Pictured above: It often got crowded at Long Branch Pier, with whiting anglers two and three deep along the rail.
It was a chilly November Friday, with the wind out of the northwest, as I stood outside Lincoln School in Newark. It was 3:15 p.m. and my dad was already parked outside. Hurriedly placing my books on the seat of his Ford pickup truck—the delivery vehicle of Rosko’s Fruit and Vegetable Market—I climbed aboard. Moments later we were headed south to Long Branch, via Route 35, as the Garden State Parkway hadn’t yet been built.
Darkness set in by the time we reached Long Branch Pier, and as we approached, it was evident that news of the arrival of the whiting had leaked out. A large group of anglers had congregated at the pier and were heading toward the end, dressed for the brisk breeze, armed with split-bamboo rods and single-gear 1-to-1 retrieve-ratio reels loaded with linen line. Each carried a galvanized bucket or a three-gallon fruit basket, destined to hold the catch.
As we entered the pier, Dad received a packet of squid bait, which was included in the dollar entrance fee. Access to the pier was free for youngsters like me.
The lights were bright along the rail of the several-hundred-foot-long structure that extended seaward 50 feet above the water. Toward the pier’s end, anglers stood two and three deep, some casting, others reeling and swinging whiting over the rail. We couldn’t have timed our arrival any better.
We each tied a high-low rig to a line, along with a pair of 1/0 Carlisle-style hooks and a 4-ounce bank sinker. Then we slipped a 3-inch-long strip of squid onto each hook, squeezed ourselves in along the rail, and let our rigs drop into the brightly illuminated water below.
My rig had barely touched bottom when Dad beamed, “I’m in!” and lifted back with his split-bamboo rod, which was so stiff it didn’t bend. As I watched him swing a 1-pound beauty over the rail, I felt a strike and immediately responded by cranking and swinging another 1-pounder over the rail.
On that particular evening, we fished for about 3 hours and caught about 50 of the silvery bottom feeders. Upon our arrival home, Mom, who had handled the chores at the family store in our absence that afternoon, was delighted as she saw the almost-full apple basket of whiting. Our catch was placed in an icebox on our back porch, as we hadn’t yet come to own one of those “newfangled refrigerators.”
Because we had so many fish, the next afternoon we drove to Grandma Rosko’s in nearby Irvington and dropped off enough for several meals.
The Silver Hake
Silver hake, commonly called whiting, belong to the family Merlucciidae, which means “pike of the sea.” They are related to codfish, ling, and other groundfish species. They are slender fish, and small in size, averaging about a foot long, with the largest specimens measuring 30 inches. They are voracious predators, feeding on a variety of fish and crustaceans, and are also an important prey species for larger fish.
Silver hake concentrate over sandy, pebbly, or muddy bottoms, preferring water temperatures between 42 and 60 degrees. The fish migrate seasonally, inhabiting waters shallower than 200 feet in the summer and fall, and deeper, offshore waters in the winter and early spring. They are most common from Newfoundland to South Carolina, but their numbers have been badly depleted, and the fish remain in relative abundance only north of Cape Cod.
It was typical of what we’d do each late fall and again in the early spring for many years. Indeed, it wasn’t long before we learned of a smokehouse up in Belford that would smoke your catch and have it ready for you in a couple of days. While you could pay them to smoke your catch, if you were willing to surrender half of your catch for them to sell at their highway stand, they would smoke the other half for you at no charge. It was win-win for both the anglers and the smokehouse.
Eventually, we began fishing for the tasty whiting on party boats, and the smokehouse was a regular stop on our way home. After a number of years, the municipality forced the smokehouse to close because of the constant smoke that emanated from their operation.
Shortly thereafter, we traded the icebox on the porch for a refrigerator. We’d gut the whiting, place enough for a meal in wax paper, and freeze them in the refrigerator’s ice cube tray section. We sacrificed ice cubes for the delightful dinners that we’d have once a week for several weeks. We also purchased a smoker, and I smoked the whiting, which kept well in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. However, they were such a delight that they’d be eaten before they ever had a chance to go bad.
The whiting population was still plentiful when we purchased our first boat, Linda June, a 24-footer with twin stern drives, in 1976. Our summer home was in Mantoloking by that time, and whiting, ling, herring, and mackerel were unbelievably plentiful during the spring. We’d clear Manasquan Inlet, and by the time we’d reach the sea buoy, the air would be alive with gulls feeding on sand eels. It was just a matter of shutting down and using a diamond jig for mackerel or a high-low rig baited with strips of squid or tiny pieces of clam for whiting and ling. It was just that easy.
In fact, I vividly recall some party boat regulars aboard Capt. Frank Cline’s party boat Gambler out of Belmar, who devised a homemade rig that frequently scored with four of the species during a typical day on the water. It consisted of a high-low rig with a pair of snelled hooks baited with strips of squid or small pieces of clam. Instead of a sinker, a diamond jig made up the weight to improve the chances of tempting a mackerel. The unique part of the rig involved placing a three-way swivel between the line and the top of the high-low rig and firmly securing a 7-inch-long piece of stainless steel leader wire by wrapping it around the remaining eye of the swivel. This kept it extending away from the rig at a right angle. At the end of the wire, a small loop was made with five or six tight turns. Instead of breaking off the tag end, as one would normally do, the wire would be cut with pliers, leaving about 1/8-inch extending out. Then the wire would be unwrapped so a homemade teaser could be added before re-wrapping the wire.
The teaser was merely five or six pieces of white feathers about two to three inches long and tied securely to a hook. This rig, which I haven’t seen used in many years, consistently had both whiting and ling assaulting the baited pair of hooks, mackerel walloping the diamond jig, and herring or hickory shad engulfing the teaser. All this was happening at the sea buoy just off Manasquan Inlet!
The fishing was so good that my entire family of aunts and uncles, and neighbors too, enjoyed our bounty. Smoked whiting was regarded as a Christmas treat for visitors to our home, and my wife June would always ensure people left with some of these tasty treats. To this day, we try to have some fish smoked by Christmas, but unfortunately, it hasn’t been whiting for many years.
Of course, in the old days, there would be times when we’d already have enough whiting and ling in the ice chest so we’d switch to jigging mackerel. We’d smoke some of the macks, and save the remainder for use in our dockside blue-claw crab traps during the summer. While jigging for the macks, we’d often score with herring and hickory shad.
Historically, our families, including my grandparents from Czechoslovakia and my wife’s from Germany, welcomed in the New Year with a champagne toast and pickled herring. So, I regularly pickled herring and hickory shad. As a result, most of our family and friends who visited us for Christmas went home with a bonus of pickled herring to welcome in the New Year at midnight!
Today, fishing like that is hard to imagine, as the population of whiting—properly known as silver hake—has declined so drastically that I haven’t caught one in the last 20 years. Overexploitation by commercial trawlers that, in those days, came within three miles of the coast, was a major factor in the depletion of the species. Legislation was eventually passed to keep foreign trawlers 100 miles from shore, but the whiting never recovered. Just this past spring, I saw one caught aboard the Dauntless out of Point Pleasant while fishing for sea bass, the first I’ve seen in a score of fishing seasons. The angler didn’t even know what it was and what a rare treat he’d just landed.
Cooking The Catch: Smoked Whiting (or Ling)
With the home smoker I once used for whiting, I still smoke ling, which are tasty as well, using an original recipe from the booklet that came with my Little Chief Luhr-Jensen electric smoker.
- 2 quarts water
- 1 cup non-iodized salt
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- ¼ tablespoon garlic powder
- ¼ tablespoon onion powder
- Gutted whiting, ling or mackerel that weigh around one pound each
- Mix all of the ingredients until dissolved, pour over the fish and brine in a non-reactive container in your refrigerator for 4 to 6 hours.
- Rinse the fish, pat dry with a paper towel, and allow to air dry for one hour.
- Smoke over apple or cherry chips for 4 to 6 hours, or until fish achieves desired texture and taste.
- Refrigerate the fish after smoking.
- To serve, you’ll be able to easily remove a whole fillet from each side of the fish, peel off the skin and remove the rib bones. Don’t hesitate to experiment with the ingredients and time of smoking until you achieve a flavor that satisfies your taste.