Burbot is perhaps rarest fish found in Pa.
By Bob Frye
Published: Sunday, Jan. 21, 2007
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.