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Jan Hinriksson, an IMR research technician and angling expert, shows off a hake weighing over 10 kg.

This is how you catch a hake, a common fish you've probably never caught before

Special effort is required to get to know the 'cold water barracuda'. The IMR's leading angling expert reveals the secrets of the European hake.

The hake has benefitted from climate change in our waters. It has become more common in the North Sea and likely also in coastal waters, particularly in Western Norway. It is a voracious hunter, but it cannot be outsmarted easily.

“Bait fishing from a boat is the main way to target hake. And the bait needs to be big,” research technician Jan Hinriksson says.

A ‘new’ species for anglers

Hinriksson is one of the leading anglers at the Institute of Marine Research (IMR). Angling is a key skill when scientists need to target specific fish species, for example in order to tag them.

“Angling for hake caught on in Western Norway around 10 years ago. Since then, the techniques have developed and the level of interest has picked up,” he says.

He puts this down to the hake’s delicious taste, beautiful colours, big teeth and dramatic disposition. It has been called both the ‘cold water barracuda’ and ‘sea pike’.

“The hake is probably our most exciting target species in the 2-10 kilogram class. It is common in coastal waters and fjords everywhere from Trøndelag and further south. Hordaland is a hotspot with lots of really big specimens,” he says.

Nevertheless, few recreational anglers are familiar with the hake.

So how do you catch one?

The hake tastes delicious, has beautiful colours, huge teeth and a uniqe behaviour.

Requires powerful equipment

“Bait, bait and more bait – preferably a whole mackerel and never less than half a fillet. Fatty fish is best if you’re using fillets, while small saithe or poor cod also work great when using whole fish,” Hinriksson says.

He recommends using a sinker weighing around 200-400 grams and a powerful 20-30 cm long leader before finishing off with a big hook (size 6/0-12/0).

The leader is the part of a fishing line that is closest to the hook. It is often made of thinner and finer material than the rest of the line, but it can also be thicker or made of metal for large fish species with sharp teeth, such as halibut and pike.

“On account of its razor-sharp teeth, the leader should be one millimetre thick, preferably protected with a rubber tub,” he says. “It is an advantage if the tube is luminous. And it’s not a bad idea to add a blinking light. The hake is fittingly the species where we see the best effect when using artificial light."

The ‘flying eye’ is one of the names given to the rig used for catching hake. Here it was used for research, targeting spiny dogfish, but with smaller hooks.

Where can it be found?

You catch hake from a boat, but not at the more classic fishing spots.

“No, you should avoid the typical steep slopes, and rather find somewhere with a flat-ish muddy bottom at a depth of 70-150 metres. Ideally close to deeper waters. It is good if there is a bit of current and some small mounds on the seabed,” he says. “In sunny weather, the hake tends to stay near the bottom, on the lookout for prey. If it isn’t there, you can gradually work your way up to 50 metres, with lengthy pauses, and then back down again.”

Hinriksson’s top tip for anglers without an echo sounder is to use nautical charts showing the depth, which are available online.

Here, Hinriksson has circled a spot in a randomly chosen area that is typical hake territory. “I have no idea whether there are any hake there, but it looks perfect on the map,” he says.

Attacks from below

According to Hinriksson, the bite of the hake is unusual. It attacks from below, tends to take the bait calmly and then stays completely still. For a while.

“Many anglers’ reflex is to lift their rod in order to set the hook. But that is the last thing you should do with hake. If you do it at this stage, you will lose both the fish and your bait," he says. “You need to give the hake it´s dramatic pause. Stay calm and hold still until it heads into the deep and you feel real resistance. That’s when you lift your rod. Be prepared for a real struggle."

The hake is notorious for being brutal, both in appearance and fighting spirit.

The European hake is a voracious hunter which locks its jaws around the prey.

Razor-sharp teeth

It may be a good idea to bring some strong pliers with you to remove the hook.

“The teeth are so sharp that you may not even notice it if you brush against them. Until you suddenly see the blood running from your hands. They really are no joke,” Hinriksson says.

But in the kitchen, on the other hand, it is sweet and obliging. The hake is easy to fillet and its meat its firm and good.

“It is forgiving, and there are lots of good ways to prepare it,” he says. “Good luck!”

The European hake in Norwegian waters

In spring, European hake from the ocean enter the shallower waters of the North Sea to spawn. They then migrate out to deeper waters in the winter, making them less accessible to fishers.

In the North Sea, the population rose steadily from 2009 until it reached record levels in 2015, before falling back again by 2019.

Researchers know little about the hake in coastal waters and fjords. It is unclear whether they are closely related to the ocean population, or whether they are more local stocks. But anglers catch European hake all year round.

“That suggests that at least some of these fish remain locally in the fjords for most of the year. We also know that they spawn in Western Norway,” says Arved Staby, who has responsibility for the hake population at the IMR.

The impression of recreational fishers that hake numbers in fjords and coastal waters have increased may be due to the stock having grown, greater interest, better fishing techniques or a combination of the above.

Genetic analyses show that the European hake north of Stad is different from the North Sea population.

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