James Murray

Column: Burbot lurk at the bottom of Shuswap Lake

Great Outdoors/James Murray

There are creatures that lurk at the bottom of Shuswap Lake.

Though often sought, they are seldom seen.

Burbot, also known as freshwater ling, mariah and eelpout (as well as any number of locality specific names), is the only freshwater member of the cod family. Easily identified by their eel-like appearance, they have a somewhat flattened head with a long snout and large mouth, which has a whisker-like appendage called a barbel on the chin and at each nostril.

They have two fins along their back. The fin behind the head is quite short while the other is approximately six times longer. Burbot can often vary in colour from pale to dark according to habitat in which they live, but are usually olive-coloured with mottled, darkish markings on the back and sides, and a yellowish coloured belly. Their fins are also mottled and have a dark border. A layer of tiny scales covers a thick, slimy skin.

Their strong triangular jaws have rows of tiny teeth designed to seize and capture live prey. And although burbot are predators, they are not strong swimmers and rely instead on their camouflage and a sensitive lateral line along their sides to capture food. Their diet includes whitefish, kokanee, juvenile salmon, suckers, stickleback and perch, as well as shrimp, crayfish and fish eggs in streams.

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According to Internet sources, burbot populations exist in freshwater habitats of Europe, Siberia and North America. Here in British Columbia, burbot are found in lakes and rivers throughout the Columbia, Fraser, Skeena, St. Kine, Alsek, Nass, Peace, Liard and Yukon systems, spending most of their time in the deep, cool areas of lakes and rivers.

Younger burbot can be found along rocky shores and weedy areas of lakes, or hiding between the rocks in tributary streams feeding on aquatic insects. Mature adult fish can range in length from 30 to 75 centimetres and weigh anywhere from one to seven kilograms.

Burbot are one of the few Canadian freshwater fish that spawn in mid-winter under the ice. They also spawn at night, in shallow water up to 1.25-metres deep, over sand or gravel, spawning usually in lakes but occasionally in the slower waters of rivers. Ten to 12 adult burbot usually spawn together in a swirling ball about 60 cm in diameter which moves over the bottom, shedding milt and tiny eggs. One female burbot can carry more than a million eggs. They do not make a nest and give their offspring no parental care. The eggs hatch after about 30 days. Burbot are one of the few freshwater fishes, in the province, that go through a larval stage before growing into a fry. As they grow larger, they tend to eat bigger fish, not more fish. Burbot hunt at night by ambush, locating their prey first by smell, then vibration.

Related: Mountain whitefish can be fun to fish

There are a variety of still-fishing, jigging and trolling techniques that can be used to catch burbot. However, since burbot feed either in deeper waters or at night, it only makes sense to use some sort of glow-in-the-dark lure or jig head with bait such as herring, salmon, sucker, or northern pike minnow. It’s always a good idea to prepare your bait beforehand by adding some sort of fish attractant.

As far as rods and reels, the important thing to remember is that you are fishing deeper waters so you will need a fairly stiff rod and a reel with a larger line capacity.

Fluorocarbon or braided lines in the 15- to 20-pound range will get your lure down deep. A reel with a line counter allows you to know the depth where you get repetitive hook ups.

Burbot are usually brought up from deeper waters, they do not recover well if released and are best retained for the table.

Integral to your preparation is checking the Freshwater Fishing Regulations.

Some lakes and streams have very specific restrictions when it comes to types of bait and lures. Some even have area- and time-specific regulations as well as daily possession limits.

Burbot may not be as attractive in appearance as other sport fish, but they are a very good eating fish. Their flesh is firm and white, resembling that of salt water cod, and is best served by steaming chunks of meat and dipping them in melted butter or simply deep fried in batter.

Either way, a good feed of burbot is well worth all the effort of catching them.


@SalmonArm
newsroom@saobserver.net

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