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The “Elusive” Ling Cod

Ling, Possession, May '13This is one of those occasions when I remind you that part of the point of this blog is me sharing experiences as I’m learning to catch various kinds of fish, some of which I haven’t gone after before. I point that out now because I know some of the more experienced area fishermen read the title of this post and said, Lingcod? Elusive? Seriously??

A lot of guys have been ripping up on these bottom fish around here lately. Just the other day we watched one of the All Star Fishing boats, drifting not 100 yards away from us, catch their limit of lings while we were searching for a single bite. 

I should point out here that AllStar cruised up by where we were already fishing, I’m not one of those guys who shadows charter boats. Although, if they are close enough I will pull out the binoculars and check what they are doing. I’m courteous, but nosy.

One of Mark’s many limit catch of lingcod photos

Mark Coleman of All River & Saltwater Charters has been fishing for lings near the San Juan Islands and he’s been catching, well… pretty much all of them I think.  You should check out his reports, this guy boats fish like crazy.

As for myself and the crew, we’ve spent this season working on learning the ins and outs of lingcod fishing and we’ve had what is fair to call, limited success.  So yeah … elusive.  At least that sounds better than saying I suck at ling fishing.
Now it’s not like we’ve been getting totally skunked on these things, and maybe since it’s basically our first season fishing for them, we’re not doing too badly. Still, I intend to keep working on it until I have lingcod fishing dialed in. I want to be able to go out there and put those Mark Coleman moves on the lings.

There is no better teacher than time on the water

Jim fishing for bait on the Dabbin’ Grounds

I use my patented Three pronged approach to learning new fishing techniques, Reading, Rapping and Reeling. That is, reading articles and internet info on the topic, talking to other fishermen and staff at tackle shops who have experience catching the fish you are after, and most importantly, getting out and getting a line in the water. When it comes to learning new fishing methods, there is no better teacher than time on the water.So using all three prongs I’ve been putting in the work to catch the lings, or as I call it having fun. 🙂

sand dabbing

Me with a nice, palm sized sand dab

Here’s what I’ve picked up so far.
Lings are bottom dwellers and generally ambush predators who like the cover of structure: rock, holes, etc. Jigs and heavy darts are common lures for them around here, but for inland waters live bait is generally considered to be your best bet. Sand dabs, the mini flounder that practically carpet the bottom of Puget Sound, are the most commonly used bait. No surprise since catching them around here is easy and actually kind of fun. There is a large sandy flat just outside the marina so full of sand dabs that The Crew and I have dubbed “the dabbin’ grounds”. That’s where we’ve been baiting up before heading off to find those rocks and holes.

You don’t need to be right on the bottom when fishing for lings, they’ll come up out of their holes to pursue your bait.   Keeping your bait several feet off the bottom as you are drifting will give you a good presentation and help avoid snagging your gear on rocks and such.

Given the huge frog-like mouths full of sharp teeth these fish have, I assumed that when they took the bait it would be a violent strike.  Turns out that’s often not the case. The first time I had a ling take my bait, I thought I snagged a bunch of weeds.


That was my first, 32 inches a real beauty, such as they are.

We were fishing along a rock jetty, practically in the shadow of downtown Seattle. I was raising and lowering my rod tip to give a bit more action to my bait when it suddenly just got … heavy.   It wasn’t unyielding like I had snagged on the bottom, so clearly it was a clump of kelp or something. It was only about 45 feet deep there and I had reeled up about halfway when the weeds on the end of my line suddenly started running for it, peeling line off the drag.
Whoa, fish on! …. apparently.

Make sure the net is in the water and under the fish before you let it’s head break the surface.

As it turns out, while savage lingcod strikes do happen, the usual M.O. is for them to chomp down on the bait with those big, bony jaws and just hang there for a few.  ling
Apparently they like to use the crushing power of their bite to knock some of the fight out of their prey.  And this leads to an important tip when attempting to land one of these fish. Lingcod have a habit of stubbornly holding onto bait even if they aren’t hooked. They’ll give up the goat** though, the second they hit the surface.  The lesson here is, make sure the net is in the water and under the fish before you let it’s head break the surface. This is a lesson we learned the hard way about 10 minutes after I caught that first ling. The second one dropped the bait and headed for the hills before I had the net ready. Oh well, live and learn.

Speaking of learning, have you ever tried olive oil poaching?   (How’s that for a segue?)  It’s a cooking technique you’ll see occasionally on competition shows like Top Chef or Iron Chef, but home cooks rarely use it. I think one reason for that is it seems counter intuitive to many people.

You may think that cooking fish somewhat slowly in oil would result in a greasy, soggy piece of fish. And if you are used to deep frying, the oil temperature in poaching seems completely wrong. You lower to fish into the oil there is no sizzle, not bubbling … what’s up with that?

Well, that’s really the point. In deep frying the oil is hotter than the boiling point of water, much hotter in fact, usually 350 – 365 degrees. Much of the water is forced out by the hot oil and that’s what causes the “boiling” effect when you drop food into a deep fryer. It’s also why you get such nice crispy food out of a deep fryer, removing the moisture from the outside of the food gives it that delightful crunch.

When you are poaching in oil, you are working with much lower temperatures, generally 115 – 140 degrees, well below the boiling point of water.

Now I know what you are thinking, ‘Patrick, since the oil isn’t hot enough to sear and therefore seal the fish, isn’t the oil just going to seep into it and turn that beautiful piece of fish into an oil soaked rag?’
Would I let that happen to fish I’ve worked so hard to catch?   Think of what happens when you put a drop of water into a small container of oil. The water stays together in a droplet contained by the oil. The poaching method works basically the same way on a larger scale.

The oil helps contain the juices and the flavor of the fish and when it’s done you have a nice olive oil flavor on the exterior and the rich flavor of the fish is intact within.
Since this method doesn’t offer any acidic sharpness by itself, I like to add some lemon zest to the poaching oil and then season the fish with a squeeze of lemon juice as well as salt & pepper before I start cooking it.

The olive oil will add a good amount of flavor to the dish, so you want to use a decent extra virgin, but it doesn’t need to be high priced. I bought a bottle at Trader Joe’s for $5.99 and used ¾ of it for the poach. Of course it is all still there when you are done. So long as you refrigerate it, you can use it to poach fish again within the next several days, or you can use small amounts of it to sauté other fish or anything else you don’t mind have a hint of cod flavor added to. The reality though is that in all likelihood, most of the poaching oil is going to end up in the garbage. So find a nice but inexpensive EVOO.

You want to use a sauce pot that is just wide enough lay your fish in the bottom without too much overlap and with sides high enough so that the oil isn’t in going to overflow once the fish is added.

Once again I’m using my oil/candy thermometer that I used for the Beer Battered Spot Prawns. You can use a standard stick thermometer to check the oil temp but I like a constant reading in front of my face. If you are going to use a stick thermometer, check often. If you are going to try without using a thermometer at all, I wish you luck.  The best advice I can give you is the oil should be heated to the point that it’s just too hot for you to hold the tip of your finger in.  Be careful.
The temperature of the oil is going to drop considerably once you add the fish, so I bring the oil up to 150 degrees and then lower the fish in. I’m really not going to be able to tell you how long to cook the fish because so many variables are going to affect the cooking time: the amount of oil, the size of pot, the type of pot, the amount of fish, how it is cut, the heat of your stove, etc. The best I can tell you is if the oil is kept around 125 – 130 degrees, it will likely be in the 20 minute range, but you’ll need to watch it and occasionally lift a piece of fish out of the oil and give it the poke test.
Some Chefs like to roll the fish over once during the poach and others don’t. I’ve tried both and flipping the fish over without damaging it is tricky. So long as there is enough room for the oil to flow around the fish, I say there is no need to flip it.

Finally, once the fish is done, I like to set it on a draining rack for a minute and allow the excess oil to run off. I like the olive oil flavor, but I don’t want a puddle of it on the plate.

Once you drain it, even though you are cooking the cod immersed in oil, this ends up being a surprisingly healthy dish.

Olive Oil Poached Lingcod with Roasted Tomatoes, Onions & Broccoli Rabe

Lingcod filets, cut into 5-7 oz portions
Extra virgin olive oil, 3 cups …. give or take
Lemon, 1 each
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Broccoli rabe, 1 bunch
Tomto, 1 large, diced
Sweet onion, 1 small, diced
Garlic, 3 cloves, minced
Olive oil, 2 Tbs
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

The Veggies

Pre heat oven to 400 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, toss the tomato and onion with half the garilc & oil.  Lightly season with salt & pepper.
Spread the tomatoes and onions out on a sheet pan.  Roast them in the oven for 10-12 minutes or until they just beging to color.
Toss the broccoli rabe with the remaining garlic & oil and lightly season with salt & pepper.  Arrange the broccoli rabe on top of the tomatoes & onions and roast for another 10 minutes or until it is cooked to your liking.

The Fish and the Finish

Zest the lemon into the sauce pot and then add in the olive oil.  Gently heat the oil over med-low heat, keeping a close eye on the temperature.
Squeeze lemon juice over both sides of the fish, then season both sides with salt and pepper.
Once the oil has reached 150 degrees, carefully lower the fish into the oil with a slotted spatula or spoon.
Keeping the temperature of the oil between 120 and 140 degrees, poach the fish until done, about 20 minutes or so.  This may take a little checking and testing.

Once the fish is done allow it to drain for a moment, then plate it along with the roasted vegetables.

Meagan, hostess of the salsa party from last week’s post, with her first ling.
** That is merely a figure of speech.  The author does not recommend actually using goat as lingcod bait.

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