Nearshore Winter Ling Bonanza

Red hake, more commonly called ling, continue to provide hot action right now in the nearshore waters off our coast.

by Milt Rosko

Midwinter is a time of the year when many anglers forego their favorite pastime to enjoy the comfort of a warm home. Little do they realize they're missing out on some fantastic saltwater fishing along the Northeast's long coastline. It's this time of the year when water temperatures drop to the level that red hake, popularly called ling, find their comfort zone.

The temperatures preferred by this bottom feeder range from 39 to 45 degrees, which is mighty cold by any standard. Because of this preference, ling will take up residence during the summer months in the cold offshore depths.

During winter, red hake - and its close cousin the white hake - vacate the depths and move inshore. For it's here that the temperature is comfortable, and there is an abundance of forage on the bottom to satisfy their appetites.

For many years, codfish, pollock and blackfish dominated the winter fishery throughout the Northeast. But extensive overfishing of these species has dropped populations to historic lows, virtually wiping out the fishery in many areas. Indeed, the famed Georges Banks, long known for its huge population of codfish, was closed to commercial fishing to enable the species to make a recovery, which is occurring slowly. Fortunately, the ling population still remains in relatively good shape.

While most private boats are resting comfortably in their cradles on land, often covered with ice and snow, party boats all along the coast sail daily to the inshore grounds where ling reside during winter.

Double-header catches of ling, like this one taken by Wesley Freeburg, are part of the fun of this winter fishery. Photo by Milt Rosko

Bundled up in insulated underwear, several layers of outer clothing and thermal boots, anglers snuggle up to heated handrails. Hot water from the boat's engines is circulated through the rails to keep them warm. Believe me when I say it helps keep numbness from setting in on exposed fingers!

The packets also have heated cabins to which you can retire should you get a chill. Many of the boats have a galley with hot food. Extremely popular on many of the party boats is a specialty of hot clam chowder that the skipper and his crew delight in preparing with their "secret recipes." I've yet to sample a chowder that I didn't like while a few miles from shore on a blustery winter day.

The same basic tackle that you employ while seeking summer flounder or bluefish will work just fine when you are targeting ling. A stiff-action rod measuring 6 1/2 to 7 feet in overall length with a conventional reel loaded with 20- or 30-pound-test monofilament is perfect. Keep in mind that you'll be fishing in depths of 100 feet or more.

Ling feed by sight, although they also have feelers that enable them to distinguish food on the bottom. The feelers look like a pair of streamers just forward and under the pectoral fins. Seldom will they move far off the bottom as they forage. As such, it's important that your rig presents a pair of baits within 18 inches of the bottom. A high-low rig is popular with most ling aficionados, presenting a pair of size 1/0 through 3/0 beak-of-claw style hooks snelled to 12 to 15 inches of leader material.

Most of the party boats supply strips of squid or sea clams as bait. It's important to recognize that the ling has a small mouth, and you should take care not to use too large a piece of bait. I've found it best to cut strips of squid to a maximum of 4 inches long by 1/2-inch wide. With clams, I prefer to use a small piece of clam meat coupled with a piece of the clam's muscle tissue that's 2 or 3 inches long. Ling can easily inhale the small bait, and you'll quickly hook up. Avoid using a gob of bait.

Most ling average from 1 to 3 pounds. On any given day, however, it's common for the pool winner's fish on party boats to weigh 5 or 6 pounds, and some will weigh up to 7 pounds.

There are times when party boat captains will anchor over wrecks, reefs and ledges. On occasion, ling will be spread out over open, sandy bottom, at which time the skipper may elect to drift.

In either situation, anchored or drifting, the key is using sufficient sinker weight to keep your rig right on the bottom, as near perpendicular as possible. Sometimes you'll encounter a strong current, or the boat will be pushed along by a strong wind. Resist the temptation to use a light sinker, as this will cause the rig to balloon off the bottom. I'll often begin with a 6- or 8-ounce sinker, but don't hesitate to move up to a 10-, 12- or 16-ounce weight to ensure holding bottom.

You've got to be alert when ling fishing if you expect to put fish in the cooler. Keeping that line taut and perpendicular is important. As soon as the sinker touches bottom, lock the reel in gear and anticipate a quick strike. When over productive bottom, the fish will strike fast, and it's not unusual for them to clean a squid strip or soft clam bait from the hook in an instant.

A good practice is to keep your rod tip pointed downward while standing at the rail. Hold the line between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand, and as soon as a strike is telegraphed up the line, lift back smartly with the rod tip to set the hook and begin reeling.

The ling is by no means a fighter; if anything, it's lethargic. Should you hook a doubleheader of heavyweights, you'll have your hands full pumping them to the surface and swinging them aboard.

Ling have very delicate white meat, which can spoil easily, even during winter. I always make it a point to carry a cooler with crushed ice, and the fish are promptly unhooked and iced, keeping them in prime condition. At the conclusion of the day, and during the trip back to port, the deckhands on most packets are available to fillet and skin your catch.

I would strongly recommend that you avail yourself of this service, as they pack the fillets in plastic bags, and you can put them right back on ice, ensuring that the fish arrive home in prime condition.

Now we get to the finest aspect of a day on the water. Not only have you gotten out of the house and enjoyed the fresh ocean breezes on a brisk day on the water, but you also have the makings of as fine a fish dinner as you can imagine.

My wife, June, likes to dip the fillets in Eggbeaters, which is especially good for those who watch their cholesterol. She finds the Eggbeaters stick to the fish better than eggs. Then dip them in Italian-style flavored breadcrumbs. June uses Canola oil, which has only 1 gram of fat

per tablespoon, and she uses just a nominal amount in the frying pan. Take care to avoid frying the fish too long, just long enough to achieve a golden-brown color. Serve them with a garden salad, broccoli or cauliflower, with some mashed potatoes, and you have a winter treat fit for a king.

Ling freeze nicely, and I always use my Food Saver vacuum-bagger to vacuum-pack any surplus that we may not use in a couple of days. This system enables me to freeze the fish and keep it free of freezer burn; processed this way, your catch will retain its taste for upwards of a year or more. Believe me, it's the way to go, as the fish always taste like they were caught that day.

Another fine recipe for ling is June's fish cakes. She cuts cubes 2 inches square from big ling fillets and steams them for just a couple of minutes so they flake easily with a fork. She then sautÂŽs diced onion and bell pepper until it caramelizes, and she mixes it with mashed potatoes, with an equal part of potatoes and fish, and salt and pepper to taste. Add Eggbeaters to the mixture to give it consistency, which helps hold the fish cake together.

June then uses a 1/4-cup plastic measuring cup to dip out the mixture. She holds the handle of the measuring cup in her right hand and slaps the mixture into the palm of her left hand, permitting a neat fish patty to exit from the cup. They may be fried plain, or you can dip them in cracker meal, corn meal or flavored breadcrumbs for an absolutely delicious fish cake. The ling are so mild that there's no trace of a "fishy taste" whatsoever.

After a winter day on the water, with a dinner of June's favorite ling recipes on returning home, I'm duty-bound to admit that it's not long after I sit in the recliner that I'm in slumber land!

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