Keep the line taut at all times, otherwise don’t be surprised if you reel up a couple of empty hooks. It is not unusual for ling to wipe a hook clean in an instant.
Back in the day, March was when open, charter and private boats, as well as shore-bound enthusiasts, would dress up warmly, fill those thermoses with hot java or chocolate, and head for their favorite flounder hot spot. With a healthy flounder fishery all over the Northeast, it wasn’t too difficult to put at least a half dozen flatties in the pail even on the slow days.
Fast-forwarding some 30 plus years, a March flounder fishery was replaced by fishing and boat shows and those never-ending fishing flea markets to carry you through to the arrival of fluke and porgy season. Sadly, the spawning of COVID-19 put a hold on all those events in 2020 and 2021, leaving anglers suffering from severe cabin fever with limited opportunities.
Thankfully, there is no reason to throw in the towel as ling and even some cod have made an outstanding resurgence the past few years and will keep anyone fishing from a sturdy and reliable boat busy at any of the local reefs, wrecks, and rockpiles that litter the ocean floor only a stone’s throw from Sandy Hook to Block Island. Therefore if you are looking for a bailout, you can rely on ling.
Also Called Red Hake
Also known as red hake, ling is a cold-water groundfish that is found along the inshore waters of the south shore from March through June and then again from November to January. Most ling will average between 1 and 3 pounds; however, an occasional fish of 5 or 6 pounds may make its way into the cooler. A ling is easily identified as the body is elongated with two dorsal fins and one long anal fin. Its coloration is variable depending on the bottom of its habitat. For the most part, they are usually reddish and often dark or mottled.
Their migration inshore and offshore is fluctuated by water temperatures preferring temperatures between 40 and 60 degrees. Therefore, during the spring and late fall, the ling will move into the shallow depths within 80 feet of water and move out into the deeper cooler depths during the summer months. Ling are somewhat like scavengers feeding on just about anything they may come across. However, they are known to favor crustaceans.
Ling can be found on just about any wreck or artificial reef from the New York Bight to the waters of Montauk. They are also found along the open bottom, especially during the winter and are often caught as a by-catch by cod fisherman. Additionally they were added to the burlap sacks back when whiting was also abundant.
Location, Location, Location
Although fishing open bottom is easiest, it is relevant to target areas with coverage. Ling will often hide and shelter themselves inside areas of wreckage and will swim out of their cubby holes when there is food available, such as a baited hook with clam or fish bait. All of the reefs that cover the south shore are relatively large and provide just the right refuge to keep the slimy little fellas happy in their never-ending search for food. Oddly though, ling may tightly pack on a particular piece of the reef and barren others. I suggest that when conditions permit (such as a day with a light breeze a slow current) to drift along the outer edges of the structures and pick away at the fish. Take note of the location of larger fish and mark them on the GPS. Some rigs may succumb to the wreckage, however, once you’ve honed in on the target, you can opt to anchor over the fish.
Depending on the location, drifting can be essential, especially fishing on clam and oyster beds or areas of strewn bottom such as mussel beds where ling are usually well spread out. Otherwise, find a piece of potential bottom, drop the hook, and soon enough, the ling will crawl under the boat and see what your offering. Make sure your anchor is in good working shape with 8 to 12 feet of chain and enough fresh and stable nylon anchor rope to hold and move around over the structure. Keep in mind that the productive depth will vary between 40 and 120 feet; therefore, make sure you have enough rope to handle these depths. Since there is always the possibility of an anchor becoming wedged between some wreckage that cannot be disengaged, it would be wise to bring along an extra so your day is not ruined. Lifting the anchor with the aid of an anchor ball would make life a lot easier especially during the new or full moon when lifting the anchor becomes a tough job.
Okay You Got Me
As you will soon find out, ling will hardly put up a fight. In fact, they have earned the name “ocean weakfish” by most party boat skippers. Nevertheless, what they may lack in resistance, they make up in taste with their delicate white flesh. With that said just about any decent outfit will have you reeling. I would suggest a conventional outfit in the 3/0 class which consists of a 6- to 7-foot rod coupled with reels and line rated between 20- and 30-pound class. These outfits are best suited should you decide to drift, and sinkers to 12 ounces may be required to hold the bottom. The same applies when anchoring, particularly in deep water and if a strong current prevails. Additionally, some keeper cod and an occasional big blackfish may wake up and decide to chew down your offering, therefore you’ll appreciate the backbone of the rod. As for rigs, it is paramount to fish tight to the bottom to put a good catch together. A tandem rig snelled to a pair of super sharp 1/0 through 3/0 Gamakatsu Octopus Baitholder hooks would be ideal. If you want to increase your chance at a codfish or two, tie a dropper loop chest-high from the sinker and impale a 5/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook through the loop, baited with some clam or Gulp and you’re ready to go. Sinkers round out the terminal end. Be sure to bring along an ample supply between 4 and 12 ounces.
Easy To Catch, Easy To Bait
There is no science to catching ling. You should drop the rig to the bottom and swing at the first feel of a strike and more than likely; “fish on”. What is vital is to keep that rod in your hands at all times. Believe it or not, ling can be as cunning as any other groundfish. Keep the line taut at all times, otherwise don’t be surprised if you reel up a couple of empty hooks. It is not unusual for ling to wipe a hook clean in an instant.
As for their diet, they don’t have one, which you will soon notice with that big pot belly they carry around. Skimmer clams, squid or any of those scented Gulp Alive baits in the 2- to 4-inch range will all produce. Another option and a sure bet are fish baits, which is anything that is a bycatch to ling such as sea perch, herring, whiting, sea ravens or mackerel. Simply strip down both sides of the species and cut them in 2- or 3-inch strips and apply to the hooks. I’ve never met a ling that refused such bonuses. As for the high hook intended for cod, what’s good enough for the ling will be just as good for the cod.
Handle With Care
The flesh of ling is much softer than many other types of cold-water species and bruises easily. Therefore, make certain to land and handle them carefully. Bleeding the fish with a throat cut, then gutting and packing them on ice as they are caught will assure they will be in prime condition. Take care not to pack too much ice on these fish as their soft bodies can be easily crushed. Providing you vacuum seal your catch for future use, ling makes fine candidates for freezing. The opposite holds true if the fish are not packed airtight. In fact, not only will they freezer burn quickly but their texture becomes increasingly tough and rubbery during frozen storage.
Always Safety First
Even though it’s a short ride to most of the reefs from Shinnecock to the Highlands, your prime concern should always be safety. Make sure to check weather and sea condition reports before heading out. Days when winds are less than 15 knots are desirable which should provide relatively calm seas, especially when the wind is from the north and/or west. Should the weatherman get it wrong and the big fan decides to turn on, unexpectedly, the run back to the inlet from most of the reefs is relatively quick giving you time to head for the barn before those annoying swells begin to build. Keep in mind that the shallow shoals in front of most of the inlets create some challenging breakers particularly during periods of wind against current. Therefore you may want to consider planning your departure out or into the inlet during slack tide when the breakers take a break and calm down.
Aside from the ling, you will probably see a bit of mix. Please keep in mind that blackfish must be returned until April 1st and that cod must be at least 21 inches to go into the cooler. As of right now, there are no restrictions on ling. They may not be any Handsome Harry, nor will they win any tug of war feuds. However, what they lack in looks and strength is surely valued by their outstanding table fare. Best of all, they are only a local reef away. So if spring has you missing those tasty white flaky fillets of flounder, consider the delicacy of the other white meat. Their taste will keep you coming back for more.