Maybe the only fish in these parts with more nicknames than the northern pike is the ling. And in some circles, many anglers won’t let either one in their boat.
In the case of aliases for pike, in some areas it is referred to as a snot rocket, slough shark or, as in parts of Canada, slimely jack.
Call it what you will, but in most places ling are on the decline.
When it comes to the ling, North Dakotans may be in the minority when using that name.
Ling are members of the freshwater cod family. Otherwise known as burbot, it is also known as eelpout in Minnesota, maria in Canada and apparently lawyer in other places.
Ling are common in deep, cold-water lakes in Minnesota, but in North Dakota are found only in the Missouri River system and the Red River.
For those who have never caught a ling, it resembles a cross between an eel and a catfish. It is best known for wrapping its tail around the arms of anglers as they try to take the hook out of the mouth.
Eelpout were in the news earlier this winter when a Bemidji, Minn., man landed a new state record eelpout weighing 19.54 pounds.
Mostly, though, ling average between 2 and 3 pounds and average about 16 inches in length. The North Dakota state record for ling is 18 pounds, 4 ounces — caught from the Knife River in 1984.
While ling is classified as a game fish in North Dakota, it is one of those species that is not stocked or managed. Most of the information fisheries biologists have on the burbot is anecdotal, reports that anglers provide.
In Minnesota, the reports that have been coming in are not good. In Minnesota, walleye and pike seasons close at the end of February, so ling are legal to fish.
In fact, the town of Walker, Minn., on Leech Lake has a huge festival each winter attracting thousands of anglers: the International Eelpout Festival.
According the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, netting samples indicate the numbers are down.
In a 2009 Minnesota DNR news article, large lake specialist Doug Schultz said the ling is difficult to net and study because of the shape of its head and because as a cold water species, it stays in deep water.
On Leech Lake, the long-term catch rate during netting is 0.08 ling per net pull, said Schultz. But in 2007 it dropped to 0.06.
While not the most sought-after fish in North Dakota or Minnesota, the same is not true in other states like Montana and Alaska, where fisheries managers have been seeing a drop in numbers.
North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries chief Greg Power said biologists do catch some burbot in the spring when they are netting pike and walleyes to collect eggs.
But he said the numbers have been declining in recent years and it is a concern.
“They are a species of concern for us and others, but I don’t think they are in peril,” Power said.
Because of its habits, not a lot is known about the burbot. It is one of the fish species in this part of the country to spawn and the only species to do so under the ice.
Rob Holm, manager of the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery, said his staff received a request from Wyoming 10 years ago to see if they could rear ling in a hatchery environment.
He said the short answer was “no” because they had no brood stock.
Little by little, Holm said, anglers like retired Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Al Sapa and others brought in ling caught with a hook and line.
The first year trying to spawn ling in the hatchery yielded nothing, he said. But in 2007, hatchery workers turned down the temperature of the eggs during incubation to 33 degrees. That was the key.
Holm said 2007 was the first year for survivors from the ling taken out of the river and hatchery staff had 7,000 to 8,000 fingerlings ready to put back in the river.
But there was no data to support or not support a stocking strategy in the river, he said.
In the meantime, Holm said, biologist have come from as far away as England to study the success staff have had at the hatchery here.
Power said there is evidence that burbot are reproducing naturally.
These days, he said most of the information the Game and Fish Department gets on ling is word of mouth in nature, and the during last two winters there have been reports of pike being caught on Lake Oahe that have been feeding on ling.
“So they are reproducing naturally,” Power said.
For those who can get past the “ish factor,” ling are pretty good table fare. Up until about a decade or so ago, anglers targeted ling each spring fishing the Spring Ling Fling at the Tailrace.
Power said ling are native to cold water, free-flowing river habitat and did quite well in the upper three reservoirs after the Missouri River was dammed.
He said during spring nettings for walleye and pike eggs, a good number of ling showed up in nets in White Earth Bay on Lake Sakakawea and on Beaver Bay on Lake Oahe.
The ling is a highly predacious fish and loves smelt when it can find them, Power said. During the heat of the summer, the smelt go deep on the big lakes and so do the ling, so it’s hard to find them by traditional fishing methods.
Holm said that has been one of the big parts of the leaning curve as hatchery staff learn more about the life cycle of the ling — finding a food source.
As a cold water fish, he said, it grows slowly but reaches sexual maturity by the time it is 6 inches in length.
The eggs are tiny and the fry are about one-fourth the size of walleye fry.
Power said during this summer’s creel survey, ling will be one of the species anglers will be asked about.
“Most of the information we have is anecdotal,” he said. “We know so little.”
Holm said the request from Wyoming comes for the Wind River, where officials want to re-establish a burbot fishery.
While not a commercially important fish, Holm said it is a significant species because in many parts of the world it has become extinct.
“It’s one of our native fish ... and loss of habitat is the story in most parts of the world,” he said.
It may be too early to tell if the work done at Garrison can be duplicated on a large scale for waters elsewhere.
But it’s a start.
“When you start with nothing, every little bit helps,” Holm said. “But we do know it’s doable as far as propagation.”