I don’t know about you, but when I first saw that huge boney mouth that ling cods have, with all those nasty looking teeth, I thought it must be a savage hit when they strike your line. I figured a nasty looking predator like that must just come up and annihilate your bait, probably half ripping the rod out of your hands.
Turns out, that’s generally not the case, at least not in my humble experience. When a ling cod get’s on the line, often it’s not a hit, it’s not a nibble, or a tap; it’s not even a grab & run. It’s not a strike at all. All it is, is that your line just gets heavier, and your rod tip starts bending down.
I’ve described it to friends as feeling like your bait just drifted into a clump of weeds. In fact, when I hooked into my first one last year, I thought that was what had happened. I was in the process of reeling said clump of weeds in, when suddenly the weeds decided to take off in a line-stripping run.
It was a good surprise but still, it’s best to know what to expect and how best to get a decent hook set.
We boated a few lings last year, but I needed to improve our catch rate on these delicious fish. So since then I’ve been trying to school myself a bit more as to why these toothy beasts take the mush-mouth approach, rather than going all Cookie Monster on the sand dabs we dangle in front of them.
It seems the lings use those powerful jaws and nasty teeth to bite down on their prey and hold on with crushing force. They are so damned stubborn about their meal, that they will commonly hold onto a bait while being reeled in, often only letting go when they reach the surface. Many an angler has learned the lesson the hard way, get the net under your ling before bringing it’s head to the surface, because there is a good chance it’s not yet hooked, and may decide to give up, release its meal, and swim off at the lest second.
After the fight has gone out of the ling’s prey, they’ll flip the bait around in their mouth, so they can swallow it head first. Your best bet is to give the ling a chance to swallow that bait, before trying to bring it to the boat.
I’ve talked to some anglers who open up their drags when a ling takes the bait, and let them run. Mark Coleman of All Rivers & Saltwater Charters (official fishing guide of Bait 2 Plate) suggests to start steadily reeling them as soon as they take the bait. The guy boats a ton of fish, so there is no arguing with his success. Although it seems like just about every time I’ve tried that method, when not on one of Mark’s boats, I’d reel up empty hooks.
This season I’ve been following the advice of another top local guide who catches fish like crazy: Nick Kester of All Star Charters.
As I mentioned in my Shows & Scallops post, I attended Captain Nick’s ling cod seminar at the Seattle Boat Show, and believe-you-me, I was paying close attention and taking careful notes. After seeing Nicky’s boat drifting not 40 yards from mine last season, limiting out on lings, while we were getting skunked, I was ready to listen to what he had to say.
Sticking to the broad strokes, I picked up two significant tips from that seminar.
First is boat control, using the trolling motor, in reverse usually, to slow the drift, so that our lines are straight up and down, rather than playing out at an angle. The idea here is not only to control the speed of presentation, so that the bait is swimming by at a natural speed, but also so that you can effectively control the depth of presentation. I’ve been aiming to keep my bait 3 or 4 feet above the bottom.
The second is giving the lings time to flip the bait around and swallow it. This is the hard part. It goes against every instinct I’ve built up over years of fishing. I feel the fish pick up the bait, and of course I want to set the hook. But no, I hold the rod steady or just let it stay in the rod holder. The fish makes a couple pulls at the bait, maybe stipping off some line, and I hold steady. There is a few quick jerks as the fish attempts to spin the bait in it’s mouth, and I’m still waiting … and getting more and more anxious. It isn’t until the fish runs hard and has my rod tip bent into the water, that I reel down and start fighting it.
I used the “Kester method” on the first ling that bit my line this season. At first the other guys on the boat didn’t think I had a fish on the line; all they saw was my rod tip bent just slightly more that it was before. They they thought I was crazy for just standing there and waiting while the fish started to pull line. When I did bring it up though, the front circle hook was set in it’s upper lip, and the trailing J hook was set in the corner of it’s mouth. No way that fish was getting off the line.
Since opening day, we’ve been hitting the lings pretty hard. We still have had a number of them get off the line, but our success rate in both getting bites and boating fish has gone way up since I wrote last year’s post, The Elusive Ling Cod. We’re still using the same bait as before, live sand dabs (little flounder) with an 8/0 circle hook through the upper lip and a 7/0 J hook trailing loose behind that. A little change in presentation and a lot of patience when a fish is on the line has put a lot of firm, white fish on my dinner table.
That’s a good thing of course. Ling cod is one of the finest and most versatile eating fish you are likely to encounter. They’re great on the grill, baked, pan seared; and of course I’ve already given you recipes for Olive Oil Poached Cod and Fish & Chips. I thought I show you something a bit lighter & more delicate this time.
- Clean ling cod filets 2-4 each
- 1 ½ Tbs grated ginger (I used Thai ginger or “galangal”)
- 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 2 scallions, minced
- 1 small bunch of cilantro, finely chopped
- 1 ½ tsp Szechuan peppercorns, crushed (or ground black pepper)
- 1 Tbs of fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 1 Tbs olive or peanut oil
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 Tbs + 1 cup (divided) Shaoxing wine or other rice wine or just white wine
- ½ tsp kosher salt
Cooking times when steaming vary even more than they do with other types of cooking. Mine took about 12 minutes, but you’ll need to keep an eye on it to tell when it’s done.
It’s worth it though, perfectly steamed fish is delightfully delicate and buttery.
Serve it with your choice of vegetable or rice; I served mine with vegetable lo mein, but you’re on your own for that recipe.
I have to get to bed. I’ve got to get up early for fishing tomorrow. I’m on a hot streak, and I want to keep up the momentum.