Black Cod Fishing Tips

A happy angler shows off his trophy grade black cod, which was caught on a fishing charter with Angling Unlimited out of Sitka, Alaska.

When discussing the many types of saltwater fish that are targeted by anglers in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, the one species that is most likely to be omitted from the conversation is Anoplopoma fimbria, which is known by several common names including sablefish and black cod; even though it is not a true cod. The reason for this lies in the fact that these highly prized fish are primarily taken in commercial quantities by longlining. Their supple, delicately flavored flesh possess a high Omega 3 oil content that makes it a favorite of chefs in upscale restaurants around the globe.

The black cod’s territory technically ranges from northern Baja California up to the Gulf of Alaska, although they tend to become more prolific the further north that you travel. These fish live at extreme depths between 600 and 9,000 feet, which is another explanation as to why black cod are less likely to be pursued by recreational anglers. Nonetheless, they still often end up as a popular alternative catch for those who fish the deeper waters of the northwest for big Pacific halibut.

Black cod generally weigh between 8 and 15 pounds, although trophy grade specimens can grow up to 4 feet in length and weigh over 40 pounds. Unlike many species, even though they are heavily fished at the commercial level, the stocks of these valuable fish remain plentiful and abundantly healthy. In fact, Alaskan waters boast the richest population of black cod on the planet and show absolutely no signs of being over fished.

These opportunistic feeders prey on a wide variety of marine organisms, which include cephalopods, crustaceans and many types of fin fish. They generally ascend toward the surface of the water column during daylight hours, and then descend again to the bottom in the dark of night. They reproduce in deep water and, after spawning, their freshly fertilized eggs rise toward the surface, where those that survive will eventually develop into juveniles.

While smaller fish can be caught on the bottom using light gear in shallower inshore waters that are restricted to the big longline boats, it is truly necessary to fish the extreme depths offshore of 600 feet or more to have a real shot at a top grade fish. Black cod do not usually school up in groups unless they are drawn together by the availability of food. They are often caught in the same areas as Pacific halibut and, like halibut, will often consume baits that have been soaking for a lengthy period of time; so patience is a valuable asset to have when fishing for them.

The best tackle for targeting black cod is basically the same as what might be used to catch a big Alaskan halibut. A stout, 6 foot one piece rod and a high quality conventional reel like a Penn 345 GTI spooled with premium 80 to 100 braided line. Then tie on a 100 pound test fluorocarbon leader rigged with a 16/0 circle hook and a 2 pound weight to the terminal end. Bait up with a whole dead octopus, squid or similar offering, and you are ready to drop.

Because of the incredible depths at which they are found, a growing number of anglers fish for black cod using powerful electric reels that give them a break from the long, back breaking retrieve that is necessary to get their heavy weight, and hopefully fish, back to the boat. 

Bottom fishing like this can be a real workout, but for a gourmet quality fish like a tasty black cod, it all becomes worth the effort.