Key in on structure around Puget Sound for hard-fighting lingcod
Puget Sound’s ‘stable’ fishery for the toothsome and tasty species is now open for business.
Originally published by Northwest Sportsman Magazine
The lingcod is a rather frightful-looking creature with buggy eyes, a bucket-sized mouth filled with canine-like teeth, odd-shaped fins, a pot belly, and mottled brown/grayish skin.
While not easy on the eyes, anglers are charmed by their steely fight when hooked and beloved tasty, white-fleshed meat. Even more appealing is a relatively well-established lingcod population along most of the West Coast and from Washington to Alaska.
“We just reviewed the catch-per-unit-effort for the past decade and overall things are quite stable in Puget Sound,” says Bob Pacunski, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s research scientist and senior groundfish biologist.
Lingcod populations in inner Puget Sound saw a decline in the 1970s, but with improved management, they slowly began to increase in the early 1980s and have since remained strong enough to allow a six-plus-week-long sport fishery in spring and early summer.
“Sport catches of lingcod continue to be good in the San Juan Islands (Marine Area 7), where most of the angler effort comes from,” Pacunski says. “The 2020 catch in Marine Area 7 was 69 percent above the 15-year average and just over twice of what it was in 2019.”
Lingcod catches in Saratoga Pass and northern Puget Sound (Marine Areas 8–1 and 9) have remained fair to good in recent years, according to Pacunski.
Some places have seen a decline in catch during the past five years, including Port Susan and Port Gardner, and central and southern Puget Sound (Marine Areas 8–2, 10 and 11).
While not even closely related to a true ling — a native Atlantic Ocean fish — or cod for that matter, our lingcod are part of the greenling (Hexagrammidae) family and grow quickly to harvestable size in a span of around three years. Washington’s inside fisheries are structured after spawning season, thus allowing optimal reproduction.
The sport lingcod hook and line fishery is open May 1 through June 15 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Sekiu to Port Angeles (Marine Areas 5 and 6), San Juan Islands (Marine Area 7), and most of Puget Sound (Marine Areas 8–1, 8–2, 9, 10, 11 and 13).
Despite a strong tidal exchange on the May 1 lingcod opener, many anglers reported decent catches of lingcod around open areas of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands.
The lingcod daily limit is one per angler. Minimum size limit is 26 inches and maximum size is 36 inches. This slot limit is one reason why lingcod populations have remained somewhat robust in Puget Sound and includes releasing the oversized females.
A popular target of divers, the lingcod spearfishing season in these marine areas is May 21 through June 15, maximum size 36". Daily limit one per diver.
Where to go
Anglers who do a little homework on how to catch a lingcod will certainly raise the bar of fishing success.
“Locating structure off the bottom is key and I look for rocky ledges or rock piles on my fish finder,” said a charter boat operator with the Puget Sound Charter Boat Association. “Even a small 2-foot depression can be an ideal spot for lingcod. I also prefer to fish an hour before and after slack tide (high or low tide depends on location), since it’s the best period to keep your gear right in front of their face.”
Lingcod are a nonmigratory and predatory creature that inhabit rocky pinnacles, reefs, rock piles, steep drop-offs or ledges, breakwaters, jetties and almost any structure and hard rocky bottom.
Lots of locations in Puget Sound see heavy angler traffic, especially when the season first opens, and they’ll get quickly fished out of keeper-sized fish.
Picking the right time to fish can make or break success, the Puget Sound charter boat operator says, particularly when the current is running hard and/or the wind is blowing. During these periods you’re prone to snagging and losing tackle around rocky structures, or you’ll breeze over a fishing hole before you even get your line down. This is where positioning your boat for the right drift or maximizing effort around slack tides becomes a key element to catching lingcod.
Lingcod often hide in their lair (think of an unfriendly neighbor like Oscar the Grouch) only to swiftly lunge out at unsuspecting prey swimming just outside their shadow. Sometimes adult fish will even dine on their own juvenile nieces and nephews.
Many anglers like to target them off the breakwater at local marinas. For shore-bound anglers, local piers around Puget Sound offer a chance to catch lingcod, and the most practical way is casting leadhead or metal jigs. These methods also work from coastal jetties, as we covered in this recent blog.
In Puget Sound, look for lingcod on Possession Bar off Satchet Head, around Blakely Rock and Restoration Point, off Point Evans near the Tacoma Narrows Bridges or Toliva Shoal off Steilacoom, Itsami Ledge off Henderson Inlet’s north end, near Utsalady Bay or Doublebluff, Deception Pass, Burrows Island, Smith Island, Lopez Pass, as well as artificial reefs south of Richmond Beach, north of the Edmonds Marina and southeast of Alki Point, and throughout the San Juan Islands and Bellingham Bay.
After the Puget Sound season closes, anglers can continue to target lings off the coast at Neah Bay, La Push, Westport and Ilwaco (Marine Areas 1, 2, 3 and 4); these waters are open daily through the third Saturday in October, which this year falls on October 15.
The western Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Sekiu River mouth west to the Bonilla-Tatoosh line (the start of Area 4) is also open daily through October 15 for lingcod.
Fishing gear and tips
Lingcod eat just about anything, including flounder, rockfish, octopus, sculpin, kelp greenling, herring, crabs, squid, octopus, and pollock. But a favorite meal is the abundant Puget Sound flounder population found along sandy-bottomed areas. That makes Pacific sand dab or other small flounders the top choice for live bait amongst local anglers.
To catch flounder, use a lighter fishing rod and reel. Attach a 1- to 3-ounce lead to a short leader and hook. For bait, use a small chunk of a Berkley PowerBait Grub, Sandworm, or a herring strip. Bounce it off the bottom until you feel a vibration or tug on the line. Make sure to have a livewell or aerator on the boat to keep your flounder spunky; a large bucket filled with seawater will even do the job.
Just remember that some marine areas have different aggregate bottomfish daily limits. This means you can have a certain number of bottomfish species in total onboard. Don’t go over the limit with the fish you keep plus the ones still in your livewell.
And keep in mind that barbless hooks are required for all species in Marine Areas 5–13, including lingcod and other bottomfish. The only exception is when targeting forage fish with forage fish gear. Fishing for bottomfish other than halibut is also prohibited in areas deeper than 120 feet in these marine areas. See regulations for details.
You can use basic salmon fishing gear for lingcod, but a stiffer, fast-action 7- to 8-foot jigging-type rod is effective. Any salmon-type reel works and fill it with about 200 yards of 30-pound-test braid.
“I’ll never use anything heavier than 30-pound-test braided line, since the areas you tend to fish are very snaggy,” tips the Puget Sound charter boat operator. “It makes it a lot easier to break off lighter test fishing line when you’re stuck on bottom.”
From your mainline, snap a slip swivel to a 3- to 8-ounce lead ball attached to a three- to four-foot 30- to 50-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon leader and a pair of 6/0 or 7/0 barbless circle or octopus hooks to a live flounder or whole blue-label-size frozen herring. If using circle hooks, be sure to let the lingcod really chew on the bait before reeling!
An alternative is a variety of soft plastic 4- to 6-inch squid jigs or grubs in root beer, purple, green, glow or dark motor oil color. Bigger jigs and swimbaits can also be used to target bigger lings. Metal-style jigs commonly used for salmon work, although snagging them on bottom could put a hefty dent in your wallet. Current speed and depth should dictate the weight of your gear.
Pipe jigs popular for deepwater lingcod off the Washington Coast typically do not work well in Puget Sound or the San Juan Islands.
Slowly drop your bait or lure down to avoid tangles, then crank it up a foot or two off the bottom and try a short vertical twitching motion to trigger the lingcod’s attention. Some anglers simply like to keep the pole in a rod holder and let the live bait do the work.
Regularly keeping in touch with the bottom is key, as is checking your gear often since it’s literally being dragged across the rocky bottom. Remember: you don't want to be on bottom, but a few feet above it.
Nothing is subtle once a lingcod takes your bait. It can be a very hard jolt and there’s no need to set the hook. Just be ready for the ride of your life. Then slowly but steadily reel in your catch, as what often happens is a lingcod will literally be latched onto your bait and not the hooks themselves.
Have the net ready once the lingcod nears the surface. Gently place the net underneath the fish before it tosses the bait or begins to thrash wildly on the water’s surface.
(This story was written by Mark Yuasa, who is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Communications Consultant and a longtime local fishing and outdoor writer. You can find it published in the May issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.)