Burbot is perhaps rarest fish found in Pa.
Nothing speaks of optimism more than a legion of anglers armed with dollies.
There they were last Friday night, fishermen and their hand trucks, scattered across Erie's South Pier, as if the catch of the day might prove to be an armoire, or perhaps a china cabinet.
In truth, it was something stranger they were after. Sitting on overturned five-gallon buckets, misted by an occasional spit of rain, and saluted by Canada geese honking overhead, nearly two dozen fishermen were chunking big baits into the channel near Presque Isle State Park for burbot.
Known by a number of other names -- eel pout and lawyer, to name a couple -- the burbot is essentially a freshwater cod. They're common in Alaska and Canada, but Pennsylvania is on the extreme southern end of their range. Here, they're native only to the Allegheny River drainage and Lake Erie, and only Erie has them in abundance.
"We catch them fairly regularly when we do our lake trout assessments," said Chuck Murray, a biologist in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Lake Erie Research Unit. "We probably catch two burbot for every lake trout."
They're rarely seen by fishermen from late spring to fall, though, because they hang out in the deepest parts of the lake.
"I've never caught one. I've never seen one. In fact, I've only ever heard of one boat landing even a single fish," said Dave Adams of Arnold, who fishes Erie's deep water for lake trout as captain of D&D Charters.
In winter, though, burbot venture into the shallows to spawn. That's when anglers catch them.
"Right around Thanksgiving you can count on starting to pick them up," said Andy Daniels, owner of Presque Isle Bait and Tackle. "They stay in to spawn until the end of February, the first week of March, then they put the feed bag on, and you can catch them right up until the first week or two of April."
Anglers catch burbot using double hook crappie rigs weighted with two- to five-ounce pyramid-shaped sinkers. Hooks from size 4 to 10 tied on eight- to 12-pound line are standard.
Most burbot are caught after dark when there's enough wind and wave action to make the water murky -- "chocolate brown and dark thirty" is prime time, Daniels said -- on bait. Gizzard shad, alewives, chicken livers, and hunks of cut fish are all popular choices.
This winter's fishing has been pretty good so far, likely because the mild weather has made it easy to fish, said Bill Davis of Kane.
"I've been up here some years when it was so bad chunks of ice would come by and carry your line away. But it can be pretty good once you get on to it," Davis said.
Burbot aren't spectacular fighters -- Daniels reeled one in with a steady tug and reel, tug and reel, like pulling in a catfish -- but they can put a serious bend in your rod.
In Pennsylvania's portion of Lake Erie, the burbot caught by Murray and his crews average 23 inches and 4.5 pounds. The largest they've seen was 14 pounds and 38 inches.
Burbot get even bigger, though. Ohio's state record, which came from Lake Erie, weighed 17.33 pounds. The National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame's all-tackle record is a 22.5-pound fish.
Pennsylvania doesn't have a burbot record, but Daniels said he's caught fish weighing 20 pounds.
That's why so many anglers use dollies -- to carry rods, lanterns, long-handled nets, and buckets of bait onto the pier, and to potentially haul pounds and pounds of burbot off.
"I never weighed my fish for years, but there have been lots of nights when a group of us have come off this pier with 300 pounds of fish at a crack," Daniels said. "When guys hit them right, this pier will just be wigglin' with eel pout."
Want to catch one?
The season on burbot is open year-round. There's no minimum size and the daily limit is five fish. For more information on how to catch them, contact Andy Daniels at 814-814-746-2920.
Meanwhile, if you're lucky enough to catch a burbot or two, prepare to enjoy a good meal. They are considered an excellent eating fish because of their firm, mild-tasting flesh. They've even been referred to as the "poor man's lobster."
Here's one recipe for preparing grilled burbot:
2 sole fillets, fresh or thawed
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoon lemon juice
1⁄2 teaspoon garlic powder
Pinch of tarragon
1⁄2 teaspoon paprika
Brush the fish with a mix of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic powder and tarragon, then sprinkle them all over with paprika. Broil the fish in the oven or barbecue them on a grill for six to eight minutes, then serve.