The burbot is a freshwater cod-like fish from the Lotidae family. Actually, it’s the only freshwater gadiform fish, the other members of this family are all oceanic fish. If you haven’t caught burbot so far, they look like a cross between a catfish and an eel.
Burbot are edible (pretty tasty, actually) and even though they don’t fight too hard, their fishing still is a lot of fun. However, they’re not as highly regarded among anglers simply because they share the same habitats with other higher prized game fish like bass, walleye, pike, or trout. Plus, they don’t exactly have an appealing aspect, and they’re slimy, so you’ll have to bring a few extra rags for cleaning your hands after unhooking.
In this post, we’re going to cover the most important aspects with regard to burbot fishing. We’ll point out the best weather conditions and water temperature, where they hang out throughout the year, as well as the best tackle for these wonderful fish.
Feeding Habits And Optimal Conditions For Burbot Fishing
Burbot prefer cold and clean water, but can also be found in brackish water. They’re specific to the 40°N latitude, most common in lakes and streams of North America and Europe, and quite common in the Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie. They can be caught year-round, but they’re the most active in cold water, at temperatures below 50°F (10°C). That’s why some of the most productive burbot fishing is in winter, on ice, or from a boat.
While juveniles are typically littoral dwellers, adults often prefer the cold profundal waters, especially during the summer months. In general, you’ll almost always find them below the thermocline.
Burbot are nocturnal and avoid sunlight, so during the day, they’ll look for darker spots, cracks, holes, or structure to use as cover. Since they feed mostly at night, it’s always a good idea to start your fishing sessions late afternoon and prolong them until after dark, or throughout the night. Also, since they’re benthic fish, rain, wind, or barometric pressure doesn’t influence their feeding activity significantly.
When it comes to feeding, burbot are predatory; they’re equipped with large mouths similar to catfish, so they attack fairly large prey. Although they’re mostly piscivores, crayfish are also pretty high on their feeding list. They also eat insects, leeches, frogs, snakes, and basically anything that moves and can fit in their mouth. And finally, even though they don’t rely on their eyesight as much as other fish, such as northern pike, they still respond well to movement, that’s why jigging is quite a popular burbot fishing method.
Where To Look For Burbot By Season
First of all, rocky and gravelly bottoms are your best bet when looking for burbot. However, they also tolerate other substrate types, such as silt, mud, or sand. But in general, fishing in spots with a gravelly bottom, or spots adjacent to a rocky environment produces the best results.
As we’ve mentioned above, burbot fishing is the most productive in winter and spring. They also reproduce between December and March, so that’s one of the reasons they’re most active during this time of the year. As the water is still cold, you can catch them basically anywhere, at depths ranging between 10 – 60 ft. (3 – 18 m). Also, even though they’re crepuscular/nocturnal, they bite pretty well during day (in the afternoon, at least) in winter and spring.
In summer, as the water temperatures rise, burbot will move deeper, looking for cooler and darker spots. In a deep, 300-400 ft. (91 – 122 m) lake, it’s not uncommon to find them below 60-70 ft. (18 – 21 m) during summer. The bigger ones will be even deeper. It’s best, though, to look for humps with a gravelly or rocky structure that are 50-60 ft. (15 – 18 m) deep, close to abrupt drops. If you’re fishing on a river or other body of water that’s only 30-40 ft. (9-12 m) deep, you’ll probably find them in the deepest spots of that particular body of water.
Finally, in early fall, burbot will still remain fairly deep, but as the water cools down, they’ll move to shallower spots. Again, humps near abrupt drops, 30-60 ft. (9 – 18 m). Also, always keep in mind that they’re benthic fish, so they’ll also be close to the bottom.
Burbot Fishing Methods
There are four main fishing methods largely used for catching burbot. These are jigging, still-fishing, via trotlines, and via tip-ups.
Jigging is by far, one of the most popular and fun fishing methods, especially in the United States. You can do it on ice, from a boat, and even from the shore. There are two important aspects regarding jigging for burbot that we must mention here:
1. It’s important to knock the jig on the bottom a few times, then raise it above the bottom for a few seconds, then repeat. The knocking sends vibration in the water and the fish will come to check it out.
2. Glow jigs are highly recommended. Of course, you can catch burbot without them, but these considerably increase the buzz that your lure will do in the water.
Still-fishing for burbot is very common not only in the U.S. but in many other countries. It’s typically done from the shore and involves medium-heavy or heavy gear. The terminal tackle is usually a paternoster rig or a Carolina rig, featuring heavy sinkers, 2-3 hooks, and using live or dead bait.
Fishing via tip-ups is another common burbot fishing method. The tip-up is a device equipped with a flag, a spool with line, with the rig and bait at the end. You drop the line into the ice hole and the tip-up rests above the ice hole. When a fish gets the bait the flag will “tip up” signaling that there is a fish on the hook. This fishing tool reminds of a trap.
Finally, another method used in burbot fishing is via trotlines. A trotline is a heavy fishing line featuring multiple shorter lines with hooks and baits attached to it at certain intervals. The trotline is typically set across a river or channel. Evidently, this fishing method can be very harmful to fish and other wildlife, that’s why it’s illegal in many countries.
Tackle For Burbot
Whether you’re fishing on the ice or not, you’ll need a rod with a pretty strong backbone for burbot. So, medium-heavy is the way to go. For ice, a 28 – 40″ medium-heavy, fast-action rod should do. For still fishing from the shore, go for longer rods, between 7′ and 9′, medium power, and medium/fast action. And finally, for jigging or casting lures from a boat, a 6’5″ – 7′ rods of similar power/action are the best.
Here are a few pointers to go by:
Most folks use spinning gear for burbot, that’s the main reason the rods we’ve pointed out above are spinning rods. Needless to say, you’ll have to go with a spinning reel for a spinning rod. For ice, you’ll need a reel in the 2000-2500 range, while for still-fishing from the shore, or jigging from a boat, a 3000-3500 may be more appropriate. Here are a few pointers:
Since burbot are predatory and highly piscivorous, some of the best baits for them are cuts of fish, or whole fish such as lake herring (cisco), smelt, or whitefish. Squid, mussels, and shrimp work as well. Mussels may be more appropriate if fishing in a large river. Also, if you’re going to use a whole lake herring or other small fish as bait, it’s best to hook it through the lips, to allow it to move more (even if it’s dead, it will still hang or dangle if there is a bit of current).
Also, burbot have pretty large mouths so use large baits, especially if you’re going after big ones. If you’re fishing with worms or smaller baits, you’ll hook mostly smallies.
Jigs and jigging spoons are some of the most popular lures used for burbot. You’ll need them in a 1/4 – 3/4 oz range. And even though burbot don’t rely that much on sight, lures that glow would seem to produce better results. Also, lures that combine a jig head with a spoon, like road runners are great, because the added “noise” will attract burbot. The barbel they have under their lower jaw is a very sensitive organ and its most of the time in contact with the bottom. That’s why knocking the lure on the bottom and making noise with it is an important aspect of jigging for burbot.
In terms of soft plastics to add to your jig heads, most anglers recommend the ones that resemble a squid, octopus, or crayfish, like craw tubes or octopus tubes. Curly tail grubs are also a great choice. It’s best to have a soft plastic with extra “legs” or “tentacles”, because many times a burbot will circle the jig without taking it, but in case it touches it, it’s a high chance it’ll turn and grab it.
Last but not least, regardless of the type of lure you’re using, tipping it with a piece of fish, a minnow, or even a piece of worm considerably improves the presentation.
Especially if you plan to release some of the burbot caught, it’s best to use large single hooks. That’s because treble hooks do a lot of damage while burbot have large mouths and they can swallow even a fairly sizeable treble. So, it’s best to opt for large, single hooks with a wide gap, in a range of 2/0 – 4/0.
Burbot are not line-shy or lure-shy, so you don’t have to worry about the visibility of the line you’re using. However, they can get pretty big and heavy, so a low-stretch line is recommended. So, 8-14 lbs test braided line or fluorocarbon should do. However, it’s well-known that braided line holds moisture, so if you’re on the ice and it’s a very cold night, it may freeze. Thus, a slightly heavier monofilament line should work as well, especially if it’s really cold, or use ice braid.
Also, for jigging vertically (on ice or from a boat), a 12-20″ 12-14 lbs test fluoro leader can help prevent the lure from tangling to the line, as you knock it on the bottom.