Lingcod are one of the most sought after fish by California divers, and are second only to combined species rockfish, genus Sebastes. Lingcod may be found along the entire state and about six percent of the sport harvest is taken by spearfishers.
The scientific name for lings is Ophiodon elongatus meaning “snake tooth,” and they are the largest member of the greenling family, Hexagrammidae. They should not be confused with unrelated the Atlantic cod. Lingcod feed on juvenile rockfish, squid, and their favorite food appears to be octopus. They lie in wait for an unsuspecting prey to wander too close and then pounce on their dinner with razor sharp teeth.
Lingcod are very territorial and most fish, particularly the males, move around very little. During most of the year there is a segregation of sexes with the smaller males being found in shallow water less than 100 feet deep, while the females are often in water exceeding 100 feet and often to 400 feet. Because of this depth segregation, some 70 percent of all lings taken by divers are males.
This situation changes in November through March when the females move inshore to breed. Eggs are laid in small caves or rocky depressions in 10 to 40 feet of water and are externally fertilized. Soon afterwards the female splits and leaves the male with the role of guardian. Lings are polygamists and a single ling may guard as many as four nests during the seven-week incubation period. This house husband will aggressively protect the egg mass from predators—crabs, and rockfish. Should the male be taken by a spearfisher, the eggs will be rapidly consumed. Most divers consider it very unsportsmanlike to shoot a nest-sitting fish. Each nest contains some 500,000 eggs and shooting the male will compromised the catch in the future.
When hunting lings, look in small holes and for perches on top of rocky outcroppings. Have a little patience and look carefully since the fish blend well into their surroundings. Sometimes a flashlight is helpful to find lings back in holes, and some divers attach the flashlight directly onto the end of their speargun. Should you startle a ling before you get off a shot, stick around the area. Lings are territorial and will usually return to their favorite perch rather quickly.
Some spearfishers have developed some clever ways to attract lings. One technique is to take the butt of your dive knife and bang it on a rock several times. If there is a ling in a near-by hole chances are he will come out to investigate all the clatter. Lings are not known to be particularly intelligent fish.
A heavy, two-banded speargun is recommended for taking big lingcod that can get up to 40 pounds or more. In the summer months, when the smaller fish are inshore, a pole spear or a lighter (rock) gun will do. It is unwise to shoot a big fish with a pole spear. You will probably end up breaking your spear, mortally wounding and losing the fish, and making a group of sea stars very happy.
Lingcod occasionally have a light green or blue color to their fillets. This color is due to their diet and in no way indicates that the fish is bad. In fact, the color always disappears on cooking.
Lings are normally filleted, but the big ones may be steaked. Their flesh is firm and white when cooked and is good fried, baked, poached, or in chowder. One for my favorite ways of preparing ling is to beer-batter and deep fry the fish.