January 27, 2016
By Steve Hoffman
Burbot look like a cross between an American eel and a brown bullhead. A layer of tiny scales covers a thick, slimy skin. Mottled coloration in shades of yellows and browns resembles the markings of a wild cat and serves the same purpose. Burbot aren't strong swimmers, relying instead on camouflage and a sensitive lateral line to capture food. Their strong triangular jaws are filled with rows of tiny teeth, designed to seize and swallow live prey.
Burbot inhabit northern lakes, rivers, and even brackish estuaries around the globe. They're common throughout Canada except in Nova Scotia and the Atlantic islands. They also occur across the northern tier of the United States from Maine to eastern Washington and as far south as Missouri. Burbot also are abundant in Alaska, one of the few places where they're highly regarded as a commercial and gamefish species.
Despite the burbot's circumpolar distribution, we know little about its movements and habits. Their preference for deep water, seemingly random movements during winter, and lack of movement during the rest of the year make them difficult to collect with standard sampling gear. And angler indifference toward burbot across most of their range have made scientific study a low priority.
We do know, however, that burbot are voracious predators. This has led many fishery managers to suspect that they might compete with walleyes, lake trout, and other popular gamefish for limited forage in infertile lakes. Unlimited harvest, including commercial fishing, has been allowed in many areas to reduce burbot numbers.
During winter, burbot location and activity levels are based on water temperature, but they often vary considerably from one body of water to the next. In large shallow lakes like Mille Lacs and Leech in Minnesota, for example, burbot often are active as soon as the ice begins to form in early December. Walleye and perch anglers fishing shallow bars and flats often catch burbot on jigging presentations throughout the day, though the catch rate peaks during the evening twilight period and the first few hours of darkness.
Burbot eventually spawn on rock or gravel bars in 2 to 20 feet of water, but food continues to be a priority. Smaller males typically arrive on spawning grounds several days before females. They cruise over the tops of bars under the cover of darkness, feeding on crayfish, perch, minnows, and other organisms. When spawning, as many as a dozen males and females form a writhing ball several feet in diameter as they roll across the bottom, simultaneously releasing eggs and sperm.
By early to mid-January, most burbot in shallow lakes have spawned, and catching them becomes more difficult. After spawning, burbot return to the deepest areas of the lake basin where they remain sedentary until the urge to feed and spawn draws them back into shallow water.
On deeper lakes with more complex structural elements, however, burbot often spawn later in the season and remain active for several weeks after ice-out. In Leech Lake's Walker Bay, for example, the best fishing usually coincides with the Annual Eelpout Festival in mid-February. This 48-hour burbot marathon attracts thousands of contestants every year and has become something of a Northwoods Mardi Gras. During some years, burbot in these deep lakes continue to feed aggressively until early May when water temperatures reach the mid-40ËšF range.
Active and aggressive, though, are relative terms. During a study on the winter movements of burbot in Bull Lake, Wyoming, biologists classified burbot that moved more than 3 meters as "active." Most of the radio-tagged fish were active only about 2 percent of the time, and one fish was found in the same location for 11 days, which included two 24-hour tracking periods. Throughout the duration of the study, it was common for individual fish to remain inactive for more than 24 hours. When they did move, it was usually at sunset or at night.
The 1-2-3 Punch
Bass and walleye anglers have long recognized the value of tournaments as a source of fishing information, but how about competitive burbot fishing? In-Fisherman television producer Rich Eckholm has for years been a member of one of the most formidable teams to take the ice during the Leech Lake burbot competition. A few years back, Eckholm and company caught more than 1,300 pounds of burbot in two days — more than a third of the total weight from all contestants.
Eckholm usually starts his search by locating rocky humps adjacent to deep water. The best structures usually top out in 15 to 20 feet of water then drop onto a 30- to 40-foot shelf before descending to the lake basin. These reefs are easily accessed from deep-water holding areas and provide ample forage and spawning habitat. Most anglers cut holes over the top of the reef just before dark, then use tip-ups, rattle reels, or floats to suspend a lively baitfish a few inches above the rocks. Then they wait.
Eckholm and his teammates, though, prefer a more active and mobile approach. Starting in early afternoon, they fish the edge of the lake basin in water as deep as 60 feet. Heavy jigging spoons tipped with a live minnow or a minnow head drop deep fast. The flash and vibration of the spoon attracts burbot, while the bait triggers a strike. Periodically dropping the bait to the bottom to produce noise and kick up sediment often tempts reluctant fish.
Phosphorescent jigging spoons or lures dressed with small pieces of a phosphorescent plastic grub are more visible to burbot in the depths or after dark. Try lures with a phosphorescent finish or modify existing lures with Prism Tape from Witchcraft (800/521-0731) or vinyl jig paint from Bass Pro Shops (800/227-7776).
An hour or two before sunset, Eckholm moves onto the first drop-off at the base of the reef. After drilling a series of holes around the perimeter of the structure, he moves quickly from one hole to the next, searching with swimming lures like a #7 Jigging Rapala or #3 Nils Master Jigger. He tips the rear tine of the treble hook with a minnow head and drops it to the bottom. Then he raises the lure and holds it three inches above the bottom before snapping the rod tip up and immediately dropping it 6 inches below the starting level. The lure swims out, turns, then hits bottom on the return swing.
Immediately after sunset and until the fishing begins to slow around midnight, Eckholm moves onto the top of the reef where he had drilled holes earlier in the afternoon. During these hours he prefers 1/16- to 1/4-ounce slip-bobber jigs with a Kahle-style hook. He inserts the hook just behind and parallel to the dorsal fin of a lively 3- to 5-inch shiner. Then he lowers the jig on a tight line until the jighead rests on the bottom. He jiggles the rod tip for a second or two, then pauses for several seconds. Marauding burbot are attracted by the vibrations emitted by the baitfish struggling on the bottom.
How To Catch Burbot