Big, heavy lead eye flies, thirty foot sections of T-14 that are impossible to cast, 10-12 wt fast action rods, choppy water, heavy wind and deep, rocky, current swept environments that will test your skills and eat your tackle. To say that this fishery is a challenge would be an understatement. In fact, tell most any angler that you are targeting lings on a fly rod and all you will get is a look of bewilderment. I have heard all sorts of responses from “those fish come to the surface for a fly?!?”, to “you f*king out of your mind boy?”. However there are a few in the know who will grin and nod, knowing full well what you are getting yourself into. Good luck getting more than that out of them.
So why fly fish for lingcod? The answer is simple.
Lingcod are biters, period.
From the moment it is born a baby lingcod is a cold blooded killing machine, eating anything and everything it can get its jaws around. And even if it can’t, you can bet it will try! Recently I had a customer come into Outdoor Emporium and tell me a story from opening day of ling season. He hooked a keeper size ling and had just gotten it close to the boat. He was about to net it when out of nowhere a lingcod twice the size inhaled the smaller ling, refusing to let go. The larger fish was so stubborn that the angler was able to net it and remove the smaller one from its mouth. He weighed and released it, a whopping 32lbs, while the “bait” at a modest 27″ was taken home and made into another kind of meal!
A story like this is enough to spark my intrigue. Hear enough of them (there are many) and it is hard to imagine why anyone would shrug off a chance to pursue these fish with a fly.
Never seen a lingcod? Picture a sculpin. Yeah, like the ones you have in your fly box but never fish because they are “too big,” for trout. Now imagine that sculpin is over two feet long and has a mouth the size of a volleyball filled with razor sharp teeth. Word of advice, if you manage to catch one, don’t put your fingers in its mouth to remove the hook!
Lingcod are not selective, and they are definitely not shy. They will eat just about any big nasty fly that you can put in front of them, but therein lies the challenge. As in all aspects of fly fishing, presentation is the key to success.
Imagine drifting over a piece of structure 20-50 feet below the boat and trying to hurl an 8″ fly attatched to 40lb test and a 30 foot piece of tungsten core line, then give it time to sink to the bottom and work it in front of a fish before the current carries you away from the zone. Now factor in wind, which is almost always working against you, omnipresent chop rocking the boat and the feeling in the back of your mind that at some point those extra large lead eyes you lashed to that 5/0 jig hook are going to find themselves imbedded in the back of your skull.
Cold blooded killers.
I said it once and I’ll say it again! This is why we are here.
It is a beautiful evening on Seattle’s Elliott bay. Across the glass calm water the city skyline is glowing red and orange in reflection of the sunset. I’ve mapped the structure, made the cast, set the drift and counted my fly down. All without giving myself a bunny fur lobotomy!
I know I’m down. I can feel my fly scrubbing against rocks every so often as I work it in with short strips. I feel a jolt, then big, heavy head shakes. I set the hook hard and hold on to the line. My drag is cranked down to the max and the rod is doubled, tip digging into the water as the fish dives for sanctuary impossibly peeling line of my reel. The fight is on and this fish is no slouch! I crank hard and hold my ground, knowing that giving even an inch will allow the angry and panicked ling to find sanctuary in some dark hole.
The brute strength of these fish is impressive. They will test rods and reels designed for much larger and more gloried game fish. Chasing them, especially the larger specimens is as addictive as tying the flies needed for pursuing them. As I feel the fish surge and pull with all of its might I know for sure that we are both firmly hooked!
Some people would wet their pants to see a 20″ trout rise slowly to slurp their meticulously tied size 20 blue wing olive from a glass calm surface, some get tingles from the sight of a tailing bone inching ever closer to their carefully presented shrimp puff and there are a select few who revel in the thought of that moment between sky and earth when their line is swinging across the current, interrupted by a big tug and a chrome rocket shooting out of the water. I will not turn my nose up at any one of these experiences, and I will openly welcome anything new that comes my way.
Contrary to what many would like you to believe, fly fishing is not a purist sport and can’t be defined by any one moment, feeling or pursuit. There are no rules, only limitations that challenge us to hone our skills and refine our technique. The further we push the envelope, the more we learn about the sport and ourselves. Get out there and give fly fishing for lings a try. When you are connected to the Puget Sound’s baddest fish then you can by all means ask yourself if you are “really” fly fishing.