Angling for Burbot
Hook up with one of Alaska’s Best Tasting Fish
I was ice fishing around sunset on Harding Lake southeast of Fairbanks, when, from dark water well below my boots, the unseen hunter pounced. I felt the weight of the fish immediately and reared back, trying to lift my spinning rod skyward. But the fish didn’t budge. It simply shook its head back and forth. Then it ran. Line peeled off the spool. Finally, the creature slowed and I began to retrieve monofilament from the water.
With long shadows covering half the lake, the big fish inched towards the surface. It made one more powerful lunge just beneath the ice, then slowly approached the hole I’d drilled hours before. I saw its head first—massive, seemingly misshapen with a single chin whisker and gaping mouth. Then its round midsection and long eel-like tail spilled onto the ice, coiling around itself like a sea snake. Mottled brown and spotted, the burbot (lota Iota) was ugly yet mysteriously beautiful.
MEET THE BURBOT
The word “burbot” is derived from the French verb “bourbeter,” meaning “to wallow in mud.” They are also known as eelpout, ling, loache, lush, cusk, mud-blower and lawyer fish. Being the only fresh water member of the cod family suggests that burbot make for superb eating. And indeed, when boiled and dipped in garlic butter, this fish tastes remarkably like lobster.
The burbot is sometimes called “poor man’s lobster” for another reason besides taste. You don’t need a boat to access excellent burbot fishing spots. All you need are snowshoes, skis, or just a pair of strong legs to reach prime Alaskan burbot fishing territory in the wintertime.
Burbot occupy large glacial rivers and many lakes throughout much of Alaska. Note however, the fish is absent from Southeast Alaska and the Aleutians. The largest sport fisheries for burbot are found in the Tanana River and lakes in the Upper Tanana, Upper Copper and Upper Susitna river drainages.
Burbot are unique among Alaska freshwater fish in that they spawn in mid to late winter. For a considerable part of the year, the burbot lives under ice. As a broadcast spawner, burbot do not have an explicit nesting site; rather, they release eggs and sperm into a water column to drift and then settle. Once they are big enough, burbot feed on smaller fish, including whitefish, Alaska blackfish and lampreys.
Burbot need cold water to survive. When water temperatures warm in the summer, they become less active, live off of fat reserves, and ignore anglers’ lures. But when ice forms and water temperatures fall, burbot start to feed. Voraciously.
Numerous lakes with good populations of lake trout, grayling, whitefish, and burbot can be found in the Paxson and Denali Highway area. Many of these lakes are easily accessible by car and can be fished from the shoreline as well.
The largest, deepest and most easily reached of the four road-accessible lakes within two hours of Fairbanks, Harding Lake is a rapidly improving sport fishery. Entirely spring-fed, there is no outlet from Harding Lake into a river or other lake. Northern pike and burbot are indigenous to this body of water.
In the Tok area, burbot inhabit the Chisana, Nabesna, and Tanana rivers. The Tanana River, in particular, offers excellent fishing opportunities for burbot. Within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, anglers can fish for burbot on Long Lake, Jack Lake, the Twin Lakes and Cooper Lake.
FISHING FOR BURBOT
Finding the right burbot fishing spot takes practice and much trial and error.
Burbot seek shallower water where food is more plentiful in the winter. Most will move into water 25 feet or less, making them ideal for ice fishing. A good rule of thumb is that if you drill a hole in the ice and hit rushing water and/or free floating ice, you should drill someplace else. Burbot are rarely found in fast moving water and the ice crystals formed in turbulent water are hard on their gills. If you do drill a hole and find still water two or more feet deep, burbot could well be lurking.
Burbot have a wide and varied diet, which means they also have a strong tendency to go after manmade lures, making the fish easy to catch.
When fishing for burbot, look for rocky structure. Reefs, bars, and deepwater flats are preferred burbot dining areas. A key to finding burbot is to locate structure that is adjacent to deeper water. Burbot are night hunters, so anglers in pursuit of them must also be nocturnal. The best fishing starts just after sunset and continues throughout the night.
You can use a wide variety of bait for burbot, but fresh fish baits such as whitefish, herring, squid or smelt are consistently the most effective. Other baits such as worms, salmon roe and even chicken liver have been used successfully to catch burbot, but generally don’t work as well as fresh fish. Burbot have very large mouths, so you can use large chunks of bait.
Plunking a hook baited with fresh whitefish, lamprey, smelt or herring through the ice is akin to ringing a burbot dinner bell. Rig a large hook, of at least ¾ inch gap (even small burbot have big mouths) with your choice of bait.
You will need stout fishing gear. Try a 34- to 36-inch graphite rod and a high 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 bait and use slow jigging motions with long pauses. Jig the bait close to the bottom of a lake or river. Burbot spend most of their time lying on the bottom in slow-moving water and backwater eddies. These fish hunt slowly and methodically using darkness to cloak their approach. Jig just enough to get a fish’s attention, then let a burbot sneak in and “surprise” the bait.
You can clean burbot in much the same manner as catfish. First, make a shallow cut that passes just through the skin encircling the neck area. Then peel the skin down the length of the fish to the tail using pliers. Remove the head and entrails, along with any obvious fatty deposits.
Most any of your favorite fish recipes will work, but it’s tough to beat pan-fried burbot prepared right on the ice with fried potatoes, onions, and a hearty red wine.