The Poor Man's Lobster of the Tanana Valley - Burbot
by Nancy Sisinyak
The first burbot I ever saw was preserved in a bottle of formaldehyde.
It was the same monotone, gray-brown color of the dozens of specimens in
jars that had come before it. I was unimpressed. It’s hard to have much
feeling for something that smells that putrid and looks that bad. Not only
that, I was cramming for an ichthyology exam and didn’t have time for the
luxury of appreciation.
The catfish was proud of his many whiskers and suggested the perfect fish
have even more. The wolf-eel and bowfin were partial to their smooth,
uninterrupted physiques and secretly thought the catfish’s whiskers to be
rather silly and unrefined. After much deliberation a compromise was reached
and it was decided the perfect fish would have only one whisker, a neat,
distinguished barbel on the chin.
Regardless of physical similarities, the burbot does not
share any of the same families with the wolf-eel (Family Anarhichadidae),
blue catfish (Family Ictaluridae), or bowfin (Family Amiidae). In fact, none
of them are even in the same order. Burbot has the distinguished position of
being the only fresh water member of the cod family, Gadidae. This should be
a hint that burbot is excellent table fare. Being a delicate, mild,
white-fleshed fish, burbot is versatile in preparation possibilities. When
boiled and dipped in garlic butter, burbot tastes and feels like lobster. In
fact, many folks call burbot, “Poor Man’s Lobster.”
Burbot that spawn in rivers do so a bit earlier than their lake counterparts. This is probably because the ice goes out earlier on rivers than on lakes, and it is advantageous for the eggs to hatch just around ice out, when phytoplankton and zooplankton (the food of the newly hatched burbot) are more readily available. Typically, burbot spawn over gravelly areas in rivers or lakes. The eggs tend to get caught in the small spaces between the gravel. Burbot eggs are only about the size of a pin head, and an individual female can produce over a million eggs.
When young burbot hatch, they have a very small yolk sac that is quickly
absorbed. The newly hatched fish are about the same specific gravity as
water so they tend to move with the current until they grow large enough to
work against it, at which point they may begin feeding on aquatic insects.
Once big enough, burbot feed on smaller fish. Favorite foods include
whitefish, Alaska blackfish, lampreys and the young of lampreys (ammocetes).
When properly enticed, burbot are voracious predators and excellent fighters
at the end of a fishing line.
Burbot turn their substantial noses up at freezer-burnt fare. Plunking a
hook baited with fresh whitefish, lamprey, smelt, or herring through the ice
is akin to ringing a burbot dinner bell. Just rig a large hook, of at least
¾ inch gap (even small burbot have big mouths) with your choice of bait. Jig
the bait close to the bottom of the lake or river. Burbot tend to spend most
of their time lying on the bottom in slow-moving water and backwater eddies.
Two feet of water is deep enough to be home to large burbot.
Reprinted by permission from Alaska Wildlife News
More information on Fishing for Burbot in Alaska
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