Fish Quiz: Name This Northern Creature

If you live in the Ice Belt, where anglers regularly use terms such as “hard water” and “soft water” to describe winter vs. summer fishing, then chances are good you’ve caught the species shown above, or at least can answer the quiz question correctly.

If you said “burbot,” you are correct, sir.

Known to fisheries biologists by their Latin name Lota lota, the burbot is the only cod-like freshwater fish. Anglers often call these creatures eelpout, pout, lawyers and a host of other interesting names. It’s the only member of the genus Lota, and the name burbot is derived from the Latin word barba, which means beard. As you can see from these photos, the fish’s beard is really a single chin whisker/barbel.

Rarely do you see photos of anglers with pout caught on soft water. Instead, the vast majority (think 95-plus percent) are caught through the ice. Why?

In many of the large, deep natural lakes inhabited by burbot, the fish spends the soft-water season as denizens of the deep. How deep? No one really knows, but they are typically beyond the reach of walleye and perch anglers.

So what happens during winter to change this program?

This is not a misprint: Burbot spawn under the ice, usually in January and February. The spawning season typically lasts 2-4 weeks, and during the night the fish migrate from the depths onto relatively shallow flats and humps to spawn.

And when it comes to spawning, burbot are in a class by themselves. Wiki quote: “Burbot reach sexual maturity between 4 and 7 years of age. As broadcast spawners, burbot do not have an explicit nesting site, but rather release eggs and sperm into the water column to drift and settle. When spawning, many male burbot will gather around one or two females, forming a spawning ball. Writhing in the open water, males and females will simultaneous release sperm and eggs.”

If you could capture this “spawning ball” and “writhing” action on an underwater camera, the video would be X-rated for sure.

GETTING BIT

I’ve been pursuing pout since the late 1980s, and my buddies and I like to set up our ice shacks in 25-35 feet of water along the steepest drop-offs we can find. The best spots are along massive humps/flats that top off at about 10 feet, with very deep water (60 feet or more) only a stone’s throw away.

We rig up with at least 8-pound-test mono and glow-in-the-dark jigging spoons (below). We tip a spoon with a live fathead minnow, or the head of a sucker minnow. But when the pout bite is really on, just about any chunk of meat on the spoon will do. We’ve found that pout prefer a spoon glowing as brightly as possible, so every 10 minutes we crank up the spoon and recharge it with a camera flash, headlamp, lantern, etc.

Pout rarely chase food far off the bottom, so the typical method to success is to pound the spoon on the bottom a few times, then lift it 1-3 inches and hold it still for 5-10 seconds. If you don’t get a bite, simply repeat the pound/lift/hold sequence over and over again until it’s time to recharge your glow spoon.

Typically, a strike feels as if you’ve snagged the bottom. You try to lift the spoon 1-3 inches off the bottom, but instead your rod tip loads and the spoon doesn’t move. When this happens, continue raising your rod to set the hook. It’s best to use a stiff graphite ice rod measuring at least 30 inches to help set the hook.

Warning: Don’t be surprised if a pout comes into the ice hole tail first, and after you grab a prized pout, it might show you some love by wrapping its tail around your arm.

Some friends of mine from northern Minnesota are beginning to hammer burbot and post their photos on Facebook, so I contacted them to contribute to this article.

“I grew up fishing Lake of the Woods with my old man,” said Matt Breuer (above) of Northcountry Guide Service. “We’d see tons of burbot strewn about the lake, just left like they were trash. I started seriously fishing eelpout in college. A bunch of us would set up on a mid-lake hump around the time the fish would spawn, sit on our tailgates, listen to good tunes, and hammer away on them. We tossed most back, but I would keep a couple from time to time, as my wife and I really enjoy some freshwater cod boiled and dipped in butter. Soon I found myself chasing them throughout the year, and preaching about catching and releasing them, rather than treating them like ‘junk fish’. People have caught on, and now I see more and more people gaining interest in chasing the urchin I admire so much. It’s good to see them get the respect they deserve!”

Matt’s guiding buddy Jason Rylander (above) agrees: “I love learning new bodies of water, and watching new anglers land their first burbot. Reeling them in is extremely exciting, as they twist, turn and tug the entire way. It’s truly a battle with every pout hooked. Every hook-set could potentially be a 10-pound fish, and that’s why you’ll find me on the lake pounding bottom with a spoon as often as possible.”

Editor’s Note: Matt, Jason and fellow guide Tim Ferch (above) would be happy to share a pout slam on the ice with you this February. Ice conditions in northern Minnesota are outstanding. Contact Northcountry Guide Service to get in on the fun.

FIRST POUT

Check out the Northcountry Guide’s clip below to see a young boy catch his first pout on a rattle reel. Nice fish!

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