Burbot

Lota lota

  • Belongs to freshwater cod family
  • Habitat: medium to large streams and cold, deep lakes
  • Long dorsal and anal fins; single barbel on chin

Etymology

Lota is an ancient name for this fish, which has many common names. These include lawyer, eelpout, cusk, and freshwater cod. The last name is appropriate, because the burbot is a member of the cod family. Although sometimes referred to as dogfish, Michiganders more commonly use that name for the unrelated bowfin.

Life History

The burbot is a winter spawner, moving into shallows at night and often spawning under the ice. Burbot can spawn in lakes or streams. Small burbot (up to a foot long) are often common in cold and cool streams, although they are rarely encountered by anglers. Burbot are typically nocturnal, and feed during the dead of night. Divers in Lake Michigan often find adult burbot resting in rocky crevices during the daytime. Large adults are common catches while ice fishing in some lakes.

Diet

The diet of small burbot in streams such as the White River includes a variety of invertebrates (e.g., scuds, mayflies, caddisflies). Larger burbot are typically found in the Great Lakes. In Green Bay, fish made up 94% of burbot diet by volume. Alewife, bloater, smelt, and sculpin accounted for nearly 90% of fish consumed.

Size & Master Angler Entries

Burbot are similar in size to walleye, typically ranging from 1 to 4 pounds. The Michigan state record burbot weighed 18.25 pounds and measured 40 inches long. Entries in the Michigan DNR’s Master Angler program reveal that Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are tops for big burbot. Crystal Lake in Benzie County produced more Master Angler burbot than any other inland lake during 1994-2007. Over this time period, more Master Angler burbot were caught during March than any other month.

Management Issues

The burbot is one of two predatory fish species native to deep waters of Lake Michigan. The other is the lake trout. Both species were decimated by sea lamprey, but the burbot has recovered on its own while lake trout are the focus of ongoing restoration efforts. Although currently abundant, the role of the burbot in the Lake Michigan food web is not well understood. Although diets of burbot and lake trout overlap, this does not necessarily imply that burbot are hindering lake trout recovery efforts. Historically, the two species coexisted, and federal government data from the 1930s show that lake trout were naturally more abundant than burbot before lamprey arrived.

Lake Michigan fish community objectives set forth by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission include a recommendation to devote more research to understanding the role of burbot in the ecosystem, including possible impacts to alewife, lake trout, and salmon.

Importance to Fishery

The burbot is not likely to win any beauty contests. Looking like a cross between a cod and an eel, this fish also has the odd habit of wrapping its slimy tail around the hand or arm of unsuspecting anglers when caught. Perhaps because of its appearance, the burbot has never been a popular sport or commercial species in Michigan.

The flesh of burbot is white, firm, mild in flavor, and as boneless as walleye or bass. This freshwater cod is most often prepared as ‘Poor Man’s Lobster” by steaming chunks of meat and dipping in drawn butter. They are also excellent when fried.

Leech Lake, Minnesota, is the site of an annual burbot ice fishing contest known as the International Eelpout Festival. This unusual, and tasty, fish has become a focal point for winter festivities in the nearby town of Walker. Ice fishing with minnows at night is the top method.

A Burbot Management Plan prepared by Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife reported that anglers targeting burbot through the ice at night recorded burbot catch rates 20 times higher than anglers targeting other species during daylight hours. Catches up to 20 fish per night were reported, and burbot averaged 18 inches long. Similar untapped fisheries probably exist in waters close to home.

Although considered ugly by many anglers, the burbot is a large, abundant, and delicious fish. Burbot inhabit a wide range of depths, moving shallow to spawn in winter and using deeper areas in summer. In Lake Superior, burbot have been found at depths exceeding 1,100 feet.