Neither Julie Roberts nor Tom Cruise has starred in movies about ice fishing.
Hemingway never wrote about the big two-fisted frozen lake. Not even Jack London in his tales of hellish winters in the Yukon dared explore the jig, the tip-up or the ice-fishing shanty.
It could be that those of us who do decide to don heavy boots and parkas to fish on frozen waters see art before the artist. It could be that our soul-stretching triumph over the elements is beyond language.
Or it could be that we're crazy.
That thought does cross one's mind, a half-mile from shore on a February night, as you screw an auger into two feet of Lake Superior ice. Sweating despite the thermometers reading, you can't help but ponder whether your heart is pounding a little too hard for its own good, or the ice is cracking maybe a little too loud.
But soon, you relax.
You assure yourself that you've prepared well, that you know your limits, and that you'd probably die of hypothermia well before you got to shore anyway. Not that anyone would be there to help in the middle of a jaw-clattering Lake Superior winter night while you search for a decidedly strange-looking creature.
The word "burbot" may be derived from the French verb "bourbeter," meaning to wallow in mud. Then again, it may come from the Latin "barba," meaning beard, referring to the fish's single chin whisker, or barbel. Other names for the fish are eelpout, ling, lota, loche, methy, lush and lawyerfish. Being the only fresh water member of the cod family suggests that burbot make for superb eating. And indeed, when boiled and dipped in garlic butter, this fish tastes remarkably like lobster.
Some scientists suspect burbot were trapped in Minnesota and a few other northern states and provinces when an arm of a prehistoric sea receded. One reason for this suspicion is that the burbot is the only freshwater fish to spawn in winter, usually late January, and that‚s around the same time that ocean cod spawn.
Burbot are slow moving fish and like to hide in dark places, such as around Lake Superior shipwrecks. Divers can literally run into them if not paying close attention when shipwreck diving. They eat mostly other fish, including yellow perch, walleyes and lake trout. They also eat fish eggs and crayfish.
Witnessed by only a few biologists and ice anglers, the burbot’s spawning ritual is almost mythical. In late January or early February, they move from the depths to shallow water over mud flats or sandy shoals. The snakelike fish then congregate in a living glob of a dozen to a hundred or more intertwined bodies that move in and out of a quivering sphere, releasing eggs and spawning.
Author and naturalist Sigurd E. Olson once witnessed burbot spawning through an opening in the ice and described the spectacle: "We saw such a sight as few have ever seen—a struggling, squirming mass of fish, the long brownish snaky bodies twisting around one another, the entire contorted mass turning over and over, beating the water into foam."
Besides their snake-like appearance, burbot are repugnant to many people because of their heavy layers of what appears to be slime, which is actually a protective coating designed to help retain body warmth in extremely cold waters.
Burbot are a species of freshwater cod native to the Great Lakes. They are found as far south as northern Missouri but mostly live in deep, clean, cold lakes of the North. Burbot are found throughout Lake Superior, most of northern Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, as well as in deep Minnesota inland lakes. In Lake Superior they have been found as deep as 1,000 feet.
Fishing for Burbot.
Louis Belanger of Bayfield, Wisconsin hauled the Wisconsin state record burbot out of Lake Superior in February of 2002 while ice fishing among the Apostle Islands. The fish weighed 18 pounds, 7 ounces and measured 37.8 inches. (The Minnesota state record of 19 pounds, 3 ounces was taken from Lake of the Woods.)
Burbot will eat just about any bait thrown at them but prefer live or dead minnows.
One effective bottom rig consists of an egg sinker, barrel swivel, and single hook embedded in a 3- to 6-inch minnow. A slow, deliberate pull on the line indicates a strike.
Burbot are not known to rush a meal, so let out a generous amount of slack before attempting to set the hook. Don't worry if you set too early: burbot are tenacious and usually give an angler a second or even third chance. Once hooked, even large burbot score poorly on fighting ability, giving only a mild tug as they're hauled up to the surface.
This fish should be skinned and eaten fresh, as they get rubbery and tough when frozen and thawed. If you're into caviar, you might want to try burbot eggs, which some people consider a delicacy. Now to get to the heart of the matter.
To prepare a Poor Man's Lobster you need:
- two burbot fillets cut into chunks
- two quarts water
- half a cup sugar
- a fourth cup salt
- the juice of one lemon
- melted butter, and additional lemon juice for dipping purposes.
Combine water, salt, sugar and lemon juice in a large kettle and bring to a boil.
Then drop in the fillet chunks and boil, just until the fish rises to the surface.
Serve with melted butter and lemon juice.
Leftovers make an excellent Faux Lobster Salad.
A recipe for Burbot Turnovers calls for:
- two ounces flour
- four fluid ounces cooking oil
- one egg
- three tablespoons water
- two burbot fillets
- 12 mussels
- two ounces flour
- two tablespoons butter
- four ounces shelled garden peas
- one onion, one carrot, and one bay leaf.
Make dough with the flour, oil, egg, water and a pinch of salt.
Then let mixture blend for a time in a cool place.
Cook burbot and mussels in salted water, along with the carrot, onion (cut into strips) and bay leaf.
After being steamed, remove mussels from their shells, chop finely and mix with the burbot.
Cook garden peas in salted water.
In a saucepan, make a thick bechamel sauce (a white sauce made with butter, flour, cream and seasonings-named for Louis de Bechamel, King Louis XIV’s steward), then cook for five minutes.
Roll the dough and cut out rounds four inches in diameter, moisten the edges and place a spoonful of filling in the center of each round.
Fold over the pastry and seal the edges.
Deep fry, drain, and serve with parsley.
Burbot Veracruz requires:
- four fillets
- the juice of one lemon
- a fourth cup vegetable oil
- one each cut-up red and green bell peppers
- one cut-up yellow onion
- a teaspoon chopped garlic
- one 15-oz. can roasted diced tomatoes
- half a teaspoon each of ground cumin and cayenne pepper
- one 12 ounce can tomato juice
- and half a cup each of Spanish olives and fish stock.
Season fish with salt, pepper and lemon juice.
In a skillet, heat two tablespoons vegetable oil and sear fish for about four minutes per side. Then set fish aside.
In a large saucepan, heat remaining oil over medium heat.
Add peppers, onions and garlic and cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add roasted tomatoes, cumin and cayenne pepper and cook for another five minutes.
Then add remaining ingredients, simmer 15 minutes, add fish, heat thoroughly, serve, and don't be surprised if you're asked for seconds.
In a freshwater area loaded with fish superstars, the lowly burbot doesn't generate much excitement.
Saddled with a cadre of quirky pseudonyms, the burbot is lucky to lure anglers to search for it in the cold depths of Lake Superior.
Still, if you like tasty food, this creature is hard to beat.
Most any of your favorite fish recipes will work, but it's really hard to beat pan-fried burbot prepared in an ice shanty with fried potatoes, onions and a hearty red wine.
I personally prefer the taste of burbot to that of most other fish and I bet if you give it a chance, you will too.
Life is short. Try something different, even though it is not all that physically attractive. You just may find yourself included among a growing number of people who go for the delicious, whatever it may look like. Be sure and pack out everything you bring onto the ice.
- Written by Joe Zentner
Joe Zentner is a freelance writer and avid angler. His published articles have appeared in various magazines.