I had one of my more epic fishing days recently. It was aboard the Sundance with my friend Capt. RJ Waldron, and we were fishing for lingcod and Pacific rockfish. Everyone caught fish, but I was on fire. One of those days you won’t soon forget. Then again, of all the kinds of fishing you can do, bottom fishing in the ocean is the thing I do best. Better than most, I daresay. I was thinking about that day, and I realized so much of what I do is instinctive — I’ve been bottom fishing in one ocean or another since 1974 — so much so that I found it hard to translate what I knew to my fellow anglers. But I’ve thought about it a lot since then, and what follows are my own set of tips, tricks and techniques on how to catch Pacific rockfish, and their nemesis the Pacific lingcod.
Let me say at the outset that if you are in the right spot, it’s hard not to catch rockfish, which are also called rock cod. They are hyper-aggressive and plentiful from Mexico to Alaska. In many ways they are the people’s fish, accessible from shore, kayak or boat. But there are plenty of hard days, and on those days finesse matters. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been high hook on a party boat using these techniques. And while I don’t always catch the most lingcod on board, I almost always catch at least a couple. I am hoping what follows will help you increase your catch.
The Right Spot
Given their name, you can safely assume you need to be over rocks to catch rockfish. Sunken boats or other structure are also great places to look. Any rocks will do. I’ve caught a limit close to shore fishing huge boulders, as well as far offshore fishing an unremarkable rocky bottom. I’ve even caught a few off sandy bottoms, but in those cases I am certain there were boulders nearby. In the East and Gulf, most people will anchor up on a “piece,” as we used to call submerged structure. This rarely happens in the West. Most captains prefer to drift over the rocky area, which is easier than anchoring, but you run through the sweet spot faster.
Rockfish schools also have a habit of relocating every few minutes, making anchoring over a school less effective.
As for depth, various states have various depth restrictions, usually around 300 feet deep tops. The conventional wisdom is that the deeper you go, the bigger the fish. Maybe that’s true in general, but it hasn’t been in my experience. I’ve caught rockfish and lingcod every bit as large off the Farallon Islands, 27 miles offshore, as I have 27 yards offshore fishing in just 30 feet of water. These inside passages among the dramatic rocks of the Pacific Coast are ideal for kayak and small boat anglers, as well as intrepid shore anglers willing to rock hop their way to a good spot.
Another thing to remember is that big rock piles get hit by big boats. A captain with, say 25 anglers on board needs a larger spot to fish than two guys in a skiff. That means there are lots of little rock piles waiting to be discovered.
Some anglers really dig fancy gear. Those anglers are rarely rockfishermen. Fact is, rockfish and lingcod will eat pretty much anything. I have friends who have made lures from wrenches and spoons, and we hear one guy even made one out of an, ahem, marital aid. A bare hook and a strip of squid will do. But, different baits will work differently, and some are better than others when the fish do get finicky.
The standard rig for rockfish is a high-low rig, where the weight is at the bottom with two dropper hooks positioned several inches above. Usually these hooks will have some sort of attractant, like brightly colored ribbons or whatever. My go-to lure for this is the P-Line Farallon Feather, usually in simple white. In some states you can fish with more than two hooks, but usually it’s a two-hook deal. That’s more than enough. I normally fish one hook, and it isn’t a rockfish rig.
Normally I am after lingcod, which are larger and meaner and in some ways tastier than rockfish. Lingcod eat rockfish. This fun fact means that quite often you will be pulling up a nice little rockfish and all of a sudden get taken to the bottom by a big ole’ bucketmouth. That can be a good thing: Reel steadily and many times your hitchhiking lingcod will come all the way to the surface, where you can gaff or net him. Just be very sure to not let his head break the surface of the water or he will release and you will be sad.
To target lings, you want live bait if at all possible. Anchovies in the spring, mackerel in the summer and early fall. A live bait hooked to a regular three-way rig — the kind you use to catch halibut in the bay — is lethal. I recently caught 10 lingcod in one day using this method. The three-way is a triple swivel where one line goes to your main line, one to the weight and one to a long leader of about three feet. Attach to this a hook with a live bait knot, also called a Baja knot. (Here’s how to tie one.) This knot lets the bait fish swim more freely. Here is a link to another excellent knot you can use. And yes, it makes a difference.
If you don’t have live bait, an excellent choice is a swimbait on a big lead-headed jig. Depending on your depth, you will need something anywhere from 2 ounces to 10 ounces. Any swimbait works, but I like the gooey ones with a little fish tail. Scampi tails are good, too. Light blue seems to work great for me, but white and gray work fine, too. Also consider octopus-shaped lures, if only for the reason that the greatest bait for lingcod there is is a dead octopus a previous lingcod threw up. Yep. Nasty, but true. Absolutely money. We fight over octo vomit baits when we see them.
Keep in mind that using a three-way for lingcod will also bring in your limit of rockfish as a side bonus — and they will typically be larger than the schoolie rocks caught on the high-low rig.
One fun rig you can try in shallow water is a favorite of my friend Joe Navari. Attach a torpedo sinker to your main line, then a long leader on the other end. At the end of the leader, tie a smallish (1/2 to 3 ounce) jig head with a grub. Cast out and walk the lure back to you. Can be tons of fun in shallow water where you can play the fish like a freshwater bass.
As for line, you want braid. Period. I started using braided line in the late 1980s and haven’t looked back. It doesn’t stretch, so even at 600 feet (you fish such depths for tilefish on the East Coast) you can still feel the fish — and set the hook effectively. I use 20-pound test, but you could go higher if you felt like it. To this attach a swivel and your terminal rig to that. Always have some monofilament at the business end of your rig. Why? You’re fishing rocks, and you really don’t want 50-pound braid stuck in a hole 100 feet down. Trust me.
I use a rod that has serious backbone, but a sensitive tip; right now it’s an Ugly Stick. You want backbone to hoist fish out of the rocks, but the sensitive tip to feel the first hint of the strike. I love my Okuma Citrix 350 Baitcast Reel. It is unorthodox, but works like a charm. I can cast in shallow water, and with everything so tight and close, I can fish the bottom smoothly; I’ll explain more in a moment. Any solid boat reel will be fine. Avoid spinning gear unless you are in shallow water with light tackle.
Basically you are catching rockfish and lingcod. But there are also lingcod’s little cousin the greenling down there, maybe a California sheepshead, which is a wrasse like the Eastern tautog, or a sculpin — the best of which is the mighty cabezon — or, in the south, the various kelp and sand bass, which are more or less the same deal as the rocks.
As far as the true rockfish are concerned, well… there are a lot of them. More than 70 species, to be exact. (Check out this list from NOAA for details) Not all live in the same waters, so you’ll catch some only in deep water, some only in shallow. Some only live in the south, a few only in Alaska and British Columbia. Some like really rocky caves, some will school over the rocks. Some have really crazy nasty spines, and some have less ferocious spines. But make no mistake, all are spiky little bastards.
Depending on the year, some will be protected. Right now it is the canary rockfish, the cowcod, bronze-spotted rockfish and yelloweye in California. Other states have similar restrictions. Alaska allows one yelloweye a year, which is the awesome fish I am holding to the right. You need to know your species so you don’t come home with a limit of “vermillions” that are actually canaries. That’s a huge fine. The Fish & Wildlife Department gives away little charts. Get one.
OK, so you are outfitted and sitting on your party boat, or your boat or a friend’s, and you are getting ready to fish. First, when the captain, be it you or someone else, is working to steady the boat over the piece, that’s when you get ready to drop. Put a live bait on, or a fresh strip of squid or sea clam. Be ready. As soon as the captain gives the all-clear to fish, drop your line all the way to the bottom. You may notice it flutter a little on the way down: Make a mental note of about where in the water column that happened.
On bottom? Good. Click the bail of the reel to engage it and lift up immediately. There is a very good chance you’ve hooked a fish. Seriously. The biggest mistake newbies make with rockfishing is not being ready for a lightning strike the exact second the bait hits bottom. No fish? No worries. What you want to do now is walk your lead sinker across the rocks. Think about tapping bottom: tap… tap… tap… You will very quickly realize you need to be very active to do this. One moment you will reel up a couple times, another moment you will need to release a few feet of line. This is why I love my low-profile baitcaster — it is so easy to click, release, engage, reel, release, constantly.
Oh no! You’ve hung up. Don’t worry, it is an occupational hazard. Release the bail on the reel and let out a little line so you have slack. Put your thumb on the spool and violently vibrate the rod tip up and down. Engage the reel and see if that got you off the snag. It usually will. But sometimes it won’t, and you will need to re-rig. This is why you don’t want to be donating $10 lures all day to the mermaids.
Remember that flutter on the way down? It may well be suspended black, blue, yellow or olive rockfish. These species will often hang out over the rockpile, and you can lay waste to them if you get the depth right. This is why I reel up slowly. You can often find the school that way, or get an extra fish on your two-hook set-up, or even have a fat lingcod follow you all the way up and hammer your bait just below the surface. It happens. You can also set the bail on the reel when you feel the flutter and jig a little to see if the suspended fish will hit your lure.
If you are new, and find yourself losing a lot of gear, reel up two or three times the moment you hit bottom. This will get you up off the rocks themselves (usually), and will put you more in the realm of the blacks, blues and olives.
When you get a fish, set the hook with some force, but nothing like a largemouth bass angler would. I generally whip the whole rod and reel up about a foot and then start reeling. This gets the fish out of the rocks. Keep pressure on the fish. Rockfish bounce, and all that headshaking can work loose a hook in a heartbeat. Lingcod are different. They can be sneaky. I often feel just slight pressure and then an incredible weight. No strike at all. And ling don’t bounce up and down the way a rockfish will. Always assume it is a hitchhiker, and not actually hooked, so reel up slow and steady and keep pressure on the fish.
If you miss the strike, let out a little line, relax, and jig a few more times. The fish will often return if they haven’t stolen your bait.
Rockfish you can flip over the rail, unless they’re huge. Lingcod need to be netted or gaffed, unless they are obviously short.
Given that there are lots and lots of rockfish out there, both in raw numbers and in species — some of which cannot be taken — releasing fish is a serious deal with rockfishing. Lingcod are fine. Get the hook out of their mouths ASAP and toss them back. Rockfish are different. They, like a small number of other fish, cannot equalize pressure very well and can get the bends. Their eyes bulge out and their stomachs distend out their mouths. Not a pretty sight. What if the fish is teeny? Or it’s a canary or other protected species? You need to plan for a way to release the fish safely.
For the most part, water less than 110 feet deep or so is no problem: Toss the fish back ASAP. This is, incidentally, why I prefer rockfishing in shallow water. I can high-grade without killing fish. But if you do start seeing fish that get the bends, you can do a few things to return them to the depths. My advice is to have a dedicated rod and reel for this purpose. Attach to it the Shelton fish descender, which costs about $6. The link shows you how to use the device to return fish to their proper depth.
A lot of anglers think using a needle or hook to pierce the “swim bladder” of the fish will help. It won’t. That’s not the swim bladder, it is the fish’s stomach. And piercing it can kill the fish through infection.
Another trick you can use in a pinch is to hook the fish through the top of the tail and gently lower it back to the depths. At some point it will get frisky again, and that’s when you set the hook. This will tear the hook free and the fish will escape, with a raggedy tail, sure, but otherwise OK. The state of Washington has a great page on reducing rockfish mortality.
Taking Care of Your Catch
Rockfish and lingcod are generally pretty durable on deck, and the cool, foggy conditions off the California and Pacific Northwest coasts are your friend. That said, you really want some ice. I’ve had pretty lingcod get soft on me when they hung out in a fish box all day with no ice; they were edible, but no longer firm. A soft-sided ice chest is a good option that doesn’t get in the way too much, and if it’s your boat, get that marine cooler and fill it about 1/3 of the way up with ice. A good livewell can work, too.
To fillet or not? Rockfish have big heads, so your yield isn’t ideal. My advice is to scale, gill and gut fish below 2 pounds or so, and fillet the larger ones. Lingcod should be filleted. Be sure to keep some of the carcasses for fish stock, however. Rocks and ling make the best stock for fish soup or a Venetian fish risotto. And don’t forget the the collars and cheeks from truly large rockfish and lings, meaning those over 5 pounds of so. Grilled fish collars with a ling is dynamite.
What if you get a monster, like that yelloweye in the picture above? In that case, you might want to fillet the fish but leave the skin and scales on. That way you can make fish on the half shell the way they do in Louisiana with redfish.
The meat of rockfish and lingcod is white, firm and very lean. Occasionally you will find ling and greenling with turquoise meat, which is caused by an excretion in their bile glands. It does not affect flavor and the meat cooks up white, but it looks trippy. Use in any white fish recipe.
Here are some more rockfish and lingcod recipes to get you started:
- A very simple but tasty fish sandwich
- Baja style fish tacos
- Chinese style sweet and sour fish
- Rockfish, or snapper, with roasted cherry tomatoes