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Washington's Fresh Water Cod

Washington's Fresh Water Cod Washington's Fresh Water Cod

When an angler talks about bizarre or obscure fish in Washington, they are usually referring to those fish that live in the salt water. Exotic species like cabezon, wolf eel, and of course everyone’s favorite – the rat fish, come to mind. But there are also strange and wonderful fish to be found in the fresh water environments. The fresh water ling, also known as burbot, is one of those strange and obscure fish. Seldom targeted by anglers, the ling is a mystery to most fishermen. Fresh water lings live in several lakes in Washington. Little is known about them and even less is written. They are a fish of chance, not often encountered by few except local fishermen. I knew little about lings when I spoke with guide Anton Jones about the ling fishery in Lake Chelan. I did know they lived in deep lakes and stayed on the bottom, feeding on whatever was down there for them to eat. I’d seen pictures – the coloring bearing a striking resemblance to their saltwater namesakes, lacking only the ferocious set of teeth. I’d also read that they tasted among the best of fresh water fish. "Poor Man’s Lobster" was a phrase I’d seen on more than one occasion.

So what’s a curious angler to do? I talked Anton into taking me out to target these mystery fish and see if I could bring a few Poor Man’s Lobster home to eat. The drive from Redmond to Chelan was uneventful, the roads clear and dry. I arrived at Anton’s home and we talked strategy. Anton and a friend, Don, had been out early evening and dropped two "set lines". These lines are about eight feet long and have up to five separate hooks on them. They are held to the bottom with weights at either end. A float marks the location for later pickup. The hooks can be baited with either worms, herring, or chicken livers. Probably there are other tasty treats that lings will eat but these are the main baits I’d heard of. Anton had baited them with herring chunks. The morning was sunny with frost lining the windows of our trucks. When we arrived at the marina, Anton warmed up his 24 foot Bayliner. Soon the heat from his twin stove burners had warmed the cabin up to a toasty temperature. A quick run north to Mill Bay and we pulled the lines to see what had feasted on the herring 150 feet below. Line one came up – nothing. I admit I was somewhat disappointed. I had visions of the lines weighted down with lings, struggling to break free. The second line offered up my first look at a fresh water ling. A single fish of about 18 inches length wiggled on the line. At first viewing the fish did look like a ling cod – with a few exceptions. Gone was the sharp predator teeth, although the mouth was the same large cavern. The coloring on the body was remarkably similar. So too was the shape. The fish curled into an "S" shape as we removed the hook and set him in the fish cooler. The lines, meanwhile, were hopeless tangled. Note to self: design a better set line for future trips!

Don with a nice Ling caught on a "set line".

With the lines stowed away, we broke out our jigs and began probing the depths. Our gear were jigging rods with open faced reels and no-stretch tuff line. The terminal gear consisted of a one half ounce jig head with a white plastic tail and legs. The hook was tipped with a herring chunk. We fished at depths of 120-190 feet. The lake was dead calm and there was no problem maintaining contact with the bottom.

Perhaps you’ve read a certain magazine that came out lately with a certain article about anglers catching "20-30" of these fish easily. All I can say is, they don’t call it the " * and * Liars Magazine" for nothing. We spent two hours and several locations jigging and came up with nothing. We also saw several other boats jigging and catching – nothing. At 11am, just as Anton and I were about to turn to each other and say "let’s catch some lakers", my rod bent down with the weight of a nice fish. Up came a burbot of about 22 inches. "Looks just like a ling" I commented. My first rod-caught fresh water ling took a bit of work but was worth it. However, the three of us had had enough jigging for one morning. Away went the jigging rods and out came the trolling gear. As much as I enjoyed catching that ling and looked forward to eating it, how can you be on top of a lake that has recently produced two state record lake trout and not target them? The answer is you can’t, at least I can’t! Once again Anton put on a laker seminar for me. We fished until 3pm and brought five nice fish into the boat. The fish ranged from four to six pounds. Four of five fish came off the downrigger he was running, one came off the mid-depth line, and none came off the rigger I was running. The hot lure was a glow Worden's M-2 luminescent chartreuse plug. Anton and I were running the same lure in the same depth range. But I’m not complaining. I know that I can go out and catch these lakers another day. Just another productive day on Lake Chelan! Lings average two to four pounds but can grow quite large - up to 46 inches long! In Washington the record for a ling is 17 pounds, caught by Patrick Bloomer on Palmer Lake, Okanogan county, 1993.

Anton Jones of Darrell and Dad's Family Guide Service - doing what he loves best - "Fish On!"

When I returned home my family and I had a fish fry and let me tell you, the taste of fresh water ling is the same as that of salt water ling. Delicious! I saved a fillet for later to try poached, which is the style that brings out the "Poor Man's Lobster" taste. While doing research for this article I found several good web sites with information on the fresh water ling. Here are some links for you to follow for more information on the only fresh water member of the cod family: Web site from Wisconsin:

Pennsylvania endangered ling article: A fun article from Old England: Great underwater pictures from Canada:

Article is courtesy of Washington Lakes. Visit their web site at for more information about Washington fishing.

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