Captain Hook’s Gallery: Fishing for Baja’s Bacalao
Toothy, tenacious and tasty is a perfect description of the lingcod. Contrary to popular belief, this fish is neither a ‘ling’ nor a ‘cod’, but actually a large member of the Greenling Family that is found between Punta San Carlos in Baja California, and Kodiak Island, Alaska.
They are not abundant south of California’s Point Conception except in a few localities, one of those being within the crisp waters of the Japanese current that cuts along the Pacific coast of northern Baja California.
I’ll always remember the impromptu trip to Ensenada’s Bahia de Todos Santos that I took with an old fishing buddy over a quarter of a century ago. He was trying out his new19’ Lonestar skiff and we had both been itching to get our lines wet in Baja for several months prior to the purchase.
In those days, good nautical facilities around Ensenada were few and far between, so we ended up paying a few dollars to launch at a commercial ramp located in the middle of the industrial port district. Once out on the water, our thoughts turned to acquiring bait and we noticed a sportfisher from Gordo’s Landing pulling away from a small platform that was manned by a lone attendant. We approached the concession and greeted the gentleman with friendly demeanors and broad smiles, only to be abruptly rebuffed when he refused our offer of a ten-dollar bill in exchange for some live anchovies with a brusque “¡No! Estos son sólo para barcos comerciales!” He only sold bait to commercial boats.
We had never bargained on a major glitch of this nature, but before there was a chance to try and strike some sort of bargain, two local sportfishing boats loaded with passengers simultaneously descended upon the small netted podium. The attendant was obviously out gunned, so we quickly took advantage of the opportunity to do him a favor by jumping from our tethered craft and helping him transport net after net of the flailing baitfish to the crews waiting onboard. After the second boat was baited up and had pulled away, I turned to him and extended my hand covered with fish scales holding ten dollars. “Por favor, amigo.” I offered simply.
“O.K., gringo” he said in broken English with a knowing grin. “You guys earn your bait.” He quickly palmed the crumpled bill, stuck it into the pocket of his tattered Levis and then promptly filled our small tank with as many live anchovies as it could safely handle. We were finally on our way.
The only question remaining was ‘on our way’ to where? This was my first time out in a boat in that region that wasn’t being guided by a professional skipper or pangero, and it was years before the development of the kind of sophisticated fish-finding electronics that we enjoy these days. The only obvious objective was to try and find some sort of cover or structure that might hold fish. We headed a few miles out toward Todos Santos Islands and then turned south. It wasn’t long before we were in sight of the myriad of guano-covered pinnacles that intermittently thrust up from the surface between the islands and the tip of the Punta Banda peninsula.
The closer we got, the more we could tell that there was a lot going on; the surface was exploding with activity as seagulls and pelicans dove down from above. We quickly slid up to the edge of the melee and began lobbing fly-lined baits toward the action. WHAM! We both hooked up immediately. Our excitement waned, however, as we brought a couple of frenzied mackerel back to the rail. “Jeeeeez! It’s a friggin’ mac-attack!” my buddy proclaimed in disgust. I was likewise disappointed, but was but was also happy that the ‘skunk’ was taken off the boat on our first stop.
After a few more mackerel, we casually decided to clip on a few ounces of weight and see what was on the bottom, which turned out to be a wise choice. Not only were both of our anchovies inhaled by something hungry within seconds of reaching the bottom, but these fish were obviously much bigger than the pound and a half mackerel that we had been catching. After a spirited fight, we cranked up a couple of long, vicious, blue-green monsters from the turquoise depths. “LINGCOD!” we exclaimed joyfully, practically in unison.
As the day progressed, my friend and I continued to catch lings between 4 to 8 pounds until we were practically ashamed of ourselves. With a cooler full of fresh lingcod, we headed happily back to port. Later that evening, a successful fishing trip turned into unadulterated delight at the dinner table as we enjoyed a magnificent meal of mild, flaky fish fillets that had been baked in lemon butter and garlic with a pinch of dried tarragon. Somehow, the boneless fillets of those big, nasty lingcod had been magically transformed into one of the tastiest fish dinners that we had eaten for a long time.
Lingcod (Ophiodon elongates) occur most abundantly at depths ranging around 350 feet, but will often go into even deeper water; a few having been caught as deep as 2,700 feet. Spawning occurs in January and February where the female lays 150 000-500 000 eggs then leaves immediately, the male then takes up the role of guardian. Adult lingcod prey on a variety of fish and have been known to be cannibalistic.
Young lingcod feed primarily on shrimp and other small crustaceans until they are big enough to ambush live fish. Nearly all of these fish reach maturity by 4 years of age, when they usually measure 26 inches or more. Lingcod are easily caught on conventional bottom rigs using anchovies, cut squid or chunks of mackerel. Live bait is generally more successful than dead bait, and dead bait is often more effective than metal jigs.
Having said that, it is a known fact that some of the largest lingcod ever taken have ended up being caught on heavy, chrome plated jigs once referred to as ‘bottom bouncers’. More recently designed, jointed ‘Action Lures’ can sometimes be even more effective in this application. One suggestion when using these types of lures to pursue lingcod is to tip the large hook at the terminal end with a whole, small squid and then drop the rig all the way to the bottom. Rapidly reel up 10 to 12 cranks, disengage the reel and drop the jig to the bottom again. Repeat this process several times as you drift along over deep, rocky structure.
Often referred to as ‘bacalao’ in Baja Norte, lingcod works well in most recipes from Spain that employ dried Atlantic cod, and it rivals its European counterpart in practically every respect. Here is a recipe that imparts a Mediterranean flair to help show off the delicious versatility of this locally available species.
1 Tbsp Extra Virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 cup green olives, pitted and halved
2 Tbsp grated orange zest
2 medium navel oranges, peeled, segmented, membranes removed
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes, undrained
3 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 lbs lingcod or rockcod fillets, cut into 2-inch pieces
1/4 cup of fresh basil, chopped, or 1 Tbsp dried basil
METHOD (Makes 4 to 6 servings).: Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and then sauté for 5 minutes, or until softened. Add the olives, orange zest, orange segments, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the fish to the pan. Spoon the sauce over the fish, then cover and cook for an additional 7 minutes, or until the fish is cooked enough to flake with a fork. Sprinkle with basil and serve.
It might be true that bottom fishing may not be quite as exciting as fishing a hot surface bite for yellowtail, tuna or wahoo, but it is satisfying to know that when you are targeting lingcod, by the time the Baja sun sinks slowly past the horizon you can still be rewarded with one final, jarring strike, a fervent battle …and an incredibly delicious dinner!
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