Size – From 5 to 40 pounds
Season – All year
Depth – Over 700 feet, better at more than 1000 feet.
Limit – 4 per day, 8 annually
Sablefish, aka blackcod, aren’t a primary target species for us in Sitka. They are excellent eating fish, one of the best, but you really don’t start catching them until you reach 700 feet of water. They do mix in with deep water halibut catches, which is both good news and bad. If you get a few while pursuing halibut, it’s a bonus. If you decide you want to catch more, you’ll be cranking up and releasing several halibut per blackcod, all from 700 plus feet, which is an awful lot of work.
Mature Blackcod are a deep-water fish that favor the edge of the continental shelf along the north Pacific rim. They are found on the North American side of the ocean form Cedros Island in Baja California, north to the Behring Sea. On the Asian side they range from Kamchatka south to Japan. Significant concentrations of sablefish are generally encountered in depths between 1200 and 3000 feet. Juvenile blackcod swim in shallow depths in coastal bays and passes.
Sablefish spawn in January and February, the eggs are pelagic (drifting), smooth, and about 2 mm’s in diameter. Once reaching an inch in length, juveniles swim near the surface. In the fall of 2015 and 2016 we saw hundreds of thousands of three to six inch blackcod off Cape Edgecumbe. The silvers we caught at that time were stuffed with them. By age three, at a weight of three pounds, they head for the deep. At five years of age they are about two feet long. Maximum size for sablefish is over 100 pounds, but we never see anything close to that size.
Blackcod have only one close relative, the skilfish, also a deep water Pacific species. Skillfish grow to at least 200 pounds and possibly larger. Unlike the sablefish, skilfish are quite rare. There was a pair of skilfish in the Vancouver Aquarium years ago, but no longer. For anyone who has seen the photo of a 130-pound blackcod in the Pioneer Bar in Sitka, according to a biologist friend who has been there, that’s a misidentified skilfish.
Blackcod are highly valued for their high oil content and have a high-end market in Asia. Oil content is a big factor in the price paid. Apparently, there is a correlation between the depth at which these fish are caught and the oil content. The deeper the water the higher the oil content.
Blackcod can migrate long distances. Studies indicate migrations of over 2500 miles over the course of six or seven years. Sablefish feed on a wide variety of marine organisms including saury, lanternfish, crustaceans, worms, and a host of other small fish. In captivity they’ve been described as indiscriminate feeders.