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June 28, 2012

SoCal Lingcod Primer

The fearsome lingcod dominates deep reefs and wrecks off Southern California

Dragon Traps
Among the deep reefs of the Channel Islands where Capt. Bacon fishes, small rockfish stay on the menu year-round. This leads to a unique technique. When one of his guest anglers hooks a small rockfish, Bacon likes to let it ride. “Don’t reel it in,” he instructs. “You’ve just got yourself a bigger bait.”

A hungry ling will pounce on a small, struggling rockfish like a dragon on a lamb tied to a stake. Sometimes, however, the rockfish is hooked so deeply that you can’t get the hook into the lingcod. But it doesn’t matter. A tenacious ling might refuse to release a meal, keeping its teeth buried in the rockfish while the angler reels it to the surface and lands it.

A lively Pacific mackerel is another top bait, and many anglers believe the bigger the mackerel, the bigger the lingcod. Yet getting the hook into a ling can be a challenge, so Carino encourages anglers to trap‑rig big mackerel with a single 6/0 to 9/0 hook crosswise through the nose and a 1/0 to 3/0 treble for the trap hook, with just one of the hooks pinned under the skin near the anal fin. “Most of the lings we land this way are hooked by the back treble only,” he reveals.

When fishing the smaller sand dabs, trap hooks are not as critical, but hook placement is often unconventional. Bacon pins a 3/0 to 4/0 hook under its skin along the lateral line in the middle of its dark side. “This keeps the dab horizontal with the white side down and the dark side up, which is natural,” he explains.

Carino doesn’t encourage the use of artificials, but Bacon likes to work heavy jigs and soft plastics for island lings. He has developed his own lure called the LingSlayer, which he kept secret as a charter captain but now sells in his Santa Barbara tackle store, Hook, Line ’n Sinker.

Consisting of a Hopkins spoon mated to a lead-head with a soft-plastic tail, the LingSlayer attracts lings with the flash of the spoon. Bacon believes that the spoon and lead-head clacking together also get a ling’s attention. “It probably irritates him more than anything else, and he eats it just to be rid of it,” he says. “I don’t care why they hit it, as long as it works.”

Reaction Game
Once bit, you usually win or lose in the first 10 seconds of the fight. Near structure, lingcod have home-field ­advantage, and the power to drive back into the jagged rocks or wreck. This is also why it is important to fish as vertically as possible. Pulling straight up versus across structure decreases a lingcod’s avenues of escape.

“Apply maximum pressure with a tight drag until the ling is out of the structure, then you can relax and reel the fish up,” says Bacon.

Carino agrees. “Most big fish are lost within the first few feet,” he says. “You either pull the fish away from the bottom, or the fish cuts you off in the structure. After you get him 10 to 15 feet up, then baby the fish. Reel steadily and don’t pull too hard.” Carino has seen many fish lost because the angler pulled too hard once it was out of the structure.

Finesse plays no part in gearing up for lingcod. Both skippers recommend coated braided line ranging from 65- to 80-pound-test. Braid brings to the game abrasion resistance and zero stretch. You feel the bite. The ling can’t stretch you out. And braid stands up well to encrusted rocks and rows of nasty teeth.

Lingcod are not line shy, according to Carino, who sometimes uses a two-foot 40- to 60-pound-test monofilament leader. “I would use a heavier leader,” he says, “but if you snag the bottom, you’d have a tough time breaking it off.”

Bacon, on the other hand, avoids a leader, preferring straight braid. “I want that abrasion resistance all the way to the hook,” he explains.

Both skippers agree on the terminal setup — a hook or trap rig fished on a 10-inch-long dropper loop above 28- to 30-inch leader with a torpedo sinker. The weight of the torpedo sinker depends on water depth, drift rate and current strength, but ranges from 5 to 20 ounces.

Heavy rigs and big fish call for stout rods, such as a CalStar Grafighter 800M, Seeker 270-8H or Penn Bluewater Carnage 800M. “I think these longer rods give you a broader sweep to lift a ling out of the structure, especially when fishing with braided line,” Carino explains.

With thin-diameter lines, the smaller breed of saltwater conventional reels works great for this fishing, but a high-retrieve ratio helps you gather line back quickly when fishing deep. Two-speed lever-drag reels pay off when muscling a big lingcod. Bacon likes the Penn 16VSX two-speed lever drag, but similar reels such as the Accurate BX2-500 or Okuma Makaira 10II work exceptionally well in this quest.

Ultimately, there are no dragons. Yet in the realm of deep reefs and wrecks of the Pacific, lingcod fill this mythical role with ferocious looks, a bad attitude, a voracious appetite and the heart of a dragon. Go slay ’em.

Locating Lairs
If you’re just getting started in lingcod fishing off Southern California, try researching deep wrecks and reefs. There are a number of good sources for finding the coordinates of such spots, with lats/lons you can plug into your GPS to find and fish. Here are a few:

Sportfishing Atlas Southern California
(Point Conception to the Mexican border, including the offshore islands)
By Baja Directions

Between Two and Twenty Fathoms
(Coastal waters from Palos Verdes to
 Newport Beach)

By Capt. Mark Wisch

Fishing Spot Locator
(Point Conception to the Mexican border, including the offshore islands)
By Capt. Frank Grabenstatter

(Six maps covering Point Conception to the Mexican border, including the offshore islands)
By Fish-n-Map Co.

MPA & Other Restrictions
A number of new state-mandated Marine Protected Areas took effect off the Southern California coast and offshore islands in 2012, and most of these areas are closed to fishing.

While the regulations for lingcod change frequently, the current minimum-size limit is 22 inches in the Southern Groundfish Management Area, which stretches from Point Conception to the Mexican border. The daily bag limit is two fish per licensed angler.
This year, lingcod season is March 1 to Dec. 31, with fishing closed from Jan. 1, 2013 to Feb. 28, 2013. In addition, it is illegal to fish in depths greater than 360 feet, or depths greater than 120 feet in Cowcod Conservation areas.

To learn how you can stay legal in the face of the MPAs and other restrictions, visit