King George Whiting
Category: Medium Risk
THERE aren't many people I know who will turn up their nose at a feed of king george whiting in fact I rate them one of the most delicious fish in the sea.
For some anglers who target them specifically they are enigmatic and for those who catch one unexpectedly they are a welcome surprise. As a judgment on anglers' high regard for king george whiting, try to remember the last time someone gave you one!
The myriad of small brown spots along the sides of king george makes them hard to confuse with other whiting, even when they are under the legal size. Out of the water, larger fish have a brown/bronze tinge to their backs but if you see them underwater they appear light grey to whitish.
Sea Fishes of Southern Australia indicates the Australian record at 2.3 kilos, but Australian Fish Resources shows them growing to a whopping 4.8 kilos. I have caught them around Rottnest, several years back, over two kilos and believe me that's a big king george.
In southern estuaries they tend to be around the size of the legal limit, but farther north, around Perth, the range is likely to be from 700g up to 1.5 kilos.
King george whiting are found from the South Australian border around the southern and south-west coasts up to Jurien Bay. Juveniles mainly inhabit inshore shallow areas of seagrass (which is one of the many reasons seagrass is so important). Mature fish tend to move well offshore with the biggest specimens generally encountered in depths down to 100 metres.
Breeding and migration
King george spawn in offshore waters from late summer to winter. The eggs are buoyant and the larvae move inshore, with the aid of prevailing breezes and currents, where they remain for two to three years. At this age they are around 28cm, but they do not mature until they are three to four years old.
This magnificent whiting can live for up to 15 years and achieve a length of 72cm.
It's worth noting that maturity size is between 32cm and 36cm - well above the 28cm legal limit. So this means that few female fish caught between the minimum length and minimum maturity size of 32cm have had a chance to breed.
Australian Fish Resources notes that king george numbers declined dramatically in Westernport, Victoria, after a 70 per cent dieback of seagrass.
The continued removal of seagrass meadows during the dredging of shell-sand poses a continuing threat to king george stocks. Realistically, though, probably the biggest threat to the species stems from recreational fishing effort, given that the legal catch size is well below the breeding size.
Smaller fish - usually those just above legal size - inhabit protected inshore waters up to 5m deep. If you want bigger specimens, head offshore to islands such as Garden, Carnal and Rottnest.
Look for broken ground - sand and reef or seagrass - and fish close to reef edges or seagrass because king george hug the edges for protection from predators.
In deeper water it's possible to find coral formations which hold big whiting. If you locate one, take note of where it is because you're likely to find fish there again.
By far the biggest specimens come from deep water and are often caught as a bycatch when drifting for dhuies. A whiting that can swallow a 7/0 hook loaded up with bait is a prize indeed!
Tackle and bait
I like to fish with a softish 2-4kg rod and 4-6kg mono. However, increasingly I fish gelspun lines which help enormously in detecting bites.
I learnt most of what I know about king george from Doug Clegg, who convinced me that rigs should not move about on the bottom and that wide gap hooks loaded up with bait was the way to fish. To this end, like Doug, I use a flat sinker on a single 1/0 wide gap hook dropper ring made from 8kg pale brown mono.
My bait is mainly unpeeled coral prawn tipped with squid strips. The unpeeled prawn does not deter the whiting but it sure slows down the pickers.
Once I have found likely looking ground - and sometimes this takes time - I lower the pick carefully and try to hang back to within 10m of where I plan to cast. Mostly I fish in depths where I can still see the bottom formation clearly without using an echo-sounder.
I like to hold my rod at all times and raise and lower the tip as the boat swings in the breeze, to keep the bait still on the bottom. Generally king george do not hit hard, and with gelspun I can literally feel the fish sucking the bait. Then it's a matter of raising the rod tip firmly and you're on (a sharp over the shoulder strike is not needed).
I know only a couple of anglers who target king george successfully in deeper water, and they fish with similar gear and baits but sometimes hold their rigs just off the bottom.
Kailola, Williams, Stewart, Reichelt, McNee and Grieve Australian Fisheries Resources 1993. Hutchins and Swainston Sea Fishes of Southern Australia 1986.
Text: Ian Stagles
Art: Roger Swainston