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Ling on!

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ROOKINGS — When late fall weather provided a respite from the winds and waves that can plague the Oregon Coast, Mike VanCamp of Brookings knew exactly where to go.

VanCamp hopped aboard Capt. Andy Martin’s boat, the Miss Brooke, and headed out to catch lingcod — not in deep water but in shallow waters closer to shore where lingcod are congregating for winter.

Leave summer to the tourists. Locals such as VanCamp know that late fall and winter is when the lings are the things.

“I like it better in the fall and winter, for sure,” VanCamp says.

“I went out on opening day in January and it was insanely good,” VanCamp says. “I could barely get a rockfish because of all the lingcod. That’s when you’re going to get days like that.”

Late fall and winter can be some of the best times to fish for the best-fighting and best-tasting of the bottomfish species in the ocean, with the friendly confines of Brookings likely the best Pacific Northwest port to pull that off.

While the majority of the lingcod poundage — a full one-fourth of Brookings’ total lingcod catch, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife — is caught in March during the heat of the spawn, near-shore fishing is heating up now.

Shrimp flies, large jigs and even frozen herring can scare up lings that have moved near shore in preparation for the winter spawn, so finding them in shallow water and catching them with lighter spinning gear can conspire for a fun and productive day on the water between storm fronts.

“You can catch them in as little as 15 feet of water, and when it’s calm you can fish them right around these rocks,” says Martin, as he drifts the Miss Brooke amid the rocks and kelp around Arch Rock about 17 miles north of the Port of Brookings-Harbor.

“It’s good now, and it’s only going to get better and better,” Martin says.

And Brookings may be the best place to do it.

Because of its protected location from wind and waves, the Chetco River bar is the safest for small-craft ocean crossings in the Pacific Northwest.

“We have more days, according to the Coast Guard, that you can cross the Chetco River bar than any other bar in Oregon and Washington,” Martin says.

At one time, that wasn’t such a good thing for lings. Lingcod historically were a top target of sport and commercial ocean anglers who fished them to near-extinction.

A 1997 marine survey concluded that lingcod were fished down to just 9 percent of the pre-fishing population. That triggered a requirement for the federal government under the Magnuson Act to rebuild the stock, even if the fishery needed to be shut down to do it.

In 1999, anglers lost almost the entire lingcod season. The low point came in 2000, when the limit dropped from two a day to one with a slot limit, requiring release of all lings under 24 inches and over 34 inches. But it was the only year-round lingcod fishery on the West Coast.

The restrictions dropped the harvest by at least 20 percent. And with good ocean conditions, the fast-growing lingcod rebounded and then some.

In 2003, the limit was back up to two a day longer than 24 inches. In 2006, lingcod were officially considered “rebuilt,” creating a great marine success story.

Some ocean anglers have argued that winter lingcod fishing threatens that success because that’s when lings are at their most vulnerable. Big males guard egg nests from predators, and catching those fish threatens survival of that year’s brood.

But the data doesn’t support that assertion, according to ODFW.

Overall, the total allowable catch numbers have been low enough to allow lingcod to survive and reproduce “even with fishing in the winter period,” says Maggie Sommer, ODFW’s marine program manager in Newport.

“Oregon’s lingcod population has been on an increasing trajectory since its low point in the mid-1990s, and that has happened with continued winter fishing, Sommer says.

“So far, it appears that’s not a problem for the population’s health, and it appears to be something we can safely continue to do,” Sommer says.

And that’s plenty good for Jake Clary.

Clary, of Napa, California, caught a 14-pound lingcod in an all-too-familiar series of events.

“I thought I had it snagged, for sure,” Clary says. “Then it started jerking all around.”

Most time of year, lingcod are incidental yet much appreciated incidental catches for those jigging for rockfish. Rockfish bites are less frantic, and often those hooking smaller rockfish will reel them up slowly to try and entice a ling to eat the rockfish.

“When we catch them like that, we call them hitchikers,” Martin says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwriterFreeman.

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