Burbot are hard-fighting, voracious predators that make fine table fare, yet relatively few hardwater warriors rejoice when one of these frequently maligned, freshwater members of the cod family stretches their string. Fewer still pursue these elusive, enigmatic fish with the passion of Canadian iceman Jeff Matity.
"Friends question my love for burbot — or eelpout — but I say, 'Who doesn't love big fish and lots of them?'" he says. "Burbot are also the cure for the midwinter blues when most 'glory' species are tough to catch." But there's more to this story than an infatuation with size and numbers. A fishery biologist and teacher by trade, Matity is fascinated by the burbot's life history — which is poorly understood compared to other species such as walleye.
"Burbot are misunderstood and under-utilized as sport fish," says Matity. "Our knowledge of them has advanced in recent years, but many mysteries remain."
With a broad, circumpolar distribution, the burbot is primarily a fish of northern waters that dwells in clean, large rivers and deep, cold lakes. In North America, burbot are common in Alaska and throughout Canada except Nova Scotia and the Atlantic islands. They're also found in the northern tier of the Lower 48 as far south as Missouri.
Slow swimmers, burbot rely on camouflage to ambush small baitfish, which are a cornerstone of their diets, though they also feed on frogs, crayfish, and insects. They can be caught 24/7 but are generally most active at night, when their well-developed lateral line and senses of touch, taste, and smell — enhanced by whisker-like nostril and chin barbels — give them an advantage over prey.
Little is known about burbot movements in early winter, and location often varies from one body of water to another. In some large, relatively shallow fisheries such as Minnesota's Leech Lake, burbot are active at first ice and often caught by walleye and perch anglers fishing shallow flats and bars.
Matity notes that current also concentrates burbot in some systems. "Current areas can be dangerous, but I've enjoyed some outrageous burbot fishing while chasing winter walleyes in flowing water," he says. "And unlike walleyes, burbot feed top to bottom in 18 feet of water at night. I've even had them swim up holes to eat chummed jumbo shiners floating near the surface."
Burbot adopt more standard behavior during the spawn, which is when Matity prefers to fish them. Depending on latitude, they typically spawn sometime between January and March. In Matity's Saskatchewan home waters such as Last Mountain Lake, where he guides for G&S Marina Outfitters during the summer, the time frame typically spans six weeks, including all of March. "Individual 'pout begin entering shallow shoals with the first mild winds of February," he says.
As an example of how little we know about burbot, Wisconsin Sea Grant researchers studying other deep-water species discovered burbot larvae on deep reefs in the middle of Lake Michigan and offshore areas of Lake Huron. The newly hatched larvae were sampled in late June, indicating that in some cases burbot spawn much later and deeper than previously thought.
Matity begins his search by finding classic burbot spawning areas such as points and shallow main-lake shoals topping out at about 8 feet, particularly those off south-facing shores on the northwest side of the lake. "Bottom composition depends on what the lake has to offer," he says. "In Last Mountain, it's rock. In more eutrophic lakes, it's sand.
"The best areas lie within 100 yards of deep basins, where breeder burbot make short feeding forays between spawning sessions," he explains, bringing up a little-known facet of burbot behavior that has major implications for ice fishermen.
"During the spawn, the fish fall into one of four groups," he says. "These include prespawn, postspawn, and spawning fish. The fourth group is non-breeding adults that are in between spawning years. New research has shown that not all adult burbot spawn every year. But unlike other gamefish, non-breeding 'pout participate in the spawn by protecting the spawning grounds and eggs from all comers."
This adds a unique wrinkle to spawn-related fishing strategies. "Non-breeding burbot don't feed, and lose considerable amounts of weight while pulling guard duty," Matity says. "But they still attack lures that invade their territory."
When fishing shallow non-breeders, he recommends pounding a jig on bottom, then ending the routine with a pause 2 feet off bottom. "Keeping the jig high on the pause prevents protective 'pout from body-checking or slapping the jig with their fins, forcing them to come from below and grab it," he says.
His weapon of choice for spawn-phase burbot of all stripes is a 3/4-ounce, stand-up style glow-pattern ReelBait Tournament Series LS Flasher Jig. "The heavy-duty Gamakatsu hook stands up to the abuse a burly burbot dishes out," he says. "The flash and subtle vibration of the flasher blade add just the right amount of extra attraction to pique a 'pout's interest without scaring it away."
Top tippings include a supple butterfly steak sliced from a fresh cisco. "Ciscoes frequent burbot spawning areas to gobble up eggs," he says. "Catch a few with panfish gear and cut 1/2-inch-wide steaks side-to-side across the belly. Hook the steak through the midline. Even when held steady, it hovers seductively, giving off scent, flash, and lifelike movement."
On the hunt for burbot, Matity drills a grid pattern of holes spaced 5 to 10 yards apart over prime 'pout lies. "Pay attention to points and inside turns along the shoal, as well as adjacent deep and shallow flats," he says, noting that travel corridors linking shallow spawning grounds to deeper feeding areas are hard to beat, providing a mix of breeder and non-breeder burbot willing to hit his jig-and-steak combo.
Matity prefers a two-rod approach. Both sticks are 42-inch medium-heavy HT Enterprises Sapphire Ice rods paired with Pflueger 30 Series Supreme spinning reels loaded with 20-pound high-vis Neon Fire Sufix Performance Ice Braid. A silver #5 Berkley McMahon swivel connects the mainline to a 48-inch length of 20-pound Sufix 100% Fluorocarbon Invisiline.
"The flashy swivel attracts ciscoes, which serve as the best burbot decoys," he says. "Plus, once the swivel clears the ice during a fight, it becomes a handle to grab and apply steady pressure to guide the fish up the hole."
One line is actively jigged with sonar, the other fished blind, off bottom, in a nearby hole. "With sonar and rods in hand, walk to the first hole and drop a jig-and-cutbait combo to bottom," he says. "Keep the spool open as you move to the next hole, adjust your sonar, and deploy a duplicate jig and bait. When the second jig is visible on sonar, engage the first reel's bail and pick up slack. If you feel any weight on the line, set the hook. It's amazing how many times burbot take the first jig the minute you leave the vicinity — especially in shallow water with limited snowcover."
If the first jig is unmolested, he holds it steady, 2 feet above bottom, with the line off the ice as much as possible. The second jig is simultaneously fished with high strokes that land with a solid "thud," alerting nearby 'pout to its presence. "After a minute of power-jigging, let the jig come to rest 2 feet off bottom and begin jigging the dead line in a similar manner," he says.
When a burbot eyeballs a jig in the sonar cone but won't bite, Matity manipulates it with a variety of tempting hops, jiggles, bottom dances, and upward chasing theatrics. "It's no different than playing cat-and-mouse with a walleye," he says.
He leapfrogs through the network of pre-drilled holes in what he fondly calls "smash'n grab" mode. "The technique lets me cover water quickly while triggering 'pout of varying activity levels," he says.
While similar jig-and-cutbait setups take breeder burbot in deep water, Matity's recent experiments with soft-plastic crayfish imitations have also yielded stellar results. He suggests rigging a 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Shrimp or Gulp! Alive! Ghost Shrimp on a standup Flasher Jig, then adding a dab of Pro-Cure Garlic Crawfish Super Gel. "Use the gel with care," he says. "You'll have to burn your clothes if you spill any on yourself."
Bottom-pounding tactics excel in deep-water scenarios, but he says the pause is still a key part of the presentation. "Breeding burbot on feeding missions are bold and apt to rush in and crush the bait, but the pause is still a great triggering mechanism," he says.
Deep or shallow, Matity advocates selective harvest. "Burbot are extremely vulnerable to overharvest," he says. "Keep a few for the table, release the rest." In so doing, he hopes to help ensure plenty of 'pout survive each spawning season to further the species and fuel future burbot adventures for countless generations of 'pout lovers to come.