Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The whiting

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I need not make any apology to my readers for introducing to their notice this exceedingly beautiful and popular sea fish; and a few words relating to it may form a very fitting supplement to my remarks on the “Cod Fishery.”[1]

Whiting are at their best from the latter end of August until Christmas, the months of October and November being the two in which they are in the finest condition. Nevertheless they are taken all the year round, and are always welcomed at our tables.

Whiting, like most of their congeners, are gregarious, and I might almost say, sociable fish, as they congregate thickly in groups containing many score; when they bite freely it is not difficult to take a hundred or two in a very short period, for they are voracious fish; but, notwithstanding, they are dainty feeders, and will not look at a stale or indifferent bait. Whiting fishing with a hand-line, from September to January, is an amusing pastime, for then the herrings are in season, and a whiting is sure to be tempted by the silvery and delicate bait. Whiting bite very sharply, and with a peculiar “twitch”; their mouths are furnished with rows of teeth not unlike those of the river jack, and where they abound they may be caught two and two as quickly as they can be pulled up; nay, so eager are they, that if you cut up a dead whiting, and bait your hooks with the pieces, its surviving companions will greedily snap at their late comrade!

There are more sorts than one of whiting. There is the rock whiting, a small silvery fish; the deep-water whiting; the coal whiting, a beautiful dusky silvery grey; and the whiting-pout, or lady-whiting, so called because some suppose it to be the female of the whiting. I have reason to believe, however, that the “pout” (or “pouting”) is a totally distinct variety. Poutings are exceedingly handsome fish, resembling in shape the river roach, with large beautiful eyes and fins. When first taken out of the water they glitter precisely like opals, but this exquisite tint goes off in a few seconds. Their usual weight is about half a pound, but I have taken them of three pounds weight. They are truly beautiful fish, but most difficult to catch, as they bite so exceedingly tenderly that they will twitch half a dozen baits away before they get hooked. I have got amongst a shoal of them, and wasted a hundred “log-worms,” and not caught half-a-dozen fish all the time.

The “Simon Pure,” that is to say, the genuine whiting, comes along shore in immense shoals during the autumn months, the shoal grubbing up and feeding on everything in their way. On a still, foggy day in November, and on a good rocky ground, you may take a boatload of whiting with a herring-bait. Sprats—each sprat cut in halves or quarters—are also splendid baits, as is a log-worm; but worms are scarce after October, and I have found raw shrimps put on the hook—shell and all, as they are caught—a killing bait. The “hook-whiting” are most unquestionably far superior to those caught in “trawl-nets.” They are generally better fed fish, from coming in along the rocks to feed on the prawns, shrimps, and other sea-insects, and they are not bruised or chafed, as is the case with net-whiting. I have seen net-whiting so knocked about as to have the entrails protruding and the skin broken. “Hook-whiting” look like bright florins fresh from the mint, and have a very inviting and attractive appearance.

The whiting is usually from nine to fifteen inches in length, and its average weight from a quarter to three quarters of a pound; sometimes, in the spring or early autumn, little whiting are taken on the hand-line not more than four, or even three, inches in length, and I myself have so taken them. There is a peculiar way of preparing whiting for the breakfast-table called “plumping,” which renders them a most delicious relish to that meal. A number of moderate-sized whitings are cleaned and washed, laid in salt for a few hours (more or less, according to taste), and afterwards hung up in the sun for about two days, not longer. When wanted for use, broil them lightly on a very clear fire, and serve very hot. The whiting is occasionally hung up in what is termed a “herring-hang,” and there smoked with oak saw-dust, after having been previously lightly salted. Thus prepared they are good, but not equal, I think, to the “plumped” ones.

The price of whiting fresh from the sea, to be used as dinner fish, fluctuates extremely. I have known them to fetch 4d. and 6d. apiece, even by the sea-side, whilst at other times they are as cheap as 3d. a score; but this low price holds good only during the great “glut” caught in the herring season. Like all other fish except cod, herring, and mackerel, the whiting is not caught alone—that is, the whiting fishery is not pursued by itself, but the fish are caught promiscuously with many other varieties, such as codling, plaice, turbot, soles, &c., &c.

The middle-sized whiting are the best for the table; the smaller ones bony, and the very large of too great a size to fry. As I have before remarked, the usual size of the whiting caught on our coasts is from half to three quarters of a pound, but some run immensely larger, and I have taken them on my cod-lines of three and four pounds’ weight, and very broad thick fish, looking more like the haddock. A large whiting, smoked and dried, is very good. I will not go so far as to say it quite equals the haddock, but I am sure I could so cure them as to deceive very many of my readers. Whiting-fishing, as I have said, is fine sport, and, as a proof how a real love of piscatory amusement may bring skill with it, I have gone out alone in a small boat, single-handed, times without number, and beaten all the professional fishermen on the coast. I have even remained anchored close to the shore, and caught score after score of these fish, when crowds of boats all around me could take few or none. Let me, however, say that I had the advantage of being taught by a first-rate fisherman, and as good and bold a sailor as there is existing on the south-eastern coast. Often have he and I taken between us more fish than all the other boats out put together. But this is a digression.

In fishing for the whiting the amateur should use a hand-line about twice as stout as very thick twine, and with two hooks (not over large these latter, as the whiting has not a very large mouth). Bait one hook with a worm and the other with a “white” bait, to give the fish a choice, as they are fastidious, and it is curious that on some days you will find they will take the one persistently when they will not look at the other. By a white bait I mean a piece of sprat or herring. The white bait takes best when the sea is thick and disturbed, as its glitter is seen by the whiting far off. In clear, bright water the worm must most decidedly be allowed the preference. The soft end of the soldier-crab—or “farmer,” as the boatmen term it—is also a good bait, and so killing for codlings that I have often given a good price for a score of “farmers,” and taken a codling with every bait. The codling, too, which take this bait are thick, plump four or five pounders, and worth the catching. I feel strongly inclined to affirm that, next after a herring or sprat bait, a “farmer” is more taking for cod than any bait whatsoever.

Whitings lie usually from half a mile to a mile from the shore, and generally in very deep water. It is as well not to fish for them in less than six fathoms of water, unless there has been a “dead calm” for many days, and then they will come closer in shore. When fishing for the whiting you will also take codling, whiting-pouts, dabs, plaice, gurnets, mullets, and other fish. I have caught large cod with a hand-line; and it wants a practised fisherman, I can assure my readers, to land safely a great tugging cod at the end of a hand-line, and with a whiting-hook. In the autumn of 1856 I took two cod thus, one weighing twenty-six and the other seventeen pounds; and two years previously I had seen a fisherman’s boy, then a little fellow, land a fine fish of twenty-four pounds in the same manner. A large skate, too, thus hooked will give plenty of “fun,” and a conger will make your line resemble a tangled skein of silk. Congers are great nuisances, as they bite very greedily at a white bait and keep other fish away. Most fish have a mortal dread of the conger, who devours all and each with most obliging impartiality and in wholesale fashion. The luckless herring, however, is a victim to all other fish—a wise dispensation, no doubt, of Providence to keep down its incredible numbers; for when we reflect that a single shoal contains millions, and that a single fish contains sometimes 300,000 eggs, the mind absolutely refuses to comprehend the vast number of herrings that there would be were this prodigious fecundity not checked.

Whitings follow the herring-shoal, literally in such “armies” that the herring-men sometimes take as many as sixty score in a night with the hand-line. The sparkle of the herrings as they are hauled in over the boat’s side causes cod, dogfish, and whitings to assemble in such numbers as to be astonishing. The codfish, dogfish, and congers leap out of the water at the net, and tear fish and meshes away piecemeal, always to the sorrow, and sometimes to the complete ruin, of the fishermen; hence, with a fierce retaliation, they treat any conger or dogfish they may capture with savage and brutal cruelty. It is almost useless to reason with them; but I have saved many a poor fish from a lingering and torturing death by ransoming it, and then stipulating it should be killed outright. As some little extenuation for this barbarity on the part of the fishermen, it is only fair to state that the dogfish are really a fearful pest and scourge to those who gain their livelihood by their nets.

The Kentish coast is famous for its fine whiting, as, indeed, is the whole of the south-eastern coast; but, notwithstanding great numbers are taken, the metropolitan supply is rarely equal to the demand, and consequently the whiting is never to be had very cheap in London. It is, moreover, a delicate fish, and does not well bear packing; hence a great portion of those fish taken are sold at the places to which the fishing-boats belong, at a low price, sooner than risk should be incurred of their spoiling in their transit to town. Whitings that would fetch two or three shillings a dozen in London,—that is to say, twopence or threepence each fish,—often fetch as little as threepence a score, or, at any rate, sixpence, which is at the rate of six (or three fish, if you take the higher price) for one penny. Sometimes a boatman with a fine lot will let you have a dozen for a pint of beer and a little tobacco. I once saw a man belonging to a herring lugger sell fifty magnificent whiting for half-a-crown, and a codfish of twenty pounds weight for ninepence. Of course he could not take them to sea when the boat went out again, and he was glad to take any price he could get. Further, he said he was pleased, and thought three shillings and threepence a good night’s work, or, in his own words, “good grog-money.” The profits made by London fishmongers are very large; for instance, they retail fresh herrings at a penny apiece which cost them no more than eighteenpence the hundred (there are 132 to the hundred of herrings). Still, we must make allowance for fish being a highly “perishable” article. Some of the great salesmen make enormous profits on fresh herrings. Sometimes, however, the speculator encounters great losses, but then his profits are usually large in proportion. I remember an instance of several lasts of herrings being bought by a dealer one autumn, in Ramsgate, for seven guineas a last (a last is 10,000 fish). These fish, in Billingsgate, fetched eighteen pounds ten shillings per last, which—carriage deducted—gave a handsome profit. Certainly the captain of the herring-lugger would not have sold his fish at so low a price had he not been in a hurry to catch the tide and get to sea again, it being late in the day. The boat in question was the Elizabeth of Lydd, belonging to one of the Blacklocks—a civil and respectable family of men, and known amongst their comrades for their good fortune in the fishery.

I may add, in conclusion, that whiting make their annual peregrinations round the coast, as do herrings,—appearing and disappearing at certain periods of the year. They are to be caught in abundance on the south-eastern coast throughout the months of September, October, and November, after which they get scarce and disappear until the ensuing August, except in the very deep water on the “trawling”-grounds, and even there they are not plentiful. The shoals, in fact, pass on after Christmas, but we may rest confident of receiving their periodical visit when the corn again begins to grow ripe and heavy in the ear.

Astley H. Baldwin.