If you catch a fish in the Yukon that looks like nothing you’ve seen before, it’s likely a ling cod.
Ling cod and burbot are the usual names used in the Yukon, but this fish is common in much of Canada and goes by a number of local names, depending where you are catching them.
This is the only fresh-water member of the cod family and, while not as pretty as other Yukon fish, it is truly excellent when included in your menu.
The ling cod looks like no other fish you will find around here. It is dark green with lighter spots, and is eel-like and slippery to hold with its writhing, rather than the flipping and flopping behaviour typical of other fish.
It has a big, wide head with a barbel (single, thick whisker-like appendage) under the chin. It’s all about the front half, with long fins along the top and bottom of the back half, which leads to a round, very thin tail.
These odd-looking fish are available and caught in Yukon waters throughout the year. They are usually an incidental catch most of the year, but they are the target species for hard-water fishing, especially in late March and throughout April.
Late winter to early spring sees these fish spawning in writhing masses called “spawning balls”—they are one of few fish that spawn under the ice. It is during spawning that they are active in the shallows and easiest to catch.
Ling cod can be at any depth, but at spawning time they are under the ice in water as shallow as three feet.
The slippery, eel-like ling cod’s writhing can make it difficult to hold PHOTOS: Larry Leigh
For me, ice-fishing is only enjoyable in late March and April when the sun delivers some warmth, the days are longer and I can get by without wearing gloves. This is ling cod time and I try to put 10 or 12 meals of this fish in the freezer every year.
These are the only Yukon fish you can catch using unattended set-lines, with a Department Environment permit. The regulations make it clear that you can catch ling cod, but must avoid catching other commonly-targeted species such as pike and lake trout.
This means making sure your bait is resting on the bottom, not suspended above. In some lakes, these other species are occasionally caught and must be released unharmed. Be generous with your sinker weight to be certain the bait stays on the bottom.
The barbless hook rules do not apply to set-line fishing, so you can choose whatever tackle you like. However, barbless hooks do work, and make it much easier if you hook one of those must-be-released fish. Barbless circle hooks are a good choice.
The best line to use is an older style braided line like Grandpa used to use, 10-20 lb test. Some modern mono-type lines that are designed for ice-fishing also work well. If using set-lines, a small piece of wood longer than the width of the hole, laid across the hole with the bait down, will prevent the fish from running off with your gear.
Bait your hook with chunks of store-bought herring or smelt, or with fins, tails or chunks of belly from last summer’s lake trout (that you kept in the freezer just for this purpose.)
Even at seven to eight lbs., these fish are not fierce fighters, but you will certainly know when one is on. The biggest problem in landing them is that they often come up the hole bent in a “U” with the head and tail at the surface simultaneously.
In that case grab the fish with your pliers and whip it up onto the ice.
The best technique for dressing these fish sounds a bit unorthodox, but works well. Kill the fish, then drive a nail through the top of the head into a tree or post. With a sharp knife, cut the skin around the fish just below the pectoral fins.
With pliers in each hand, grab the skin on each side of the fish and pull it down and off—like removing a sock.
Cut down either side of the dorsal fin to where the fish suddenly gets skinny. Remove the large backstrap-like piece of firm white meat on each side, then filet off the tail-slab and you are done.
The ling cod may not be the world’s prettiest fish, but it is delicious. You can see for yourself by trying some of the recipes elsewhere in this issue.