All The Fish

Sablefish

Kodiak-born angler Stewart Valladolid gave an enthusiastic “Sablefish all the way to the grill!” when we asked which fish he wanted to talk about. So that’s our Fish of the Week!

Stewart with a Coho Salmon.

Sablefish (Anoplopoma fimbria) are a deep-sea fish common to the North Pacific.

How’d you get hooked on Sablefish?

My background with Sablefish was through my dad. He ran a processing plant out of Kodiak and would buy Sablefish from the boats. He’d bring them home—black cod is what we called them. It was a staple in our household. It was really, really good.

“Taking a bite of Sablefish is…I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like holding your child for the first time.”

Later, I had the opportunity to observe a trawler that got into a bunch of them, including adolescents, and that’s when I got interested in their biology — why they hang out at a particular depth in the water column during that stage of maturity. As they get older, they go deeper and deeper, where there are better food sources and not as many predators.

A Sablefish rests at nearly 1,000 feet deep. (The red spots are lasers spaced four inches apart to help estimate size). 📷 NOAA/Rick Starr

Adults spawn down deep. The eggs develop for ~two weeks until they hatch, then rise to the surface. It’s an interesting vertical migration during that early part of their life. Then, as adults, they migrate great distances horizontally along the sea floor.

Small Sablefish caught in a bottom trawl survey off the coast of California. 📷 Ian G. Taylor

It’s amazing the pressure they can handle. Also their diet—I’m a big fan of bioluminescence and they’re big squid and octopus eaters. I’ve caught other different species down deep. Many 100+ pound halibut in the 1,500–1,600 foot range while trying to chase the Sablefish.

Butterfish, one of the common names for Sablefish, is actually the name of another species. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration designates “Sablefish” as its Acceptable Market Name in the United States. Black cod is a regional vernacular. 📷 Katrina Liebich

Sablefish are one of those demersal species that have lost their swim bladder through time. But they still need to be neutrally buoyant in the water column. Some fish rely on oil to help buoy them up. The most famous examples are probably sharks and other elasmobranchs that have big livers full of squalene. Even species that live really deep that do have swim bladders (like cod) often have very large livers.

What’s the deepest you’ve ever set a line for a Sablefish?

I went the deepest I could find in Prince William Sound. I ended up catching a sleeper shark! It was right off the south end of Lone Island as we were drifting from 2,300 feet to the 1,600 mark. It was pretty awesome. Luckily, I was using a really big electric reel that helped me bring it up without using a lot of my muscle groups.

I was going to ask if you had a special workout to get your arms ready to reel them up from that depth.

Major bonus when it came to electric reels. It took away the fatigue and motivated me to crank up that 1,000 yards of line.

woman holding a large sablefish
woman holding a large sablefish
A woman holding a large Sablefish. 📷 Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Do you usually use an electric reel when fishing Sablefish?

When I started getting into it, I used reels the size of a regular watermelon. I would have about 800 yards of 65 pound dacron line, which is way thicker than the braid we use now. I would fill up a soup can with concrete with an I-bolt and a rubber band. Then I’d donate that concrete to the bottom of the ocean because I didn’t want to bring up that extra two, three pounds of weight as I was fighting the fish. That was how I started. Then the technology got better and I fell in love with electric reels.

“They were so expensive I almost had to donate a kidney to get one back then.”

Once I had one in my possession, it opened up every single part of Prince William Sound for me and I got to explore areas that nobody would ever think about checking.

When I get a fish on, I hit the throttle. There’s a default where the line will stop ~15 feet underneath the boat—I don’t want the fish swimming around the top and my leads or jigs banging against the boat or outboard. Then I just crank the last 15 up manually. Using the throttle can create problems like sucking the line all the way in through the rod and breaking it.

How far offshore do you go?

It’s such an abyss out there in Prince William Sound. You could be in Port Wells not too far from Whittier and you’re in great sable habitat. Pretty much any bay that salmon feed into. I fish outside bays where they drop off into those extreme depths. As they get flushed out by the tide, Sablefish wait for that fall to come down. There’s also a ton of spot shrimp for them to vacuum up and squid and octopus too.

A spot shrimp from Prince William Sound 📷 Katrina Liebich

In terms of what Sablefish are eating naturally, what’s your preferred bait?

Primarily octopus. It’s a little tougher and won’t get robbed by other fish. I’ve noticed if I put herring or anything like that it gets robbed and picked at piece by piece—we’re displaying this bait anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. When you’ve got 800 yards of line down there, it’s hard to see a nibble. You’ve got to see the main take down when they get hooked up.

I have colored indicator line that lets me know the depth. I crank up a color after I hit bottom. That lets me know that I’m 15 feet off bottom.

“My theory to catch them is: sight, sound and scent. A blinking light, the clanking of my jig, and the scent of the bait.”

That blinking light is key because of the bioluminescence. You’re at 1,500 feet and there’s no light penetrating down there. It’s a pretty good beacon.

You jigging it up and down slightly? What’s the motion? Other tips?

I try to let the boat do the work for me. I get too excited. Then I get frustrated if I’m on top of the rod. So I just let it do its thing until it starts dancing. Meanwhile, my friends are fishing a different part of the water column because not everybody has an electric reel.

Similarly, I use circle hooks, since I’m not really paying attention to the rod and reel. I let the hook do its job.

And I watch the moon phases and try to fish lower tides. That way my bait’s displayed a little better and my gear isn’t getting thrashed around. It can be quite turbulent down there.

Once you find a Sablefish, can you hook into them all day? Or do you need to keep searching around?

This is a species that you have to search around for. When it comes to the adolescents, they’ll school up more. Adults are more sporadic. I’ve even seen them at the 100 foot mark and have caught them jigging for rockfish.

Tell us more about the bioluminescence. Are they eating stuff that glows?

Prince William Sound’s got that high abundance of spot shrimp. They’re an abundant food source for Sablefish. Also squid and octopus.

When spot shrimp feel attacked, they poop. And when they poop, it’s actually thrown out as a blue light. The predator thinks it’s the shrimp, giving that shrimp a chance to swim away. When I learned that, I started putting blue lights in my shrimp pots and on my my black cod jigs.

You mentioned grilling these fish. Is that your favorite cooking technique?

Grilling is probably the most popular. I don’t need do much to Sablefish. Literally a little bit of garlic, salt and pepper. And that’s it. It is a very white meat…very soft and buttery.

A Sablefish fillet. 📷 Katrina Liebich

The other style I do, which is really popular in restaurants, is the miso style, a more Asian-style cuisine. That ginger flavor is awesome…to die for.

“That’s what got me into spending thousands of dollars to go out there and chase these fish from April to July.”

I try to acquire at least 18 Sablefish in a season and then I’m done. And that’s enough for me and my family to be happy for the whole year.

Compiled by Katrina Liebich, Digital Media Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s External Affairs in Alaska. Q&A adapted from episode 15 of Fish of the Week! For more info on Sablefish, visit our friends at the National Marine Fisheries Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

As the Service reflects on 150 years of fisheries conservation, we honor, thank, and celebrate the whole community — individuals, Tribes, the State of Alaska, sister agencies, fish enthusiasts, scientists, and others — who have elevated our understanding and love, as people and professionals, of all the fish.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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