Fishing: Meet the burbot

The freshwater cod are running, but night fishing at Lake Erie can be brutally cold

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In a lake loaded with superstars such as steelhead, walleye, smallmouth bass and perch, the lowly burbot doesn't generate much buzz.

Saddled with a cadre of quirky pseudonyms from eelpout and mudblow to lawyer fish and cusk, the freshwater cod -- one of Erie's glacial relics -- is lucky to lure a half dozen fishermen to the piers on any given night for its midwinter spawning run.

According to locals, most anglers don't know what they're missing.

"Burbot are the best-eating fish in the Great Lakes, bar none," said Erie funeral director Robert Schoeller, who targets burbot when he isn't fly fishing for steelhead. "As far as catching them, you've got to go in the worst weather you can stand."

"The largest ones hit at night and it gets pretty darned cold on those piers," said Andy Daniels of Erie. The owner of Presque Isle Angler Bait and Tackle, he is a big burbot booster. "They may be ugly but they're excellent eating."

There are plenty of them, too. Although they have endangered status on the upper Allegheny River, which is also part of their native range, on Lake Erie their numbers have climbed in the past 20 years, according to Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologist Chuck Murray.

"We've been netting almost three an hour," he said. "They average close to 5 pounds."

Murray says the biggest burbot he's seen is in the 14-pound range, but Daniels said a bigger burbot was landed in recent weeks off a pier where diehards sit on buckets by the light of their lanterns and toss crappie rigs with large minnows into the channel between the lake and Presque Isle Bay. December through March is the best time to catch burbot, since they move from the deepest parts of the lake -- mostly the eastern and central-eastern basins -- to gravelly shoals and perhaps the bay to reproduce. One of few winter spawners, they do so at night under ice or when water dips to near-freezing. They also forage after dark for shad, shiners, gobies and smelt.

"But you've really got to love fishing for them," said Daniels. "If you stand on the south pier, you've got the wind at your back. On the north pier, it's hitting you in the face. Young kids don't have the gumption for it and older anglers don't want to freeze."

Targeting them is fairly simple, said Schoeller, who fishes creek chubs on a No. 4 or No. 2 hook off the bottom. Although current dictates the sinker weight, it is typically 4 ounces.

"I like chubs better than minnows and trap my own," he said. "And I change them often. Burbot aren't scavengers. They won't take dead bait."

Just don't expect a good fight, he said. "Burbot hit like walleye ... pretty soft."

Daniels likened it to bringing in a big heavy log. "But then so are steelhead at this time of year," he said.

It's hard to argue with appearance, though, and burbot lack the steelhead's silvery luster. They are elongated -- some say eel-like -- with embedded scales, slimy skin and a single barbell on the lower jaw.

"Like a goatee," Murray said. "What's remarkable, though, is they have these extraordinarily large livers that take up about a third of their inside cavity, which may effectively filter their blood. When burbot are tested in a lab, historically they test pretty clean of mercury and PCBs."

Canada at one time tried to launch a commercial burbot fishery, for both the cod liver oil and the meat, but it never took off, Murray said. Jerry Mathers, the only commercial fisherman left on Pennsylvania's portion of Lake Erie, traps burbot as a by-catch when hauling in perch. He sells them in his downtown store, Big Tony's, The Last Fisherman.

"I've been in there when he's offering smoked burbot liver," said Murray. "There's a local following for it."

"The meat is also very good," said Daniels. "The best way is to bake it with a little butter, salt and pepper. We call it poor man's lobster."

Burbot has surprisingly few bones and is white and flakey when eaten fresh. It doesn't freeze well.

Although there's a five per day creel limit on burbot, there's no closed season. Except for fishing the winter spawn, the only other viable way to catch them is a little more complicated, given how deeply they dwell. The commission allows scuba divers to spear or gig-fish for burbot in 60 or more feet.

"In all my years with the commission," said Murray, "I can't say I've seen many folks do that, and I'm a scuba diver."


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