LINGCOD: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST ROLLED INTO ONE
By Terry Rudnick
There’s nothing beautiful about a full-grown lingcod, unless you happen to be a fisherman. With its huge head, protruding fins and long, sharp teeth, the ling is a formidable-looking character, but its toughness, impressive size and sweet flesh also make it one of the Northwest’s favorite saltwater angling trophies.
Some folks might consider the lingcod a homely cuss, but whoever coined the phrase, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," may have been a lingcod fisherman. This fish has a huge head, gaping mouth full of long, pointed teeth, wing-like pectoral fins, and a mottled gray-brown paint job that can't hold a candle to the chrome-sided beauty of a salmon.
But--like your parents might have told you when they were trying to coerce you into taking out the skinny, freckle-faced girl who lived down the street--looks aren't everything. While the lingcod might have a kisser that would stop a clock, it has plenty to offer Northwest anglers.
For one thing, lingcod grow to impressive size. Fish of 30 pounds and over are fairly common, especially in the northern half of their range that extends from Baja California to the Bering Sea, and fish of 50 pounds or better are caught regularly enough to keep things interesting. Now and then they even top 60 pounds, and the current International Game Fish Association all-tackle world's record is an 82-pound, nine-ounce monster caught near Homer, Alaska in 2007.
As for fighting ability, a hooked lingcod won't make any blazing, 100-yard runs or come twisting out of the water in a series of spectacular leaps, but it will give you a run for your money. Typically, an angler who sets the hooks into a big ling will have little trouble pumping it those first few yards, but just when he thinks he has the battle won his prize will turn tail, streak for the bottom with surprising speed, and duck into some jumble of broken rocks or deep-sea cavern, where it’s likely to saw off the line and gain its freedom.
Another quality of the pugnacious lingcod that endears it to saltwater anglers is that it can also be incredibly aggressive and easy to entice. When it decides it's hungry, it will pounce on virtually anything even remotely resembling a free meal, including a wide range of baits and lures.
And there's something else about the lingcod that makes it popular with fishermen and non-fishermen alike. It happens to be one of the best-eating fish that ever graced a dinner plate. Whether you sprinkle it with a few drops of lemon juice or plunge it into a pool of tarter sauce, a forkful of snow-white lingcod fillet is a fish-eater's delight.
But, as you might expect with any big, hard-fighting, sweet-eating fish, lots of other anglers are as interested in catching lingcod as you might be, and some of them are pretty good at it. There are a few tricks to catching lingcod, and if you master them you'll greatly improve your chances of boating these trophy bottomfish.
Timing can be everything to the lingcod fisherman, and we're talking here both about what time of year and what time of day you fish for them.
Lingcod spawn in winter, with the larger females moving up out of the depths to deposit their eggs in the relatively shallow waters of submerged rock piles and rocky pinnacles. The large egg masses are then fertilized by male lings, which hang around to protect them until they hatch. Although the females don't help out with the egg-guarding chores, they don't seem to be in any big hurry to get back to their deep-water haunts, often staying and feeding in the shallower spawning areas for weeks, even months.
The fact that both males and females are to be found somewhat congregated well into spring should be a valuable tip for lingcod anglers and would-be lingcod anglers. It's a whole lot easier to catch lings when they're fairly well concentrated, and it's certainly easier to fish for them in 75 to 150 feet of water than in 250, 300, 400 feet of water or more.
While springtime fishing for lingcod is some of the year's best, it's important here to point out that not all lingcod areas are open to fishing in early spring. Seasonal closures extend into April or May in some places--primarily to protect nest-guarding males and the eggs they're watching over--so be sure to study the fishing regulations before planning that spring ling fling. In Washington, lingcod season over the past several years has opened around the middle of March on the coast (Marine Areas 1-3), mid-April in MA 4, and May 1 from the west end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to southern Puget Sound (Marine Areas 5-13).
The other timing factor involved in lingcod fishing concerns the daily tidal change. Even in shallow water it may be difficult to fish effectively when the tide is snorting along at several knots, so smart lingcod anglers concentrate most of their efforts during high and low slack or on days of moderate tidal flow. That's when you can best hold directly above those rocky pinnacles and fish them with a minimum of hang-ups and lost lures. Also, lingcod often bite best during minimum tidal flow.
In order to catch these shallow-water lingcod, of course, you have to find them, and the three most important pieces of equipment in that search is a GPS, a good chart of the fishing area and a depth sounder. The rocky spires and steep-sided cliffs where lings are most likely to be hanging out will, of course, show on a chart as lots of contour lines in close proximity.
There's more than one way to catch a lingcod, and you often have the choice of fishing either artificials or bait.
Metal jigs, the real-looking, store-bought "slab" types and the not-so-perfect pipe jigs you can make at home, are effective lingcod-getters. Like most other big fish, the lingcod's diet consists mostly of smaller fish, and these hunks of metal in various shapes and sizes often look enough like the real thing to coax a lingcod into striking. Slab jigs are available in weights from under an ounce to over two pounds. If you choose to make your own pipe jigs, you can use metal pipe or tubing of various diameters, cut to various lengths, for jigs of any dimension and weight you might need.
Leadheads also account for a lot of Washington lingcod. Most anglers adorn them with large, plastic, curl-tail or twin-tail bodies, but a strip of porkrind is just as effective and usually holds up better to those jagged lingcod teeth. Black, brown, blue and purple tend to work better than the hot or light colors. Deep-water jigging may require 20- to 32-ounce leadheads, but light-line anglers fishing shallow water in calm tides may get by using jigs as light as a couple of ounces. One advantage to using leadheads is that the soft grub or porkrind bodies have a lot of built-in flutter and wiggle, so you don’t have to work as hard to make them look “alive” as you do with metal jigs.
But there are times when lingcod aren't all that interested in artificials, and that's when you have to go to the real thing to bring them to the dinner table. Dead bait, such as whole herring, will sometime do the job, but if you really want to get them interested, you may have to offer them something that's still alive and kicking. It could be a large herring, if they're available, or maybe you'll have to first catch a few greenling, cod, shiner perch or other small fish for bait, and then start fishing lingcod.
Most angler’s fish live bait on a wire spreader, snapping on cannon-ball weights of various sizes to take it to the bottom and using a short, stout leader between the bait and the horizontal arm of the spreader. Some people prefer wire leaders, but 40- to 60-pound monofilament usually works just fine. Whatever leader material you choose, keep it short; preferably no longer than the longer arm of the spreader to which it’s attached. Using too long a leader will allow the bait to tangle around the line as it’s dropped through the water, defeating the purpose of the spreader.
Hook size for live-bait lingcod fishing should be at least 6/0, and 8/0 to 10/0 hooks are usually even better. With small baits, such as herring or shiner perch, you can get by with one hook, simply hooking the baitfish through both lips or near the middle of the back. A two-hook rig works better with big baits, such as foot-long greenling or small cod.
You want to keep the baitfish swimming just off bottom, which isn't always easy when you're trying to work those jagged rock piles where lingcod do most of their hunting. Staying directly above your rig and watching your depth sounder at all times helps, but you'll also have to drop and retrieve line constantly to follow those rugged bottom contours.
There’s a difference of opinion among anglers as to whether or not to set the hook when a big ling takes a bait. Lings have a habit of simply chomping down and hanging onto a bait all the way to the surface, so many anglers don’t bother setting for fear of jerking the bait out of the fish’s mouth. Sometimes, though, a lingcod that isn’t hooked will hang on until just before it reaches the surface, let go and swim back to the bottom before you can land it. My technique is to set the hook if I’m fishing a herring or other small bait, when I feel there’s a pretty good chance it’s well into the mouth and that I’m going to get some hook penetration on the set. With bigger baits that take some time to swallow, I’ll point the rod toward the fish and start cranking as fast as I can, hoping the ling will hold on tighter and stay clamped down until it gets to the top.
So when playing and trying to boat a bait-hooked lingcod, always remember that it may not be hooked but is simply holding onto the baitfish. Reel quickly for the first 20 feet or so to keep it from diving back into the rocks, then pump it up to the surface as smoothly as possible, and be ready with a net. They'll often let go right at the surface, so scoop 'em an instant before they break water, if possible. Gaffing has long been a favorite means of subduing a lingcod, but it’s now illegal to use a gaff on them in Washington.
If the lingcod is bound for the dining room table, smack it once across the eyes with your fish club and quickly slice through a couple of gill arches or into the soft tissue immediately behind the gills to bleed it. The table quality of those fillets will be much better that way.
But don't assume for a minute that the only good lingcod is a dead lingcod. All trophy-size lings are females, and those are also the brood fish that will provide the fisheries in years and decades to come. These fish are tough and have no swim bladder, so they can be fought, boated, photographed and released with few ill effects, so if you get into good fishing for big lingcod, release a few for next time.
Also be sure to check the current fishing regulations pamphlet before going fishing. Most of Washington’s “inside” waters, for example, are open to lingcod fishing for only six weeks, beginning May 1, while the coastal season runs more than six months. The lingcod limit in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca is one fish, 26 to 36 inches long, per day, while limits in coastal Marine Areas 1-3 are two fish over 22 inches, two over 24 inches in Area 4.
Another regulation that Washington anglers need to keep in mind is the deep-water fishing closure intended to protect certain species of rockfish. Check the rules for Marine Areas 2-13 for details on where and when bottomfishing is closed in waters deeper than 20 or 30 fathoms, because these closures DO limit where you can fish for lings.