San Clemente Island is a great spot to target yellowtail, white sea bass and calico bass, but there are plenty of days when those game fish aren’t biting. Lingcod, however, are always around, and surprisingly few people target them, leaving it wide open for us diehards. You can find a couple of sport boats out of Pierpoint Landing and L.A. Harbor Sportfishing that fish for lingcod, but for the most part, the fishery for this bizarre-looking and challenging rockfish has remained virtually untapped.
With their huge eyes and jagged, mismatched teeth, you’ll often hear lingcod referred to as “alien fish.” The color of the fish’s meat is also strange — the flesh is greenish in color. But once cooked up, the meat turns as white as a snowflake and tastes delicious.
“I’d say it’s one of the best-eating fish you can catch off California — not too fishy, and it absorbs flavor well.”
My favorite is lingcod sautéed in sweet butter.
Lincod Tips to Catch More Lingcod
Unlike most rockfish that turn into dead weight after 10 cranks from the bottom, lingcod fight throughout the entire water column, all the way up from the bottom. They are ferocious predators. So much so that lingcod will usually grab onto or “piggyback” on any smaller rockfish that you catch. A lingcod will hold on, trying to chow down on the smaller fish as you crank it up to the surface. Keep a gaff handy because you might get a shot at free-gaffing one of these lings before they jump off and go straight back down like a rock.
I’ve definitely gotten a few strange looks when I tell my clients that we need to fill the bait tank with 200 mackerel before we start fishing for lingcod. While you can catch lingcod on a number of different artificial baits, I prefer the real deal whenever it’s available. The lings devour the mini macks, but so do a range of other species including bigger rockfish, including salmon grouper or red snapper.
“Getting a good bait count is crucial so you don’t run out of bait once you start fishing.”
As you head over to San Clemente Island, time your trip so you arrive a couple of miles from the island in the gray light of early morning. Most of the kelp paddies along the front side of the island, a mile or two away, will be loaded up with small mackerel. When you pull up to the kelp paddies, scan your fish finder for mackerel. The baitfish typically gather between 20 and 100 feet down. Slowly make your way around the kelp and don’t stop until you start marking them.
The best way to catch mackerel is on a sabiki rig. Once you find the bait, designate one guy to unhook and count the mackerel while the rest of the crew goes to town catching baits on the sabikis. Getting a good bait count is crucial so you don’t run out of bait once you start fishing. You don’t want to interrupt a good bite to go find more bait. If you’re set up correctly, you should get a bite every time you drop the sabiki rigs over. If we have five guys in the boat, I want 200 mackerel — or 40 baits per person. On my last trip, we fished with five guys and ended up limiting out on lingcod, the biggest of which weighed in at 42 pounds.
Anchoring and Anchors
You must be proficient at dropping the anchor to catch lingcod or any rockfish for that matter. The size of your boat will dictate how much chain and rode you need. For a 40-foot boat, I use 40 feet of chain and 300 feet of rope. With a 100-foot boat, we’ll use 100 feet of chain and 500 feet of rope, and so on. As far as anchors and lines go, I do not recommend using all chain — it’s hard on your boat and it’s hard on fishing (when you try to scope back). Just make sure you have enough rope/chain that when you anchor, it’s long enough so the anchor lays flat on the bottom and does not hang. If you’re fishing in 200 feet of water, for example, you’ll need at least 300 feet of rope and chain.
Tackle and Rigging Up
For a reel, I prefer Okuma’s Cedros CLD 8-S star drag or lever drag. You don’t want anything too big. Spool your rig up with 60-pound braid and a top shot of 30- or 40-pound mono. I use Vicious fishing line and I like to use a dropper rig on the terminal end. I tie an 8- to 12-ounce torpedo sinker on the bottom of the rig. About 18 inches above the sinker, put a loop in your line, I use a dropper loop. Put another loop in the line about eight inches up from the first loop. Clip one end of each loop very close to the knot so you get a single line hanging out about 8-10 inches. Tie on a 4/0 or 6/0 Mustad wire circle hook. The size of the hook depends on the size of the mackerel, not the fish you’re targeting. You are going to go through a lot of hooks so I don’t see a need to use hooks that cost a $1 to $1.50 a piece. Mustad and many other manufacturers sell hooks that will work just fine and are affordable. Hook a mackerel through the nose on each line and drop it to the bottom.
Mike Thompson, who taught me how to fish San Clemente Island, told me that you need to anchor your boat on the highest part of the rocks to catch bigger fish. If you’d rather drift, make sure to set yourself up so you will pass over the highest part of the rocks. First thing you want to do is figure out which way the current is running so you can get your anglers in position so their fishing lines actually get to the rocks. I like to get the boat up in front of the rock and see which way the wind is blowing. Then I turn on the tracking function on the GPS and I zoom in all the way in so I can see which way the drift is running.
Once you figure out the drift, come back on the rock and set yourself up so you move right across the highest part of the structure. If you’re anchoring, get out in front of the high spot and drop your anchor in the sandier or flatter part of the bottom. If you drop your anchor right on top of the rock, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll never see your anchor again, let alone get the boat to stay over the high part of the rock pile.
Once you’ve anchored, stay there for 10 to 15 minutes to find out which way the boat is going to lay. It’s dependent on current and wind but your compass will tell you exactly which way the boat is laying. If your compass reads 180 degrees straight off of the bow then that’s how you’re laying. Pull your anchor, make sure you drive around the spot and are headed 180 degrees when you run over the rock. Get three or four boat lengths in front of it, depending on the wind and the current, and drop your anchor. Now if you do all of that right, you should be sitting right on top of the spot.
When we finally anchor in the right spot and begin fishing, the first mackerel to hit the bottom should get bit so fast that the angler gets rocked. As soon as the lingcod takes that mackerel, it’s going to head straight back into the rocks, so you have to pull the fish out of there quickly. Hammer your drag down as soon as that bait hits the bottom, and get ready to pull on the fish as hard and fast as you can. Once you get the fish out of the rocks, keep a slow, steady grind on the reel. Don’t pump the rod because lings have a tendency to fall off.
One last thing — when fishing for lings, try not to pull all of the lines out of the water at the same time. The more baits you have on the bottom the better shot you have at increasing the density level of predatory fish, which instinctively makes the lingcod want to bite.
Those of you who are ready to catch some aliens at San Clemente Island, here are some of my favorite spots to target.
- 32.44.112 (lat), 118.82.170 (lon) at 50 fathoms
- 32.44.399 (lat), 118.24.317 (lon) at 40 fathoms
- 32.45.10 (lat), 118.23.77 (lon) at 42 fathoms
About the author: Dave Hansen has been fishing Southern California and San Clemente Island for more than 30 years. He specializes in teaching and guiding clients on their own boats. If you’d like to schedule a trip, visit Captain Dave’s Saltwater Guide Service or give Dave a call at 949-374-0786.
Special thanks to Duane Mellor for the use of his photos.