The common name for the species Lota lota is burbot, but this fish is known to Montana anglers as the ling.
Ling are one of my favorite species to study. For starters, they are geographically widespread. Ling are found in northern latitudes across the U.S. and Canada, and yet very little is known about the species. Also, only a select group of anglers target ling.
To add to the mystery, the ling has more than half a dozen different names, some specific to a certain geographic area—for example: cusk (northeastern U.S.), eelpout (midwest), ling (western U.S.), ling cod, lawyer, and mariah. In Alaska, they simply call them burbot.
Unlike most fish, ling are active in winter, and virtually inactive in summer. They are also predominantly nocturnal, with little daytime activity. That is why so many anglers have never seen or caught a ling.
Anglers devoted to ling go after them at night, either in winter or during their annual spawning run in early spring. Anecdotal information from these devotees and others suggest ling numbers may have declined in the past couple of decades.
On the bright side, a new population is taking hold in Cooney Reservoir, near Billings, offering the rare opportunity to monitor it in its early stages. We track the ling population in Cooney through annual February sampling, when these fish are most active. The ling in Cooney are growing faster than those in other water bodies in Montana, even faster than most ling in other waters in North America. Overall, fish numbers here are low but increasing.
Because there has been so little study of ling, our sampling efforts are especially important. Most fish we sampled are relatively young—three to seven years of age—though ling can grow to over 20 years of age, as seen in other lakes in southwestern Montana.
Anglers I speak with in south central Montana that target ling really love the opportunity to fish for them and can’t seem to get enough.
Ling are incredibly good tasting, and are often referred to as “poor man’s lobster.” When I get the chance to cook a few, I prefer to cut them up in chunks, batter them with buckwheat and flour, and deep fry them in oil. They taste amazing. I’ve also heard of people steaming or boiling the meat and dipping it in butter like lobster.