BROOKINGS — Capt. Andy Martin is searching the near-shore reefs off the coast of Brookings for a well-known underwater felon, and he knows just how to lure one out of the darkness.
He ties a sardine to his fluttery lead jig, then a piece of squid for good measure before sending his confection to the bottom.
“That’s a lingcod buffet right here,” Martin says .“Lingcod make their living eating other fish, so it makes sense to use a fish as bait.”
Within seconds, a 15-pound lingcod bellies up to the buffet and meets its demise with an abrupt swing of a gaff. The streetfight that defines fishing for one of the ocean’s ugliest denizens is over.
“These are the stalkers in the alley you don’t want to come across,” says Martin, owner of Brookings Fishing Charters. “They literally sit in rock crevices waiting for smaller rockfish to swim by and they attack them.”
Tapping into that underwater crime family in the near-shore rock formations is at the heart of spring offshore fishing, when lingcod rule supreme among bottomfish catches.
Amid the past year’s COVID-19 pandemic, anglers have ventured out of Oregon ports in force to escape the work-at-home quagmire.
Bottomfishing trips out of Oregon rose in the past year to more than 101,500 trips, with a huge bump in private boat trips to replace the 25% drop in charterboat passengers amid the pandemic, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics.
And lingcod ruled the roost, with more than 53,000 lings landed by anglers at an average of 1.2 lings per trip — just shy of the daily limit of two lingcod at least 22 inches long per day.
While Brookings ranks fifth among ports for lingcod landings, it is perhaps the best bet for inlanders heading to the sea for a day.
Because of its protected location from wind and waves, the Chetco River bar is the safest for small-craft ocean crossings in the Pacific Northwest.
"We have more days, according to the Coast Guard, that you can cross the Chetco River bar than any other bar in Oregon and Washington," Martin says.
At one time, that wasn't such a good thing for lings. Lingcod historically were a top target of sport and commercial ocean anglers, who fished them to near-extinction.
A 1997 marine survey concluded that lingcod were fished down to just 9% of the pre-fishing population. That triggered a requirement for the federal government under the Magnuson Act to rebuild the stock, even if the fishery needed to be shut down to do it.
In 1999, anglers lost almost the entire lingcod season. The low point came in 2000, when the limit dropped from two a day to one with a slot limit, requiring release of all lings under 24 inches and over 34 inches. But it was the only year-round lingcod fishery on the West Coast.
The restrictions dropped the harvest by at least 20%. And with good ocean conditions, the fast-growing lingcod rebounded and then some.
In 2003, the limit was back up to two a day longer than 24 inches. In 2006, lingcod were officially considered "rebuilt," creating a marine success story.
Some ocean anglers have argued that winter lingcod fishing threatens that success because that's when lings are at their most vulnerable. Big males guard egg nests from predators, and catching those fish threatens survival of that year's brood.
But the data don't support that assertion, according to ODFW.
Now, sport and commercial anglers are catching less than 50% of the allowable catch.
March is the top month to catch lingcod as multiple males aggressively guard egg nests. As many as 10 will stand sentry at nests, so picking off a guard or two doesn’t threaten lingcod production.
Males tend to be smaller than females, but in spring they are easy to find.
Most successful lingcod anglers target vertical rock formations under water. On the South Coast, that can mean spots well under 80 feet of water, and allowing for lighter gear to keep the fight a bit more fair.
Sometimes the best way to catch a ling is to hook a black rockfish. Lings are known to spring out of their lair to grab a hooked rockfish, much like sea lions chase angler-hooked chinook salmon in the Rogue River bay.
“We call them hitchhikers,” Martin says.
One such hitchhiker grabbed a rockfish Martin hooked, but let go before it could be introduced to his gaff. Large bite marks on the rockfish’s back half told the tale.
The law of the ocean is the uglier the fish, the better the eating. Lingcod’s white and tight flesh rivals that of halibut, which is largely considered the delicacy of the ocean bottom.
With its big teeth, menacing eyes and downright mean disposition, lingcod threaten that underwater paradigm.
“These things are so ugly, we should put a mask on him,” Martin says.