Ling: A Cautionary Tale
April marks the beginning of “ling” season in Texas, which is our regional nickname for cobia. The current population of these fish is a red flag, with their population a fraction of what it was 50 years ago. A recent assessment of Gulf stocks shows that it’s down to less than five percent from the 1950s. These days it feels like one percent, but then I don’t fish everywhere. Fewer fish is the main reason we’ve been releasing cobia for a long time, even tagging and releasing 107 during the 1987 season. (Made up of a few big ones and lots of 30-inchers caught when they “go back to school” in September.) Since that year, I’ve had no problem releasing ling of any size.
And hopefully more Gulf anglers will do the same. The Feds and Texas Parks and Wildlife are getting more serious about saving or even rebuilding stocks of ling, with new proposals that will likely go into effect Sept. 1. Twenty years late, in my view.
From the TPW website: “The proposed changes would match federal regulations of a one fish per person, per day bag limit and a vessel limit of two fish per trip, not to exceed the per person bag limit, for the recreational and commercial fisheries. This change is proposed to address declining stocks of cobia in the Gulf of Mexico and to facilitate ease of enforcement with federal regulations.”
Prior to the early 1970s, there was little fishing pressure compared with today. Boats were few, small and slow. You could sign up for a partyboat trip and in the Central Gulf off Mississippi, sometimes bring in a hundred cobia in a single day, fishing around anchored shrimpboats. That was serious ling action we never saw aboard Texas partyboats, which were aimed at red snapper around offshore rocks. At the time, there weren’t many production platforms out there, although those big boats began fishing them later. It was ironic we saw few ling on Port Arthur’s partyboats, when that area clearly has more ling than anywhere else on the Texas coast, because it’s so close to fish-and structure-rich Louisiana. When we began checking small platforms to the east in our own small boats, it was a different story.
Young Texas anglers today don’t know what they missed, which is schools of ling.
We didn’t start seeking them off Sabine Pass until 1970, so I have no stories prior to then. However, we sometimes saw as many as 50 ling on the surface, creating a brown patch of water in 30-foot depths off Sabine Pass. These were all 30 to 60 pounders, no runts. They were greedy and busted us up real good because we were rookies with these fish. Once a fish was gaffed and dragged aboard, we beat on them with a fire extinguisher, next trip a Louisville Slugger and later trips with a .22 rifles when alongside the boat.
One memorable day I was on the platform with bass tackle and a handful of homemade striper jigs. The boat drifted away, my two buds had hooked a 50-pounder and wisely moved into open water. That fish was stubborn and fought for a long time, leaving me free to cast at this horde of big ling. I hooked up and lost all 10 of my jigs to big fish; my 20-pound abrasion-resistant Ande line was a joke while standing over that much underwater structure. Ling often head for cover when given the chance, and mine certainly did; they couldn’t be stopped.
And so it went for a few years and we rarely saw another boat out there. Even by the 1980s we were seeing fewer ling. There were more boats offshore. The big beach runs of these fish along the Florida Panhandle were getting decimated. Some of the Texas fish even migrate down to the Yucatan each winter, with one of my tagged fish ending up in a gillnet there. These ling really roam and migrate, looking for water 70 degrees or higher, putting them in harm’s way. I think the rare 100-pounders live mostly offshore, hanging around deep structure, either rocks or sunken wrecks. In 1970 I saw one of those giants while sitting in shade on a platform 35 miles off Sabine. It cruised by with a few followers half its size. It was a ling I wanted no part of.
Even by the late 1980s, finding cobia during a Galveston tournament became a sketchy proposition, maybe not worth putting $100 down in the “ling pot.” Ling were still out there, however. In 1987 we discovered a lone shrimpboat anchored in 90 feet of calm water with an acre of fish around it. We caught 11 ling up to 70 pounds, tagged and heaved them overboard. There were lots of kingfish, big sharks and bonito that wore us out. Back at Galveston Yacht Basin, another boat won $5K for a modest ling of 30 pounds. Whoops. You never know when or where these fish will appear. Even on overnight two-day trips, we might only see one ling. And they might ignore your presentation for good reason.
In 2002, I interviewed several elder Mississippi captains and/or mates for my book The Cobia Bible. They’d caught thousands of ling, known as “lemonfish” in their area. These guys had forgot about more ling than we ever dreamed of—countless ling from the 1940s to 1970s right off their beaches. Their accounts below are edited for brevity:
Donald Catchot: “In May, shrimpboats started working offshore, and we’d fish around them. You could catch 50 or even 75 cobia in a day around shrimpboats anchored in 40 to 70 feet. We’d fish wherever the fleet happened to be. One day we caught 26 cobia from under those shrimpboats and we never thinned them out in the least. We had no room to ice the fish, so we had to head in early. Biggest fish we ever saw was off Chandeleur Island and we estimated at 120-130 pounds. Saw him three times that day, but he [most likely a she] wouldn’t take a bait. We were fishing a wreck in 37 feet of water. I got one shot at him, threw a jig in front of him, but he ignored it. Later in 1979, Hurricane Frederick covered that spot with sand, the place now marks 34 feet, and no fish.”
Linda McQueen, daughter of charterboat captain Capt. Butch McQueen: “Early in the season, the first of April back then, we’d chum and spot them on the beach off Horn Island. Two or three weeks later (through summer) we‘d chum in deeper water or fish the buoys or structures. My dad believed even back then, when fish were everywhere, that we should watch what we do to conserve them. He said before the year 2000 local fishermen would be surviving on sharks and redfish, and that’s exactly true here today for charter fishing.”
Alvin Baker’s dad was a charterboat captain and young Alvin worked on the boat. “If the shrimpboats were working, we sometimes put a hundred lemonfish on the boat in a day. Or about that many kings. A hundred of each, on one trip. We had two baskets of nice, white trout for bait, and our fishermen knew what they were doing that day. Some days, we’d put out a whole bonito and just drift. We’d hook a big gray shark, there were plenty of them, and often a dozen lemonfish came up swimming with the shark. You won’t see that again; the big sharks are long gone. We had no favorite tide or conditions out there. We had so many lemonfish out there (sigh) it didn’t matter. Nowadays, I don’t even target these fish unless I’m in a tournament.”
Capt. Chuck Guillford was raised in Port St. Joe, Florida. He said the cobia were so thick in the late 1940s and early ‘50s they were like “herds of hogs.” You could head out on a spring afternoon and catch them until you just about sunk the boat. He would then fill up a pickup truck and drive over to the poor side of town, called the “quarters.” Anyone who wanted fish could have some. “These were 40- to 60-pounders, nearly enough to feed a family for a week,” he said.He said there was only one local vessel that fished offshore, where those fish spent their summers. Today there are hundreds of charterboats, many with spotting towers (to spot surface ling) in Destin alone. Texas has its fleet of boats, too. With so many Gulf fishermen out there today, it was inevitable that tighter restrictions were needed.