Why do we consider some fish iconic and others aquatic refuse? In this series, we focus on American fishes not officially designated as “game fish.” These species, though native, get lumped into the category of “trash fish,” a distinction that’s more than just semantic. Game fish are managed differently by state and federal agencies. They get protection, research, money, and love. Trash fish don’t. We think that’s wrong.
Trash Fish Tuesday investigates and celebrates fish that are just as American as bass and walleye but suffer from a long-standing PR problem.
Sirens pierced the frigid Wyoming night. Startled, I knocked over the Blue Ribbon-embossed can at my feet and nearly dropped my jigging rod. Momentarily lamenting my lost beverage, I looked up to see dual red lights flashing in the distance. An ambulance? At this hour and location, tucked deep into a sagebrush basin, I surmised the most plausible pretext for an emergency vehicle near the reservoir was a rescue callout. An angler through the ice? My stomach dropped.
To ensure our safety, my fishing partner, Carl, and I had arrived at Flaming Gorge Reservoir prior to dusk and carefully traversed the early season ice to our fishing location. Carl shouted through my hazy reverie, “FLAG! NO, FLAGS! Two of ‘em!”
He was halfway to the first tip-up before I reconciled the situation. This was our maiden voyage of the hard-water season and the first field test for our man cave-conceived, garage-made, overbuilt tip-up alarms, equipped with both flashing red lights and actual alarms. They worked, apparently. Perhaps too well.
The only “lawyers” chasing “ambulances” near Flaming Gorge Reservoir that January night were of the swimming, gilled variety. Cold-blooded, slimy, slithery, bottom-feeding “lawyers.” Or so they are perceived. Properly known as burbot, and taxonomically known as Lota lota, anglers have given the fish a number of nicknames (i.e., lawyer, ling, eelpout, and cusk), stemming from their atypical appearance or resemblance to the unrelated marine lingcod. In some circles, burbot have also unwillingly earned the label of “trash fish,” construed as detrimental to prized game fish and unpalatable. As with other native, non-game fishes, however burbot’s reputation as refuse is strikingly slanderous and wholly inaccurate.
Ironically, however, the “lawyers” swimming in Flaming Gorge are non-native. More ironically, these “lawyers” were unlawfully moved to the drainage by a bucket biologist. Acting now as an invasive species, the robust population of burbot in the reservoir may indeed threaten game fishes there (which, by the way, are also non-native), but that’s a story for another time, and certainly not an excuse to label them as “trash.” Where they are native, I will come to their defense.
Burbot are a Holarctic species, meaning they’re native to many high latitude waters worldwide. In North America, their native range stretches from nearly all of Alaska and Canada, southward to northern stretches of the Rockies, the Great Lakes Basin, and much of New England. The common name, burbot, comes from barba, Latin for “beard.” Burbot have a distinct barbel on their chin, a sensory aid necessitated by the deep, dark, waters they often inhabit. Lota stems from “lotte,” the French word for cod. Burbot are the only freshwater member of Gadiformes, the taxonomic order of cod and other cod-like fishes. If that fact alone doesn’t at least pique your taste buds, keep reading. Well, keep reading regardless, because ling are not “trash.”
Across their native range, burbot can be found in large, deep lakes and northern rivers. With an affinity for cold water, burbot remain conspicuously hidden during warm summer months. As temperatures cool in fall, they become more active and move shallower, sometimes getting mixed up with anglers in search of fall walleye. When their eel-like bodies surface on the terminal end of a walleye angler’s line, they are undoubtedly perceived as a nuisance, akin to the similar-looking bowfin. Burbot also exude a profuse coating of protective slime, reminiscent of a scene from Ghostbusters, and admittedly nasty by anyone’s standards—not unlike gars. At night, as they migrate shallower to feed, the coating helps regulate their body temperature and metabolism when they return to the depths, but the goop doesn’t help their public perception. Burbot beauty, however, is more than skin deep.
Get over their stigma, their appearance. Forget the half-baked “trash fish” label; burbot offer more than most. Where they swim in good numbers, they are relatively easy to target and provide dependable action through the ice. With disproportionally large heads and mouths to match, big ‘pouts’ could seemingly swallow your arm. Given the chance, they might. I once caught a 30-inch burbot with a 15-inch sucker in its gullet, only the tip of the tail visible, the business end of the ill-fated sucker already half-digested. And the burbot still ate my jig. Downright gluttony.
Slaunchy eelpout can approach 40 inches and exceed 20 pounds, but fish in the 18- to 24-inch range are perfect for the pan. No matter the size, burbot aren’t picky eaters. That said, 3-inch tube jigs or jig-and-twister-tail combos work well on a jigging rod or tip-up. The best burbot action occurs at night, so select plastics in a “glow” color and tip the hook with a chunk of sucker meat to entice a bite. Crawfish-scented attractants applied to the jig provide further incentive. Be aware, they’ll often wolf down your offering without tripping a flag, so check your tip-ups regularly. “Recharge” the glow with a headlamp and reapply scent while you’re at it. As burbot spawn in aggregations under the ice and move between habitats in groups, spread your angling effort across various depths near rocky points, bars, and transitional areas at openings of bays and backwaters. Stay alert, as the bite may come in waves. Once you stack up a pile, you’re in for a treat at the table.
Stepping onto a thin limb here, I’ll claim burbot as the best-tasting freshwater fish in North America. For all you skeptics, hard-water season looms throughout their range or, as I write this from Alaska, has already arrived. Dust off your ice fishing gear, sharpen your auger blades, and head out with burbot-targeting intentions. Catch all the ‘pout you legally and responsibly can, give them an ethical whack, and properly clean them. Hot tip: keep burbot frozen and dry prior to cleaning, then set them out at room temp for two minutes before skinning. Herein lies the sweet spot between too frozen and too slimy for skinning.
With their mild, white flesh, culinary approaches to burbot abound. Their firm, backstrap-like fillets make for hearty, battered and fried fish sticks or fish tacos. As noted in the last edition of Trash Fish Tuesday, freshwater drum are often referred to as “poor man’s shrimp.” The freshwater cod kicks it up another notch as “poor man’s lobster.” You can chunk the back fillets and treat them like you would the spiny crustaceans: poached in butter. These dishes alone should convince any dubious carnivore to at least sample this meaty white flesh.
Still, let me harken back to the days when TV infomercials were the proto-social media influencers—“wait, there’s more!” Burbot’s thinner tail and belly fillets graciously pair with tempura batter. For international flair, I chunk the thinner fillets into a curry dish served over a fluffy bed of rice. Though 5-star burbot recipes are many, my absolute favorite preparation uses homemade burbot fish stock, along with bite-sized tail and belly fillets melded into a so-you-really-think-these-are-trash-fish, soon-to-be-world-famous fish chowder. Patent pending, if I can find a good “lawyer.”
A Plea Deal
While the mercury plummeted under clearing Wyoming skies, we remained warm, steadily shuffling between flags. After the initial debacle, I disabled our boisterous tip-up alarms. The flashing lights sufficed just fine.
We stacked a bountiful sled full of burbot. Sixty-four fish in four hours to be exact. A solid evening on the Gorge, where regulations stipulate all non-native burbot must be kept. Our freezers and stomachs were happy to oblige. I would be remiss, however, to not mention here that some burbot populations in their native range are struggling. Human activities have degraded critical habitat and water quality, and dams have blocked migratory spawners and altered river temperatures. These “lawyers” can’t defend themselves, so be mindful of populations when keeping fish.
Where “rough fish” like burbot are subjected to limited or no regulations, and garner limited or no attention, responsible sportsmen and women are charged with understanding and representing our native non-game fishes. Look beyond their appearance with an impartial view and treat burbot as you would any game fish. They are fascinating creatures, fun to catch, and when reasonable to keep, incredibly delicious— there’s a Lota lota reasons to celebrate them.