Close Up on the Burbot
by Mike Kurre, Mentor Coordinator
Burbot:Lota lota (low’-tah low’-tah): from the French word for codfish; “burbot” is also a French word, meaning “mud” or “mire”
Ur, Ur, Ur! spoke the burbot. . .
What’s in a name any way? Burbot is only one of numerous names this cold-water species from the cod family goes by. Many of the fresh water cod’s nick-names can’t be mentioned, but here is a list of the most common: Eel Pout, Lawyer, Ling, Cusk, Lush, Loche, Mudblow and Poor Man’s Lobster.
Burbot can be found in most Minnesota northern lakes and rivers, including Lake Superior, but can also be found in small numbers in the prairie regions and parts of the lower Mississippi. They are good indicators of a healthy watershed. Typically they require water temps lower than 70 degrees during the summer and are a rare catch, but come winter-time, these predators come alive and are most active.
The burbot coloration varies from yellow-brown to brown or even dark olive with black mottling and blotching, giving it almost a camouflage appearance. Burbot resembles an eel more than other freshwater fish. Its scales are small, the skin has a slimy feel and this bottom hugger has large chin barbel with tubular nostrils similar to catfish, for detecting food.
This secretive fish can live up to the ripe old age of 15 and the Minnesota state record is 19 lbs. 3 ozs. and was caught in Lake of the Woods. These fish can weigh over 60 lbs in other areas of the world. Typically in Minnesota, they are under 8 lbs. and are less than 28 inches in length.
Burbot can be handled by placing a firm grip just behind the head. Their teeth are much like largemouth bass, like rough sandpaper. Don’t be shocked when our eel-like looking friend, uniquely and harmlessly, wraps its body around your forearm and gives you a little…. ur…ur…ur, vocalization when handling them. It’s just their way of greeting you.
They eat mostly other fish such as small yellow perch and walleyes, but also consume fish eggs, clams, crayfish, mayfly larvae and other aquatic insects.
The spawning season for this unique fish is very unusual. It spawns during mid-winter into early spring, before the ice is off the lake or river. Reproduction occurs in pairs or sometimes in groups of dozens or even in the hundreds, in shallow water over sand or gravel bottoms. There is no nest built and no care for the eggs or newly hatched young. After the release of eggs and sperm the fish thrash about scattering the eggs, which later fall to the bottom. A single female can lay as many as 1 million eggs depending on her size. The embryos develop for 4 to 5 weeks in the cold water and hatch at the tiny size of .15 inches (one of the smallest freshwater fish larvae).
Young burbots are common prey for many fish, such as smallmouth bass, yellow perch, smelt, lake trout and muskie. Humans also can be considered a predator even though many people consider burbot the “ish” in fish and most folks don’t even like to touch them. Folks who cut the line not knowing that baked with a little butter, salt and pepper, miss out on a delicacy served in many households.
Tackle & Fishing Tips
Most burbots are accidentally caught by anglers targeting other fish like walleyes (that would be me). They are especially active during low light conditions during the winter months. Tip-ups or walleye style jigging equipment, spooled with 4 to 8 lb line will provide the necessary gear needed to land these unique creatures.
Your bait of choice can be just about any minnows, locating the bait within inches of a deep muddy river- or lake-bottom (like the mud flats in Lake Mille Lacs). Keep a watchful eye on your line; Burbot have very sensitive bite. Wait too long to set the hook and you’ll be fishing-out your hook from the gullet or cutting your line to make an ethical release.
Burbot do not have special conservation status in Minnesota and are not actively managed, so fish away and enjoy another special offering from the lakes of Minnesota.
- Burbot have long been used for fish meal, oil and food for animals raised for furs (the oil is absorbed through digestion making for a great fur conditioner).
- The tough skin was once used in the windows of Siberia as a substitute for glass.
- Burbots are part of an annual celebration in February in Walker, MN. The Eelpout Festival has been a great event, distracting Minnesotan’s during winters for over 30 years.