Ling – Cusk eels (family Ophidiidae)
Ling is also called Hoka.
Ling nowadays is considered a deepwater species found over muddy and rocky bottoms all the way down to depths of at least 700m. However, the late David H. Graham in his book A Treasury of New Zealand Fishes talks about ling once being everywhere throughout Otago waters, inside the Otago Harbour, outside the Otago heads, in shallow waters and down to 150 fathoms at least.
Graham also mentioned that ling has been caught at the Dunedin, Port Chalmers and Marine Station wharves in quite shallow water.
Ling can be found all around New Zealand but are more plentiful in the South Island. Known areas for them are off Otago Peninsula, Pegasus Canyon off Canterbury and a particularly good spot for them was in the very deep water close to shore off Kaikoura’s Goose Bay.
I don’t think there would be many anglers who go out in their boats to deliberately catch ling. Rather they are taken as a bycatch when fishing in deep water for groper/hapuka.
When hauled up and away from the bottom the air-bladder of ling distends causing the fish to blow up into a barrel shape and float quickly to the surface. Strange as it may seem it was not uncommon for a trawl net containing a dozen or more large ling to become so buoyant that it would float to the surface lifting all the rest of the catch with them!
The best fishing rigs are the same as you would use for groper. Even when using the new modern ultra-low stretch super braided lines it is still worth using re-curved tuna circle hooks. These tend to hook fish in the corner of the mouth. Whereas suicide hooks taken deeper in their stomach are liable to be lost when the fish extends its stomach.
Interestingly Graham also says that at one time catches of three to four dozen off Cape Saunders, Papanui Inlet, Pipikariti Point, Taiaroa Head and other parts of the coast were not unusual. However by 1930-33, one might fish all day and not catch one ling, or perhaps might catch just one or two.
Graham talks about this significant reduction of fish numbers close to fishing ports in relation to many other species as well. Many species we now regard as being caught exclusively in very deep water could once be taken close to shore in shallow water. We can but wonder what the fishing must have been like in New Zealand ‘s coastal waters 100 odd years ago!
Arthur W. Parrott reports in his book Sea Anglers’ Fishes of New Zealand that a ling taken off the Otago coast was found to contain 35 eight-inch long barracoutas in its stomach! Ling also eat crabs, crayfish, squid, and numerous fishes including leather jackets, red cod, soles, pilchards, sprats, yellow-eyed mullet, warehou, sea perch, skate and young ling.
Ling has been caught with their stomachs jammed full of squid. When seasonally abundant they also consume huge quantities of red whalefeed (Munida gregaria).
Ling tend to swallow angler’s baits whole in one gulp! So which would be the best bait for ling is hard to say. Squid, red cod, sea perch and barracouta cut baits have all been used successfully.
Ling are big eaters. They will eat just about anything that comes their way. Also in A Treasury of New Zealand Fishes Graham says that once a dead ling was found washed ashore at Otago Heads. When cut open it was found to contain a large intact crayfish measuring 12 inches from head to tail. Apparently, the crayfish had been swallowed head first and had caused the death of the ling by perforating its stomach wall with its spines. The ling measured 48 inches in length and although it had lost weight it still tipped the scales at an impressive 35 pounds. Without doubt a case of biting off more than you can chew!
The skin is a mixture of brown, pink and orange blotches on the upper body changing to a more regular white underneath. Perhaps worst of all the skin is coated in slimy mucus that makes the fish incredibly slippery to handle. There are many sharp conical teeth in both jaws and in the top of the mouth.
Most of the weight of the fish is in the forward part of the body – much like a red cod. It has a large head with the whole fish tapering away towards the tail to give an almost eel-like appearance. This seems to make the fish look heavier than it is. A very large one can reach 30kg and 2m but most weigh less than 20kg.
Despite the ugly outer appearance ling are good eating.
The main commercial fishing grounds for smaller domestic vessels are the west coast of the South Island and the east coast of both the North and South Islands south of East Cape. For the large trawlers, the main sources of ling are the sub-Antarctic – Source Ministry of Primary Industries NZ Fisheries InfoSite.