Known as lemonfish in Louisiana and cobia through most of the rest of their range, ling will also be found in our waters in summer and fall, but one of the best times to catch them, both in numbers and in size, is usually in the period from April into June.
In the Florida panhandle, mass migrations of ling are annual events, with the fish ranging close enough to shore for pier anglers capable of a long cast to specialize in catching them. Small boats carrying outlandish looking towers to spot the schools in the clear Florida water work just off the beach. The ling are often found following giant manta rays looking for an easy meal stirred up from the bottom by the ray's powerful wing strokes. On the upper Texas coast, we may have just as many transient ling, but they stay farther out, the water is usually less transparent, and there are very few mantas to follow around. Our first ling will usually be found around oil rigs and buoys. Early ling seem less sophisticated than they will be later in the year, and may not be as frustrating to the angler bent on hooking these brown battlers.
Although ling are caught on occasion by bottom fishermen, most often they are easily spotted while swimming just under the surface. Catching them is a simple sight casting presentation. This adds to both the excitement and angst of ling fishing. Anything but shy, a ling prowling anywhere in the vicinity will swim up to an arriving boat and circle it curiously. Novice fishermen often mistake them for sharks in the water, since their shape and coloration is very similar to a stocky bull shark. Spring ling might even grab the first bait presented - which is something they aren't likely to do later on. Ling are infamous for ignoring perfectly edible baits - often nudging them aside with their snouts - while driving frenzied anglers crazy.
While nothing in offshore fishing is guaranteed - other than adventure - some proven techniques can improve your odds of a hookup, whether in April or the "dog" days of August.
Normally, bait and its presentation are the keys to getting a ling's attention. Live bait is number one on the list, no contest. Many times I've watched a previously lethargic ling that had ignored several varieties of dead baits and lures attack a live bait, as though the ling suddenly remembered that it was actually starved. Piggie perch, or pinfish, and various small grunts and jacks that can be caught around offshore rigs on light tackle with small bits of bait are a good choice, and I've gotten results at times with live mullet brought from shore. Some veteran ling chasers swear by live hardhead catfish with the fins snipped off.
If live bait is unavailable, lures may be the next best thing. Brightly colored jigs tipped with a piece of squid or other bait often draw strikes, and I've seen ling hit large plugs cast and worked on the surface. Soft plastics like large twist-tail grubs work with or without a jig head, depending on the circumstances. The largest ling I've personally hooked took a whole threadfin herring fished behind a bright pink Sea Witch type lure, but he made me work for the strike. As they often do, he swam all around the bait and bumped it with his nose a few times. I jigged it slowly, letting it drift back from the boat in the current, and when it was almost out of sight, he took it. A "drop back" like this is a good trick to try when the lure is getting attention, but no bites. Unfortunately for me, this 50-pound class fish was hooked on a rod fishing 20-pound test line. When the light line stuck between a roller guide and its frame just as the fish was nearing gaffing distance, a break off occurred. I have seen two ling hooked trolling - the first on a Russel Lure in open water over the Middle Banks out of Freeport. The second hit a hot pink feather jig with a bright red twist tail grub trailer just off the corner of an oil rig. If catching a ling is a high priority, you'll be wasting diesel trolling for them.
If dead bait is the only weapon in your arsenal, don't give up. Chumming will hold ling around the boat, and sometimes work up their appetite. Several years ago I had a charter on a very slow fishing day. As we circled a rig to the west of Freeport, however, 5 ling swam out to meet us. I had no lures on the boat, and no light tackle to jig up a live bait. Using whole threadfin herring, we eventually hooked 4 of the 5, and landed 3 of those. The first fish hit a red and yellow jig with a herring attached, the rest took naked baits. The trick was to keep chumming with chunks of herring, and keep baits in front of the fish, twitching and drifting in the current. Many times attaching the lure or bait directly to the monofilament main line without a leader or swivel will help to tempt a wary ling. I keep a designated "Ling rod" on my boat with a reel spooling 50# mono for when a crafty cobia decides to be picky. Several times I have seen ling that were hooked and lost on the surface, or simply spooked by too much activity, go deep and take a bait meant for red snapper fished on or near the bottom.
Ling might be found as close in as the channel buoys just past the jetties, and a would be cobia collector should always check offshore buoys, weedlines, floating debris, and rigs. Don't neglect the single stem platforms - they are excellent ling hang outs. Old-timers swear by a technique of slapping the water with a paddle for attracting ling. While I've never used this technique, I can attest to the ling's natural curiosity to noise, and a circling engine will usually bring them out. Tying up to a rig and chumming will also bring up unseen ling.
Ling are strong fighters, but sometimes act as if they don't realize they are hooked, and swim straight to the boat. Gaffing a big ling that is still "green" is an excellent way to get a boat cockpit wrecked, because they are hard fighters out of the water, also. When you have a ling that comes to the boat without a big fight, you need to play it long enough to make sure that you use up all of its energy before sinking the gaff.
The last two years have seen excellent early season ling action, including a new state record and several others approaching the 100 pound mark. Spring ling will be found in groups - sometimes ten or more - more often than later in the year, when the lure of culling shrimp boats and sportfishing pressure will have them scattered.
One of the best eating of all Gulf sportfish, ling are always a welcome catch. Cut into steaks and grilled outdoors, a big ling can be the perfect centerpiece for a springtime cookout. During this time of the year, they can be the prime target of an offshore trip for fishermen who are aware of the habits of their quarry and the tactics that work best to fool him.
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