BROOKINGS — Don Stroh dropped a large herring over the side of the boat and let it strut its stuff along the ocean bottom, but when his rod doubled over he had no idea what big bottom-dweller had swallowed his bait.
“We didn’t know what the hell we had on,” says Stroh, 66, of Central Point.
Eventually the enormous head of a big lingcod broke the surface, with all 28 pounds of ugliness eventually flopping into guide Andy Martin’s boat for the catch of the day.
“That was a really good one,” Stroh says. “I got another one 14 pounds, too. It was a good day. It’s been a good year.”
Fishing trips like Stroh’s are putting a big exclamation point on the rebound of the lingcod fishery throughout the West Coast, and most emphatically in Brookings, where the port is in the midst of its best lingcod season since the 1990s when lings were nearly fished into submission.
Already crowned the chinook capital of Oregon coastal ports, Brookings is on track to see a whopping 10,000 lingcod landings in 2015, a level that could catapult it to top-port status for Oregonians’ favorite bottomfish species, as well.
If so, it would be the first such year for Brookings since lingcod stocks have been rebuilt after nearly six years of cutbacks to sport and commercial fishing.
“That’s just unbelievable,” says guide Andy Martin, who captained Stroh’s June 27 trip. “I grew up fishing here, and I’ve never seen it this good.”
With data available only through May, more lingcod have been landed out of Brookings than any other port in Oregon, eclipsing previous lingcod stalwarts Newport and Depoe Bay, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
There is no official lingcod record for Oregon, where they are known to get up to 50 pounds but rarely over 30 pounds, Martin says. They average about 7 pounds, with fish twice that size common, he says.
“Anything over 20 pounds turns heads,” Martin says. “They have such a big head that fish over 20 (pounds) look huge.”
Though rough and ugly on the outside, lingcod’s white and delicate flesh make it one of the most prized, and historically over-fished, species on the West Coast.
Commercial fishermen caught vast numbers of lingcod, often the larger females, while sport-anglers were contributing a good bite, as well. The recreational fishery had no daily limits until 1976, when the limit was set at five fish a day and then dropped down to three two years later.
State and federal fishery managers began aggressive cutbacks in the catch throughout the mid 1990s, yet by 1997 a marine survey concluded that lingcod were fished down to less than 10 percent of its historic abundance.
A provision of the Magnuson Act kicked in, requiring fish managers to rebuild the population within a decade and even ban all fishing if that’s what it takes.
Sport-anglers almost lost lingcod altogether for the 1999 season, and in 2000 the limit was cut to one lingcod between 24 and 34 inches.
As painful as it was, it worked. The regulations began to slowly get liberalized and the overall biomass of lingcod shot up in part because of the critter itself.
Unlike slow-growing stocks such as yelloweye and black rockfish, lingcod grow quickly and can begin breeding as 1-year-old fish. That allows it to rebound much faster than its fellow bottom-dwelling denizens.
Anglers have kept the two-fish daily limit, though the minimum size has dipped back to 22 inches.
Still, it’s not uncommon for those using lead-headed jigs seeking rockfish off the ocean bottom to run into enough lingcod that they keep only the biggest and best.
But that doesn’t mean anglers are back on the path of too many lingcod being a bad thing.
The combined sport and commercial lingcod catch remains around 10 to 12 percent of the federally allowed catch based on lingcod surveys, says Lynn Mattes, project leader at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Marine Program in Newport.
That’s why there is no formal lingcod quota for anglers to reach. The only thing keeping anglers from their lings year-round are fishing closures to protect other non-target species.
Some of the top lingcod catches come in the summer during the region’s ocean salmon-fishing seasons, which are preferred by anglers like Stroh, but who enjoy the change of pace and taste of the lingcod.
“You catch a lot more big ones out of Gold Beach, but you catch more out of Brookings,” Stroh says. “And (Martin) uses live bait. I think that really helps.”