Burbot-A Whole Lota Name
By Troy Letherman
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Burbot—or Lota lota in scientific terms—have almost as many
names as locations in which this scrappy looking fish is found. But no matter
what you call them, one thing is certain—they sure taste good.
The burbot is a much-maligned species of sport fish, too often
deemed as too ugly, too slimy, or simply too weird to be worth an angler’s time.
But like its saltwater cousins, it has a superb-tasting, white flesh that makes
it a prime target for anglers too hooked to lay down the rod and reel for the
winter, or too smart for that matter.
the only freshwater representative of the cod family (Gadidae) in North America
lends this enigmatic gamefish a distinctive status, but heritage isn’t the only
thing that makes the burbot different. And as anyone who has been surprised when
one of these eel-like creatures appeared at the end of their line will tell you,
anglers need not be fishing for them to have one show up at the boat. Whether
jigging on the bottom for lake trout or dropping bait through the ice for pike,
chances are good that you’ll one day hook into a burbot, and then all those
differences will take firsthand significance.
A mottled skin color that ranges from olive green to dark brown,
with intermittent pale yellow blotches tossed in, is a nice place to start when
explaining the irregular look of a burbot. A thin, elongated body tapers to a
point near the tail, which is rounded rather than fork-shaped, and while the
slimy surface may appear smooth, it’s actually covered with small, embedded
scales. The burbot’s most distinguishing characteristics, though, have yet to
It sports a single barbel that extends from the tip of the lower
jaw (looking a lot like a set of chin whiskers from afar) and a pair of barbel-like
tubes that extend from each nostril. A large mouth houses numerous rows of small
teeth that slant inwards toward the back of the throat. The hindmost dorsal and
the anal fin are both quite long, running from the middle of the back to the
tail, and are nearly equal in length. Rounding out the identifying traits of
this Holarctic freshwater sport fish is a set of pelvic fins situated in the
throat region in front of the large pectoral fins.
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It is not uncommon to find burbot in Alaska that are over 20
years old. They are a relatively long-lived and slow-growing species, taking
about six or seven years to reach 18 inches in length. This is the size at which
most Alaska burbot spawn for the first time. The young burbot will join in with
a group of up to twelve fish to form a writhing mass of individuals that moves
across the bottom, broadcasting fertilized eggs over a wide area in the process.
Burbot are voracious predators, feeding mainly at night on fish,
though aquatic insects, crustaceans, plankton, and fish eggs can make up a
portion of their diet. Young burbot mostly feed on insects and other
invertebrates, but by the time they reach five years of age, they feed almost
entirely on other fish.
It is this ravenous appetite, along with their strong preference
for cold, deep water that make the burbot such an attractive target for the
aspiring ice fisherman. As layers of ice take hold of a river or lake’s surface
and the oxygen is depleted from the deeper water, burbot begin to move toward
the shallows to spawn. Lacking the same diet opportunities as are available in
the summer, a nice chunk of bait tossed down through a hole in the ice provides
an appealing diversion from the normal winter stable of invertebrates, and more
often than not, your average burbot will go right after the meal.
You’d think they would make a perfect fit with many of the
waters in the Last Frontier, and you’d be right. Burbot occupy most large clear
and glacial rivers and many of the lakes throughout the state. And not just any
burbot, but quite likely the biggest burbot in the U.S.
There are plenty of stories floating around of hidden Mat-Su
Valley gems that regularly produce burbot in the 15-plus-pound range. It’s
certainly not an outlandish claim. After all, the largest U.S.-caught burbot on
record is George R. Howard’s 1976 lunker pulled from the depths of Lake Louise,
a catch that weighed in at a whopping 24 pounds, 12 ounces. Lake Louise is
currently closed to fishing for the species, but that’s hardly the end of the
line. From the easily accessible and popular Big Lake to any number of smaller
and lesser known Mat-Su destinations and on throughout Alaska’s Interior, burbot
remain a numerous and dependable sport fish.
Whether you’re fishing the Tanana River drainage or a Mat-Su
lake, the most effective tackle and techniques for taking these primordial
bottom dwellers remain the same—go simple. Use large hooks (Alaska sport fish
regulations require hooks that have at least a 3/4-inch gap between the point
and shank) and an equally large amount of bait. If lures are your preference,
there’s no end to the choices you can make. Unable to control their predatory
nature, burbot will strike just about anything, though we’ve had strong success
with both Cabela’s Livin’ Eye Jig and Luhr Jensen Krocodiles recently. In most
cases, any setup with a lot of flash, or even better, one that glows in the
dark, will rate well, especially given the burbot’s nighttime feeding practices.
Setlines are allowed for burbot in some locations, and tip-ups are popular with
the ice-fishermen that frequent the state’s lakes.
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Burbot are most active in the evening and throughout the night
when they move onto bars and shoals to feed. In fact, most are caught in less
than 25 feet of water. Just set up with your weights approximately 18 to 24
inches above the hook and drop it down until you feel it rest against the
bottom, then as in most fishing, and especially burbot fishing, wait. Chances
are you’ll soon be dragging up one of the oddest-looking, best-tasting fish to
There is one more piece of pertinent information that may be of
some use in fishing for this peculiar species—it might not be a good idea to
hand your freshly caught keeper off to the novice burbot fisherman (certainly
not if that novice happens to be a spouse). Clutch one near the head to remove
the hook and it will wrap itself around your arm and grip tight, like a slimy
belt. Save that shock for one of your buddies instead . . . you can laugh harder
Troy Letherman is the Editor of Fish Alaska magazine. Troy
can be reached at troy@ fishalaskamagazine.com.
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