Red Hot Hake: A Winter Ling Thing - The Fisherman

Red Hot Hake: A Winter Ling Thing

2019 1 A Winter Ling Thing Catch
Nice sized specimen taken aboard the Dauntless out of Point Pleasant, N.J. The “D” as regulars refer to it, sails throughout the year for wreck species. Photo by Chris Lido

Winter is the time that tries human souls, but fear not, hake are on the take and provide a solid cold-water bounty.

Sure, offshore sea bass trips are an extended winter adventure, but many of us only have a short window to put a few fillets on ice for the New Year. If a day trip is the only item on the breakfast and lunch menu, order up a ling-ding special. Fried ling is hot, brown and there is plenty of it. Renew your registry for 2019, pass the hot sauce and hop on a day trip targeting the oft-maligned red hake, or ling.

Gadabout Gaddidae

What we call ling are red hake, which are Gadiforms, much like cod and other tasty ocean bottom-dwellers. In looking them up on Wikipedia, the entry was rife with typos (see red hacked) and mentioned that they were one in the same species as squirrel hake, a name we here in the northeast often give to the spotted hake. In other fisheries the name “ling” is most often used to describe the white hake or as we call it the purple hake. Are you confused yet?

As stated the red hake, or what we call ling are misunderstood and misnamed soft fleshed, barbled bottom-feeders. They fight like a wet sock and feel like one too; so why would anyone target these creatures who regularly defecate on the angler who catches them? For us the answer is that they feed aggressively all year long and inhabit many of our artificial reef systems close to home ports. In other words, it’s often the only option for those tired of couch sailing.

Did I mention that they taste pretty good too?

Ling in the New Year by bouncing some clam baits aboard local vessels and shed some winter pounds. There are a few faithful, straight six-pack charters that stick out the winter wasteland, barring a harbor freeze; a host of party boats will still bob at January and February docks. Calling the numbers in the reports section and getting an updated sailing schedule should be your first move before packing up to sling some ling.  Getting there and staying warm is half the battle. Tips, techniques and terminal are the other pieces of the puzzle.

2019 1 A Winter Ling Thing PILE O LING
Ling cutlets are white, creamy and excellent for pan frying, broiling or baking, even sautéing for use in fish tacos. If you plan on freezing for later consumption this winter, place a paper towel along the seal of your vacuum sealer to catch the liquid being sucked out of the meat between the fillets.

Haking Up Some Rigs

To take red hake a simple high/low rig tied on 50-pound mono with smaller size 2 to 4 baitholder hooks is all you need. Hang-ups in ling-infested structure are common so carry at least six rigs on a trip. We laugh about starting the trip out with freshly tied, perfect rigs and then using what we refer to as “end of the day” rigs that are basically Frankenstein combinations of all the broken and frayed terminal.

Ling don’t pull hard, nor are they leader shy. Ballast your basic rig with a 6- to 16-ounce bank sinker depending on time and tide, and you are ready to lower this down with conventional tackle. Spool with either 50-pound braid or 30-pound monofilament. Beginners are advised to use mono, which is easier to free from snags and easier on your cold fingers.

I sincerely hope you have kept all the mangled pink and chartreuse Gulp! that you used during fluke season. Each swimming mullet that gets its tail removed by a little snapper bluefish is placed into a bag for ling fishing. I’ll throw a Gulp! chunk on the hook before lancing a clam tongue and some clam strands, which serves a two-fold purpose. One, it ensures a tasty morsel is on the hook when bait-stealers are present and, two, it provides a bit of color to the offering down in the turbid darkness 150 feet below.

Remember to repurpose those Gulps next season, and if you failed to do so this past year you can also try a small glow bead in front of the hook. Ling like bling.

2019 1 A Winter Ling Thing BILLY WATSON
Billy Watson of Lansdale, PA holds the New Jersey state and IGFA certified world record red hake (ling), a 12-pound, 13-ounce monster caught in February of 2010 while fishing approximately 20 miles ESE of Manasquan Inlet at the Mud Hole aboard the Jamaica II. Photo courtesy of Billy Watson.

The Ling Bounce

When I ling fish I see two major problems that prevent new anglers from catching. The first has to do with proper contact with the bottom. When the sinker hits the bottom, the angler must maintain a tight line without letting out too much slack or without raising the sinker off the bottom unnaturally. When the boat rises with a wave, you lower the rod; when the boat drops down into a wave you raise the rod. I keep a finger on the line for added sensitivity. Too much slack and the sinker will roll around into the wreck and become stuck in seconds. If the line is too tight raising the bait off the bottom, the ling will ignore it. Strike that balance and you will catch more than the person next to you. I promise.

2019 1 A Winter Ling Thing Astin
The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has seriously ramped up artificial reef activities in recent years, with structure like the newly deposited Austin awaiting winter bottom bouncers. Photo by Chris Lido

The second major mistake happens when anglers eventually get stuck in the wreck. Instead of trying to free the rig with a steady pull, which only serves to dig the hook or sinker in deeper, a good wreck angler should learn how to bounce the sinker and rig out of the wreck. Good mates and sharpies have about a 90 percent success rate in freeing snags with this method. You just have to remember to bounce it (think of a bouncing a ball up and down versus a game of tug of war).

The bounce is also a ling thing when it comes to presentation. If the bite is slow, give the sinker a few inch-high bounces on the bottom and stir up puffs of mud and debris, wavering that bait in front of their barbels. Then wait 20 seconds, feeling for a strike. Repeat and repeat again until that tell-tale tap has you swinging skyward with the bending rod and cranking up your lowly but delicious prize.

Most if not all the ling that you catch will come up “bent,” a diving term, meaning that the pressure of ascending to the surface quickly causes gases to expand (barotrauma) and in short- they die. Any ling caught should be quickly put into an ice bath, and as mentioned, protective clothing in the form of oil skins should be worn in case of piscatorial incontinence on the part of the messy, slimy ling and clam snot used to catch them.

Ling cutlets are white, creamy and excellent for pan frying, after breading. Baking is also a salivating way to prepare them. I have had success freezing in vacuum sealing bags of ling, but only after putting a paper towel along the seal to catch the liquid being sucked out of the meat between the fillets. This tactic is to be used only in times of great abundance as there is nothing quite like fresh ling tacos.I hope you all get a change to ling in a bunch of fish this winter, so get off the couch and pass the red hake hot sauce please!

  • Oil skins, aka foul weather gear
  • Deck boots with warm socks
  • Cooler with ice
  • 50-pound coffee can full of bank sinkers (6 to 16 ounces)
  • Conventional tackle suitable for fluke/striped bass
  • 50-pound Thermos full of coffee

Well, that is a lot of coffee.  But plenty of hot soup, coffee or cocoa will go a long way on the winter fishing grounds.  Many boats have hot offerings in the onboard galley; and while there aren’t many left, a party boat with a heated handrail is awesome for January wreckfishing.  Find yourself a knowledgeable captain and crew who really know the local wrecks and reefs, and bring along a voracious appetite for tasty cod-like creatures.