Imagine you’re holding your breath 40 feet down off Oregon’s chilly Central Coast and the ginormous lingcod — one with a toothsome smile as big as your head — that you’ve just shot with your speargun pulls you backwards.
Into its cave.
That’s the situation Josh Humbert found himself in last Saturday.
Humbert is among the Beaver State’s elite free-diving spearfishermen, as well as a photographer, and his images (@joshhumbert on Instagram) graced a July feature in Northwest Sportsman on the tight-knit community.
How that struggle between man and sea beast nearly 7 fathoms below the surface might have played out we’ll never know because as the lingcod thrashed, pulling Humbert towards its lair, the small barb or “flopper” on the pole spear he was using pulled through the ling’s cheek, and the fish was lost.
“If it had been a full-sized [barb] (about 2 inches), as well as being far enough away from the tip, it would have held for sure,” Humbert says.
But that is not the end of the story.
The next day, Sunday, the final day of Oregon’s bottomfish season, Humbert and friend Brian Chamberlain returned for another go at the ling.
With a slightly higher tide and 8 feet of visibility, they had to make numerous dives of up to a minute and a half as they searched for more than half an hour to find the ling and its cave.
“We were diving an offshore reef with no nearby land bearings to line up on, so just locating the cave was a small victory,” Humbert wrote on an Instagram post.
Eventually they rediscovered it and Chamberlain speared the ling on his first dive.
Chamberlain’s “fish of a lifetime” and “biggest lingcod any of us has ever seen,” as his friend said, taped out at 42 inches, which would put it around 31 pounds, according to one chart.
That’s definitely on the upper end for Oregon lings, which on rare occasions grow to as big as 4 feet. ODFW’s Eric Schindler says that of 63,564 randomly sampled by his crews since 2008, only 97 have been bigger, and he notes most anglers release those that big.
According to Maggie Sommer, the agency’s marine fishing manager, the state’s lingcod stocks are considered healthy and are being fished at nowhere close to concerning levels. She says the biomass is at 58 percent of “virgin,” or unexploited levels, and says that it could be fished down to 40 percent and still provide enough for sustainable fisheries and ecosystem functions.
“There are plenty of big, spawning females. That’s the reason there’s no upper size limit on lingcod,” Sommer says.
ODFW closed bottomfish season as of this Monday after quotas for black rockfish, yelloweye rockfish — which inhabit similar habitats and eat the same things as lings — and cabezon reached their quotas due to excellent fishing this year.
There is no quota on lingcod and they’re otherwise open year-round with a daily limit of two 22 inches or larger.
As for Humbert’s initial shot on the ling, a mere flesh wound.
“We saw the wound from the previous day on the fish and couldn’t believe how well it had closed up,” he noted.
Responding to comments on our initial Facebook post of the photo of Chamberlain and the ling, Humbert said he planned on eating “a big piece with friends this weekend.”