Rebranding the Burbot

Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area

By Marissa Wegher

Lake Superior boasts some of the best angling opportunities for a variety of game fish species year-round. Many anglers are searching for the elusive brook trout, trolling for salmon on a down-rigger, or casting for record sized pike. But have you ever tried angling for burbot?

Burbot (Lota lota) has a negative reputation due to its very strange appearance. Its long eel-like body and slimy looking sheen have given way to nicknames such as ling, lingcod, lawyer, eelpout and snake to name a few. They look like an elongated catfish with a distinctive yellow/brown mottled pattern, similar to a leopard print. They have a giant mouth with tiny teeth lining the inside reminiscent of sandpaper. And last, but not least, a cute chin barbel akin to a goatee. Not your average fish by any means.

Fishing with my family as a child, my brother unknowingly reeled in a burbot. I still remember the commotion it caused as my dad fought to unhook the catch, while it tried to wrap its tail around his arm! They don’t call them snakes for no reason. For years this slimy looking fish has been considered extremely undesirable by much of the population (myself included); but there is another side to this fish.

The mysterious burbot has a much different life history than other Superior residents. Burbots live in the very deepest waters of Lake Superior, regularly being found at depths greater than 100m (328ft) but being recorded in depths up to 300m (984ft)! As well, burbot spawn in late winter in the cold water under the ice, which is a difficult time to conduct field work and research. We do know that during spawning, burbot move from their deep-water habitat to shallow bays or shoals. In the shallower water, they gather forming spawning balls. Burbot, along with other members of the cod family, share a unique characteristic: the ability to sing! The swim bladder in fish inflates and deflates with gas to control buoyancy and depth in the water column. Cod have muscles that they can flex to make knocking and buzzing noises, which research suggests may indicate the start of the spawning period.

Although burbot are not usually considered a game fish species (you won’t find mention of it in the Ontario Fishing Regulations 2023), they are very popular among those who have tried them. Angling opportunities are best in the late winter when burbot move into shallower waters. Put on your warm layers, rent, or set up an ice hut, and prepare for a chilly adventure. The filets from these fish have been coined poor man’s lobster, and if boiled and eaten with butter the flavour and texture is undeniably similar.

This is just one of the many fish species that contribute to the diversity of Lake Superior’s aquatic food web. So, next time you meet a burbot at the end of your line, remember that this strange and slimy fish is one of Superior’s most fascinating species, and tasty too!


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