By Jacob Edson
Wrapped in layers of wool, I could barely feel the chill of the late-January wind gusting down the length of Clearwater Lake, along the southern edge of Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
A fresh membrane of slush formed atop the hole I'd drilled into the ice, my 8-inch window into the lake below. I contemplated clearing the hole, then tilted my gaze toward the setting sun. It had almost reached the top of the white pine that towered over the rocky point.
In the dark water 60 feet below my boots, a hunter pounced.
I felt the weight of the fish immediately and reared back, lifting the short spinning rod skyward. But the fish didn't budge. It simply shook its head back and forth. Then it ran. My rod doubled and line peeled off the spool. Finally, the fish slowed, and I began to retrieve monofilament from the clear water.
With long shadows now covering half the lake, the big fish inched toward the surface. It made one more powerful lunge just below the ice, then slowly came to the narrow tube I'd drilled hours before.
I saw its head first -- massive, seemingly misshapen with a tentacle chin whisker and a gaping mouth. Then its round midsection and long eel-like tail spilled onto the ice, wrapping upon itself like a sea snake. Mottled brown and spotted, the burbot seemed both incredibly ugly and mysteriously beautiful.
This unusual fish wasn't typical ice-fishing quarry. For the most part, Minnesota ice anglers target the same species as they do in summer -- walleyes, perch, northern pike, bluegills, and crappies. But the typical winter angler is missing out on ice fishing's most exciting and unique option: the burbot.
While burbot might not be common fodder for bragging boards, many hard-water anglers have encountered them. Often called eelpout here in Minnesota, the burbot has a variety of regional names -- lawyer, ling, ling cod, lush, cusk, gudgeon, mud blower, and spineless catfish.
Burbot thrive in thousands of large, cold lakes from Maine to Alaska. In Minnesota they live in most of the state's large walleye and lake trout basins, roughly from Lake Mille Lacs northward. The species exists in lakes across the globe north of about the same latitude.
The only freshwater member of the cod family, adult burbot feed almost exclusively on smaller fish. A large mouth with rows of small inward-facing teeth make this fish a highly successful predator.
Like lake trout, burbot need cold water to survive. When water temperature warms in summer, burbot become less active, live off of fat reserves, and ignore anglers' lures. But as ice forms and water temperatures fall, burbot begin to feed again.
With a metabolism geared for cold water, they are the only Minnesota fish species that spawns in winter. On frigid February nights, burbot gather over rocky midlake humps and shallow reefs to spawn. Large groups of the spawning fish sometimes intertwine in a writhing mass. Sigurd Olson wrote about this amazing spectacle in the January-February 1946 Conservation Volunteer, describing a winter evening's visit to the upper reaches of the Burntside River: "Not until we were within 10 feet of the bank did we shine our lights, and then saw such a sight as few have ever seen -- a struggling, squirming mass of fish, the long brownish snaky bodies twisted around each other, the entire contorted mass turn over and over, beating the water into foam."
Although walleye anglers commonly catch burbot, most Midwesterners ignore them. Looks aside, I can't imagine why. Burbot are, simply put, the perfect ice-fishing species. They grow large. The average burbot weighs 3 to 5 pounds, and many exceed 10 pounds. The Minnesota state record is 19 pounds, 3 ounces.
Plus, burbot aren't particularly savvy; they ferociously attack a variety of lures. Largely unpressured but readily available in winter, they even begin to bite at convenient hours -- near dusk -- allowing anglers to fish for them after work during the week.
Best of all, burbot are most easily caught in the heart of winter's doldrums, when the bite from more popular species tends to slow down. Add in the fact that a properly prepared burbot is some of the finest tasting fish you'll ever eat (the mildly sweet, white meat is a delicacy in Scandinavia), and it really is amazing more ice anglers don't target this species.
Yet, burbot do have a small cultlike following in Minnesota. These "pouters," as they call themselves, find their quarry in the same locations as they find late-summer walleyes. Pouters look for rocky structure 25 to 40 feet deep. Humps, reefs, bars, and deepwater flats are the preferred areas. The key is to find structure adjacent to deeper water.
Burbot are night hunters, so burbot anglers must also be somewhat nocturnal. The best fishing typically starts just after sunset and continues throughout the night. Large jigs are the most popular lures, and luminescence can be the key to a good night on the ice.
Burbot put up a tremendous fight, so stout equipment will help put more fish on the ice. Try a 34- to 36-inch graphite rod with plenty of backbone and a quality reel with a sturdy drag that performs well in freezing weather. Spool the reel with 12- to 15-pound test line.
Tip the jig with a hefty chunk of minnow, and use slow jigging motions with long pauses. Burbot hunt slowly and methodically, using the darkness to cloak their approach. Jig just enough to get the fish's attention, then let the fish sneak in and "surprise" the bait.
Burbot are considered a rough fish in Minnesota (like all rough fish, discarding them on the ice is a violation of the wanton waste law). Because they are not managed for sport fishing, there are no limits or seasons, so the fish are legal after walleye and northern seasons close at the end of February.
According to DNR large-lake specialist Doug Schultz, Minnesotans have minimal interest in burbot fishing, so there isn't much drive to study the fish. Schultz also said burbot are notoriously difficult to sample.
"It's probably a combination of net location, fish behavior, and the head shape of the burbot, which is not very conducive to capture by gill net," he said. "Little effort is directed specifically at sampling them to either index relative abundance or to estimate population size."
Still, the fish do show up in lakewide surveys. On Leech Lake, for example, the fall gill net survey has produced a long-term average catch rate of 0.08 burbot per gill net lift. But, according to Schultz, recent surveys have shown a decline. In 2007 burbot were sampled at only 0.06 fish per net. While the difference appears minor, a drop from long-term averages could indicate a declining population.
DNR area fisheries supervisor Rick Bruesewitz said burbot numbers are hard to come by, but annual surveys on Mille Lacs Lake have shown a decline as well.
"We have creel survey estimates and annual gill netting assessment numbers for burbot in Mille Lacs," Bruesewitz said. "Overall, burbot are not faring well. They have been trending downward for quite awhile."
However, Bruesewitz said Mille Lacs is a little different from the rest of the big lakes in Minnesota since it has no thermal refuge in the summer. It's a relatively shallow lake with no deep pockets of cold water in summer, so warm seasons hit the lake's cold-loving inhabitants harder than in deep basins.
"The last 10 years of relatively warm summers have not been good for burbot," Bruesewitz said.
However, both biologists caution that with such limited samples it's difficult to determine whether a small downward trend in the nets correlates to a population decline.
In Alaska, Montana, and other states where the burbot is a respected game fish, fisheries managers have been monitoring population declines since the 1980s. These declines have been attributed to commercial and recreational overfishing. Yet, according to Schultz, burbot harvest in Minnesota is extremely limited.
"Burbot harvest during most of the year is pretty low," Schultz said. "Open water (harvest) is around zero, and winter harvest rates (for Leech Lake) were approximately 0.008 (burbot) per angler hour for the entire lake in 2005." (In comparison, last year's walleye catch rates on the same lake were 0.36 walleyes per angler hour).
Bruesewitz added that any decline in burbot numbers in Minnesota would likely be caused by climate change and environmental degradation, or forage base shifts in lake ecosystems, such as those caused by the introduction of a harmful invasive species, not by fishing pressure.
Despite its lack of popularity, the burbot does get a few moments in the spotlight each February. For the past 30 years, anglers from across the state have flocked to Leech Lake's weekend tournament hailed as the International Eelpout Festival. The event began as a ploy by Walker businessman Ken Bresley to attract tourists in the dead of winter.
The first year of the festival, fewer than 500 people attended. In comparison, Jim Gerchy, the current festival organizer, estimates last year's event brought about 14,000 people to Walker. Gerchy estimates about 30- to 40 percent of the attendees actually fish, but the festival includes many nonfishing activities -- such as foot and automobile races and a polar bear plunge where brave folks don swimsuits and hop into the freezing water through a giant hole cut in the ice.
"I think it's a combination of the uniqueness and the chance to get out there and do something when there's nothing really to do," Bresley said.
Cam Runquist, a regular contender in the tournament, captained his 2004 winning team, "Pout Pros." Along with his partners, Runquist managed to catch more than 320 pounds of eelpout during the 48-hour contest. In all, more than 3,461 pounds of burbot were registered during that season's event, and nearly all of the fish were donated for a charity banquet.
In 1920 Joseph Rowell founded a commercial fishing operation on Lake of the Woods. However, his walleye netting attempts were hampered by burgeoning hauls of burbot, which had no commercial value. But Rowell found a use for burbot in his other venture: a commercial blue fox farm. He fed burbot to his foxes, and each year, fur buyers commented on the exceptional quality of his fox pelts. Joseph and his son, Theodore, believed burbot were the reason for the silky furs.
Theodore Rowell had just finished pharmacy training at the University of Minnesota. He studied the burbot his father fed to the foxes and discovered burbot oil was extremely high in vitamins A and D. In fact, it was six to eight times more potent than cod-liver oil, which was a popular remedy for a variety of aches and illnesses.
In 1935 the Rowells began to market their oil, and by 1937 Rowell Burbot Liver Oil was accepted by the American Medical Association. Consumers preferred the burbot oil because, instead of several spoonfuls of cod liver oil, they needed to take only a few drops of burbot oil at a time. The Rowells soon developed salves and offered the oil in soft gel capsules.
By 1940 the company was purchasing 500,000 pounds of burbot liver annually, and Rowell was buying livers from all 30 commercial fishermen on Lake of the Woods, as well as others throughout northern Minnesota.
During the 1950s Rowell Laboratories Inc. began to diversify and its business shifted away from burbot liver oil. The company is now known as Solvay Pharmaceuticals Inc.; and although it no longer produces burbot liver oil, it reports annual revenues in excess of $1 billion.
The eelpout festival inspired my own eelpout quest in the solitude of the BWCAW.
As I admired my fat-bellied prize, I quickly realized much of my pride came from the feeling that I was tapping into a rare and exciting experience few ice anglers appreciate.
Then I thought about the snowy white flesh and my eelpout dinner, and my smile grew even wider.