popper on with a clinch knot that I started catching fish.
Bushy’s thoughts on using stiffer leader are interesting, too. Quite surprisingly, he regularly uses fluorocarbon as heavy as 14 pound, which would seem to run contrary to what we normally think about yellowfin whiting and light traces. His theory is that heavier leader assists in keeping the popper tracking straight on the retrieve, and this really does make sense. After all, the leader on a yellowfin popper spends much of its time out of the water as the lure skips back across the top, so its diameter is far less significant. I tend to compromise with 8-12 pound fluoro and I’m catching enough whiting these days to know I’m on the right track.
Retrieve speed is another crucial factor in popper fishing for yellowfin. Wind too fast and the fish will often rush up for a look without hitting, and wind too slow and they are simply not interested. My rule of thumb on the retrieve issue is to get the popper moving just fast enough for it to ‘bloop’ by making regular, short and sharp stabs of the rod tip while maintaining a slow wind to ensure tension on the line. This is where the Stiffy comes into its own. You don’t have to crank it back quickly to move enough water; just a simple, rhythmic, mid-paced retrieve is all you need.
It’s easy to get excited when you see a mob of lit-up whiting coming in after your popper, but don’t get excited to the point where you change the retrieve speed. A lot of people get flustered when they see a hungry gang of yellowfin ambush their popper, and this leads to a slight change or pause in the retrieve. Yellowfin are incredibly sensitive to this and the retrieve needs to stay as close as possible to the speed that interested them to start with. Slowing down or speeding up will often cause the fish to smell a rat and turn away, and once they do, it is rare for them to come back again. Remember, prawns only travel at a certain pace across the surface, neither slowing down nor speeding up as they attempt to get away from whatever is chasing them. Try to think of your popper as a retreating prawn at all times and you’ll be right on the money with your retrieve.
I haven’t been able to work out how to attract the attention of every yellowfin I see on my travels and, to be honest, I don’t think I ever will. They often ‘flicker’ in front of me while I’m casting and occasionally the ‘flickering’ fish will slowly follow the lure – out of curiosity I suppose – but these will rarely bite. A large percentage of the whiting I see swimming freely will never attack my lure. Be prepared to walk long distances and don’t spend much time on fish you see gently milling around. If the yellowfin are showing though, at least you know you’re in the right area and persistence will eventually pay off.
One of the real bonuses of chasing yellowfin whiting with poppers is the quality of fish you are likely to hook. Almost without exception, the average whiting I catch these days is far bigger than those I caught when fishing with bait. Smaller specimens will often chase a popper without tackling it, and I’m now bringing home a lot of 35-40cm yellowfin, which are a real buzz to hook on the surface. My personal best to date was a thumper of 43cm, and I reckon I’ve dropped a couple slightly larger.
And speaking of dropping fish, larger yellowfin can be a real handful to unhook, particularly if you’re out in thigh-deep water. It’s a good idea to invest in a small landing net – one of those that won’t tangle loose treble hooks – to save losing a 40cm whiting as you try to remove the treble. There are few things worse than having your fishing system sorted, hooking a trophy-sized yellowfin and watching it swim away after a clumsy unhooking job!
It’s inevitable that you’ll hook more than yellowfin whiting if you spend enough time throwing poppers on the flats. I like to carry a few small hard bodies and plastics as well as surface poppers, mainly in case I come across a decent flathead. Flatties are always a welcome addition to the bag, and while I’ve pinned the odd one in really shallow water on a popper, they definitely prefer a lure that digs its way across the sand.
Salmon trout, tommies and even mullet will grab a surface popper at times, and you may be surprised that those dreaded puffer fish don’t mind them as well. If you’re fishing around weed in waist-deep water, snook are sometimes on the cards, and I’ve also landed a kingfish of around four kilos – a definite bonus on ultra light tackle!
Undoubtedly the biggest surprise of all, however, was a mulloway of at least 30 pounds that grabbed my Stiffy popper and led me on a merry dance in 50cm of water! We saw the school of fish before casting at them and really had no idea what they were – until this big gob opened up under the popper and sucked it in. On such light gear I really had little chance of stopping that jewie, but managed to hang onto it for quite some time. In the end the rear treble let go and the fish swam off to find its mates, which had moved back off the flat and out over the weed line.
We found a school of smaller mulloway in the same area a few weeks later and on this occasion I managed to land one. It was just a little tacker and I had to swap over to a small shallow hard body to get a hook up, but it was plenty of fun nonetheless.
Shane got the shock of his life recently when he hooked a decent salmon on his whiting popper, which in turn attracted the attention of a chunky whaler shark of around 1.5m. The feisty bronzie really wanted that salmon, bolting after it over the sand flat in knee-deep water before eventually turning off and rocketing back out to sea. You simply never know what else might be sharing the flats with the whiting, so it pays to be prepared.
From the feedback we receive, it’s obvious that many anglers are keen to catch yellowfin whiting on a surface popper. As I’ve attempted to explain here, it’s certainly not rocket science, but you do have to think about things more than the average bait fisher.
There are few things more exciting in skinny water fishing than watching a mob of lit-up yellowfin trying to muscle their way onto your popper, so do yourself a favour and add a few of these unique lures to your kit. If you’re lucky enough to stumble on a feeding school while bait fishing and look like catching your limit, why not stop and give a popper a go? The one guarantee I can make is that you’ll be well and truly hooked if you do!