Sunday, March 9, 2014

Thank Cod for Burbot! (A Hardwater Conversion Story)

A disclaimer: this post is going to be a part fishing story, part biology, and part consciousness awakening... 
Not my typical fishing experience (for now...)

Many years ago I went ice fishing with a friend on Lake Champlain. It was ok, but it really wasn't my style. It was classic Champlain ice fishing complete with ice shanties, the old wooden jigging sticks, lots of smelt and a bottle being passed around to "keep ya warm". It was ok but it really wasn't my style. Since that point I have poo-pooed ice fishing, wondering why anyone would want to subject themselves to the cold and risking life and limb out on a frozen body of water. 

Enter the burbot. I have known about burbot (Lota lota) for many years. Locals will call them ling, lingcod,  cusk or lawyers but to a fish geek like me they are the only freshwater member of the cod family. These critters are just plain weird! They are the only fish around here that spawns under the ice, they spend all their time at or near the bottom and they are most active when the water temps are below 40 and primarily at night. HUH? So weird... just up my alley! These fish are very popular with anglers in the Midwest, Alaska and Canada because they are delicious. I have been contemplating them for years and how to get them on a fly rod. 

Jump forward to 2010... A couple of state fisheries biologists, Shawn Good and Jud Kratzer,
kick off the Vermont Master Angler Program where anglers submit pictures of their catches and if they meet the minimum length set for that species then that angler gets a certificate that they caught a Master Class Fish. Five different species in a year and you earn a pin and the bragging rights of being a Vermont Master Angler for that year. Being me I was all about this and set out to get the first pin earned in the state (which I did) and I wanted to be the first to catch all 33 species in the program. Among those species is the burbot. The stage was set. 
Tip ups with Mount Hor in the background

I am friends with both Shawn and Jud and have fished with them both. I have had them both out with fly rods chasing after some of the weird critters that I am interested in. Shawn and I had one of the best bowfin days I have ever had and Jud had on what I believe was a new state record gar with me a couple of years ago. I really love to fish with these two guys because I really get to fish geek out to my heart's content! Jud is an avid burbot fisherman and a couple of years ago Vermont Outdoor Journal did a story on burbot fishing on Lake Willoughby that featured him. When I had the chance to get out with him to do it, I jumped on it. 

The standard method of fishing them in Vermont is to set tip-ups with a couple of smelt but I wanted to try something a bit different. A number of articles and videos that I had found talked about using glow in the dark curly tailed soft plastics on a glow in the dark jig head with a piece. That seemed to be a whole lot more active method of fishing and appealed to me a whole lot more than sitting around waiting for flags to pop. Jud wasn't sure if it would work but was interested in finding out because it would open up a lot more options for him. 
MASSIVE laker (hyperbole)

Yesterday the weather cooperated for us to get out there. Lake Willoughby is situated in a mostly north/south direction between two mountains which act like a wind tunnel. Hitting the weather right makes all the difference. I missed a great window a few weeks ago when Jud hit 15 burbot in a night. The ice fishing season comes to an end next weekend and I wanted to get this in before it did. 

We hit the ice, drilled holes, and set tip ups at the end of the day. I set out my glowing worms to catch the last rays of the setting sun (but I also had a couple of LED flashlights with me to recharge them when I needed to). I started jigging a hole in about 50 feet of water with the jig. I do have to admit that I did tip the jig with a smelt head. Hey, with these critters every advantage counts! 

Within 15 minutes I had something on. I could tell it wasn't very big but I laughed my head off when I pulled out a 10 inch lake trout! Lake Willoughby has some of the biggest lakers in Vermont (it is the home of the state record of 35 lbs) which can be notoriously finicky. First time fishing the lake and I have one! I thought it was a fortuitous start. 
Get a Lota that fish: my first burbot ever!

Shortly after that I felt something bump the rig. A couple of times. I totally missed it. It takes a while to get used to the feel of a jigging rod that is less than 30 inches long when you are used to an 8 to 10 foot fly rod. I checked the rig, recharged the glow and put it back down. BAM! Something was on. I reeled it up and I had a nice 17" burbot! First one ever and a new species on my life list! AWESOME!  It didn't take long and I had another one. Jud didn't have any of his tip ups flag yet either. 

Then I had a bite... I set the hook pretty hard and the rod doubled over. It is pretty funny to see a tiny rod like that double over! I could tell this was a good fish. Jud came over and mentioned that the rod was really cranked. As it came up through the hole he said "That is a nice fish! You have your Master Class there!" as he pulled it out onto the ice. Sure enough I had a 25 inch burbot! Quite a beast! 
25", 4.5lb Master Class burbot! Great colors and markings on these fish!

Jud saw how effective the jigging was and started to use that. He was really psyched because it would open up a lot of different possibilities for him at the lake. There are a few other locations that have bigger fish but don't have a smelt run. The reason the burbot are stacked up here is that it is post spawn (it happened in early February) and they are ambushing schools of smelt in fairly shallow water in this location. Burbot don't move a lot except to spawn or when there are large congregations of baitfish for them to snack on. 
Admiring the slimy devil!

We finished up the night with a total of 11 fish- Jud had 6 (released one) and I had 5 (released one). Of those all but two came on the jigging method. I can't  wait to hear how Jud does with this technique next weekend. As for the fish I kept- some friends will be trying out what is described as "poor man's lobster" and I will report on what they thought of it after they chow down.

As for me, this was an awakening... I think I am a convert... I will be amassing gear over the next 9 months to get ready for the hard water season next year. Lake Champlain has a lot of possibilities and I don't have any other hobbies or activities that I do during the winter. I have been pretty oppositional to ice fishing in the past but Jud has converted me... and Cod has spoken!

A great feed for some friends (I am allergic to fish...)
PS- This puts me at 22 of the 33 species on the Master Angler list of fishes for the state... 2/3 of the way through... post on this later...


  1. Well done!
    I could never understand why any fishing nut would want to hang up the gear for 4 months of the year because of ice. I've recently read reports from the Bay of Quinte where anglers are targeting gar and cap through the ice in an area where double digit walleye are caught every day!

  2. Throw one in the freezer for me ... would love to try burbot. Glad you're back amongst the living.