Know Your Michigan Fish: The Burbot
May 30, 2012
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.
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.
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.
You can read today’s Weird Wednesday on Absolute Michigan that extolls the virtues of the burbot. This article from the Great Lakes Echo in 2010 doesn’t have a whole lot good to say about burbot, but it’s interesting to see how native fish in the lake can have an effect on pond-raised lake trout. In case you’re fearing the water a little more, consider that Wikipedia notes that the world record burbot weighed just a scale over 25 pounds. Michigan’s state record burbot, caught in 1980 from Munuscong Bay in the Upper Peninsula, weighed 18.25 pounds.
Christopher writes that Grand Traverse Bay is shockingly warm this year, with temps already between 57 and 63 degrees.
As for the Burbot. The pic was actually taken on May 25th a few years back. I was diving Elmwood – aka the Greilickville Park – and thought I saw something. I made a pass at about 15 feet of depth to get a better view and spotted a huge burbot. I dove on it with the camera in video mode, expecting it to spook. It didn’t and I was sort of alarmed to find myself mere inches from probably the weirdest looking fish I’d ever seen. I switched the camera to still mode, as I lay on the bottom at 36 feet, and took several shots of it’s amazing face. At about 3:34 in this video you can see the approach dive. For the record, I have never, before or since, seen a burbot that weird looking.