Standing atop a frozen lake in Northwestern Ontario, in the dark: that is a long way from sunny California, but that’s where my friend Chris Shaffer found himself this past winter. Shaffer is the Director of Operations for Pautzke Bait, and he flew to Thunder Bay for a few days of ice fishing, Northern Ontario adventure, and to film for Pautzke Outdoors. We had big plans for his trip, and we had an amazing few days on the ice: we spent a day chasing big lakers and had an epic day fishing for stocked brook trout, but the real adventure portion of the trip was a night time outing for a rather interesting creature, Ling.
Whether you call them Ling, Burbot, Eelpout, Lawyers, Mariah, or Lingcod, they are undoubtedly fun to fish for, especially when targeted in the dark of night. They can offer some exciting action, and are a very unique fish, offering anglers something fun and different to mix up the winter. They also happen to make great table fare, as they are a cod like freshwater fish, and can be some of the best fish you can put in a pan.
After a full day catching lake trout, we headed back to our hotel in the small town of Nipigon ON, and took a break for dinner, to thaw out and get dry gear, and then waited for the sun to set. As darkness set in, we geared up and headed to the lake, unloaded the sleds and shelters, and set off into the darkness. We didn’t travel far from shore, and setup in about 20-30 feet of water. We got started drilling holes, rigging lines, setting up shelters, and building an essential component of night time ice fishing-a bonfire to stand around in case the fishing was slow. We didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy it…
We were fishing with brined dead baits, hanging these bright smelly baits on bottom to tempt these prehistoric, nocturnal creatures. We were fishing with smelt, anchovies and herring, (check local regulations-here smelt are banned in many zones). These were brined in Pautzke’s Fire Brine (with a sprinkle of Fire Power Krill scent), which toughens up the bait, and adds colour and scent. To brine these baits, simply break apart the frozen baits, put them in a large, heavy duty ziploc bag, pour enough fire brine in the bag to cover them (usually half a bottle will cover 10-12 herring), and let it sit in the fridge overnight. In 8 hours these baits will be ready to fish, and can be removed from the brine and bagged up for your trip.
We set our lines up with jigging rods on a rod balance, or on tip-ups, sitting the dead bait right on, or just above bottom. To help us pick up on bites in the dark, we added glow sticks and bells to each line, and it wasn’t long before the bells started dinging… and they didn’t stop. Over the next few hours the ling provided us steady action, landing well over a dozen ling; some pushing the ten pound mark, providing some serious entertainment, especially for our southern guest. Ling are a bit of a special creature, and seeing that rather unique face emerge in the darkness, with its eel like body twisting around your arm in the dark of night is certainly an experience.
Ling can be caught all winter long, from first ice to last, and are found in a variety of locations throughout the winter. During the early ice season, Ling tend to be found in deeper water, and are often incidental catches when lake trout fishing. Fishing off of deep points, or on deep drop offs can be a good place to find them, and they’re generally very bottom oriented. They can be caught during the day, but activity generally increases at last light, becoming active all night long.
Ling can be caught on jigs and spoons, but a minnow or dead bait seems to be the real ticket for them. I have seen them chasing jigging spoons on a flasher like a trout, but the majority of my incidental ling catches while trout fishing have been on dead baits, and when specifically targeting Ling, deadbaits rule. You can certainly catch them jigging baits like propeller jigs or spoons tipped with bait, although I’ve never found the need to stray from dead baits for serious results. Often, when fishing deeper water for lake trout or at night for walleye, anglers will catch the odd Ling, and this will give you a good idea where to start looking when specifically targeting Ling. Ling live in many lake trout and walleye lakes, and with a bit of research it shouldn’t be too hard to find somewhere to target them in your area. If you’re exploring new territory, setting out lines late afternoon across a variety of depths is a good start, moving depths until you start catching fish. It shouldn’t take long to find fish, as they are usually quite willing to bite, especially once the sun sets.
As Ling spawn under the ice, sometime between January and March, they tend to move into somewhat shallower water, and can often be found anywhere from 10-40 feet of water. They spawn in the shallows, typically where they have access to nearby deep water; and finding shallow sandy or gravel flats near dropoffs are a good place to start. In one of our go to places we fish come February or March, we move in close to shore, fishing in 20-30 feet of water on a sandy flat, with water dropping down to 50+ feet nearby.
When rigging dead baits for Ling, there are a couple things that work, and my go to rigs are either a quick strike rig, or a single glow in the dark jighead. Something to consider when fishing with dead baits on set lines, is that Ling are likely to get deep hooked, and having multiple trebles can result in fatally hooked fish. If you plan on taking a few of these delicacies home, that’s all ok, but if you want to release a few fish, consider single jigs or quick strike rigs, reducing the risk of deep hooking fish.
The last important point to discuss about Ling fishing is eating Ling. There is a reason people call them poor mans lobster, as they are near a delicacy, and offer excellent table fare. They can be a bit different to clean, with their odd anatomy, but they are definitely worth the effort. Whether you cube and boil it and dip it in butter, or batter and pan fry it, their firm, mild, white flesh is some of the best freshwater fish you will find, and definitely deserves a place on your table.