Capt. Butch Foster untied his 23-foot Riddick Bay skiff from the fuel dock at South Harbour Marina in Southport and eased it into the current of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Nosing the bow eastward, he made the three-mile trip to the Cape Fear River. As he throttled the outboard boat down, he circled the area, looking for just the right place to drop his anchor.
“I caught lots of whiting here yesterday,” he said. “Wherever the fish were biting yesterday is the best place to start fishing for them today.”
The area he was fishing was near Bald Head Island. As he was preparing his spinning rods, the ferry that carries passengers between the mainland and the island passed by, jostling his flat-bottomed boat from side to side.
“The wake will subside in a few minutes,” he said. “I have seen the river a lot rougher than it is today. There’s no wind to speak of, and the water is calm.”
The air temperature was in the 70s, which made it the perfect day for catching fish. Two other boats with anglers were in the same area, fishing not far away.
“I haven’t seen anyone catch anything, yet,” Foster said. “Let’s give it a try and see what we do.”
Foster tied three surgeon’s loops in the ends of his monofilament fishing line. The end loop held a bank sinker. Onto the higher two loops he threaded long-shank No. 6 hooks.
“You need long-shank hooks to make it easier to unhook the fish,” he said. “The mouth of a whiting looks soft on the outside. But inside their lips, they have sharp little teeth.”
Rather than buying bait shrimp at a tackle shop, Foster had bought frozen shrimp at a discount grocery’s frozen food section. The shrimp had their heads and shells already removed. They had also been de-veined.
“Buying shrimp at Walmart is cheaper,” he said. “If you don’t catch any fish, or if you do and have some shrimp left over, you can always fry it up and eat it, too.”
Foster said whiting were not choosy and would strike cut fish, squid and other baits. However, shrimp was the easiest to acquire as well as the least messy to use. Using a knife, he cut several shrimp into pieces less than an inch long. After hooking two pieces on his bottom rig, he covered the rest with a damp towel so the sun would not dry them out. Then he made a short cast and let the bait fall to the bottom.
He waited for several minutes without any luck. Then he made casts to some other spots.
“It’s the tide,” Foster said. “They bite best on the falling tide. Everyone else apparently knows that. When the tide starts to fall, it can get crowded out here.”
While he caught a few small mullet over the next hour or so, it wasn’t until the tide turned that the bite really began. He felt a tug on the line and set the hook. The bend in his rod said he had struck pay dirt.
“That’s a nice fish,” he said. “It pulls as hard as a red drum.”
The fish was a southern kingfish, or whiting, as long as his forearm. Foster estimated the fish to weigh between 1½ and 2 pounds.
“That’s the size of the fish I have been catching over the last week,” he said. “I had a charter this morning, and they wanted to catch speckled trout. I told them the whiting were biting, and the specks were finicky. They insisted, and we caught a few undersized specks and a flounder that was big enough to keep. But if they had fished for whiting, they could have gone home with their coolers full.”
After the tide started falling, a dozen other boats moved into the area. They started hauling in whiting, two at a time and Foster did, too. The tide had turned and the bite was on.
“Whiting” is one of several anglers’ names for three kingfish species. Anglers can catch all three species in the Cape Fear River as well as along the rest of the North Carolina coast. Runs of these fish usually consist of one species, but sometimes a day’s catch includes another species as well. Other anglers’ names for the fish, which can weigh up to 3 pounds, include sea mullet, Virginia mullet and tiger mullet. The common name of whiting is probably a reference to their white flesh, which rivals that of flounder for flavor and texture.
The southern kingfish (Menticirrhus americanus) has a lighter back and sides than the northern kingfish and has brown or bronze markings. The northern kingfish (M. saxatilis) has a darker back and sides, with darker markings that can be almost black, and the first spine of the dorsal fin is elongated. The Gulf kingfish (M. littoralis) is silvery gray with no distinct markings.