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A Thing for Ling Fish

They go by many an alias: eelpout, lawyer, freshwater cusk, freshwater ling, loche, poor man’s lobster, mud shark, mariah…and the list goes on.

That’s right, we’re talking burbot. It’s a species that, in the past, has held the unfortunate title of “garbage fish,” junk fish to be tossed away. It’s a fish that, until recently, wasn’t even listed in many angling regulations throughout their range. But times are changing, and folks far and wide are beginning to recognize the value of this unique and scrumptious ling fish.

Burbot look like an eel crossed with a frog. They taste like a cod or a lobster. You peel them like a slimy banana. And they are fantastic! So, let’s talk Burbot!

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BURBOT BASICS

Different in many ways than other native game fish, the first thing that sets burbot apart is their appearance. This is also the main reason why opinions on this fish vary so greatly.

Why? Let’s start with the slime. Mud sharks are coated in a layer of snot-like ooze that may be a turn- off for some anglers, but this certainly doesn’t allude to their tasty nature.

Second, while a select few fishermen (such as I) are charmed by the burbot’s distinct and quirky features, as mainstream fish standards go, these fish are ugly. With an elongated body similar to an eel, a large, toad-like mouth, and dressed in striking brown and gold flecks and dapples, these fish are easily identifiable characters. A barbel on its chin can confuse some people into thinking they are in the catfish family, but in reality, they are the only freshwater member of the cod (Gadidae) family. This is why they are referred to colloquially as ling fish, and why they have a genus (Lota lota) to themselves.

Eelpout average about 18 to 20 inches, which is the size when they normally begin to spawn, but they can reach over 30 inches and live up to 15 years. While burbot are abundant throughout the rivers and lakes of Canada and the Northern United States, they are not a fish you will encounter often in the warmer months. The easiest and most common time to catch burbot is through the ice around January to March. That’s when they migrate en masse to shallow water (usually under five meters) in order to spawn.

Generally most active at night, they often form “balls” of several individuals writhing across a sand or fine- gravel bottom, where they prefer to deposit eggs and milt. These loosely deposited eggs are a valuable food source for other fish, especially the small- mouthed lake whitefish, which can then be targeted by anglers during the day in the same areas. Due to their vulnerability during the spawn and their slow maturation (which may take up to seven years), many areas are now actively managing burbot and partially closing the winter season in order to protect the population.

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The ideal fish to casually target with young kids, family or friends during some quality time on the ice.

FISHING TACTICS

Burbot can be caught at other times of the year, but because they prefer very deep water outside of spawning, they can be hard to target. Regardless of timing, burbot are mainly bottom feeders. They use their keen sense of smell to search for quarry, so will be attracted to bait such as minnows, worms, and even chunks of meat right off the bottom.

Tactics like jigging aren’t particularly necessary or effective on a loche. Thumping bottom with your bait to spread scent and pique curiosity occasionally is more than enough. Don’t expect a hard hit, a good fight, or even a triggered tip-up when you have a lawyer on the line. Many times, this fish will pick bait up off the bottom, then sit there quietly until the next opportunity presents itself.

Many a burbot has been reeled in while cleaning up untriggered tip-ups at the end of a fishing trip. For this reason, they are an ideal fish to target with set lines, and they can be a great fish for beginners, since the pressure to set a hook properly is almost non-existent. While they seem sluggish, a mature freshwater ling fish is a voracious predator. It feeds almost exclusively on other fish, such as lake whitefish and other burbot. Once latched on to prey, the fish are reluctant to let go. It’s another quality that makes them ideal for overnight or tip-up fishing.

evening
A perfect evening on the hard water, a dog, a heater and a line in the water.

Ling Fish Recipes

Once you have a lota in hand, the real fun begins. Their mild white meat is some of the finest table fare anyone can pull out of our cold Northern waters (if you can figure out how to get at it).

You will find these fish extremely slimy and almost impossible to handle and fillet like other fish while their skin is still on. The answer to this may seem a bit primitive, but it works. Simply nail the burbot’s head to a solid anchor, like a post. Cut a ring around the circumference of the body just behind the gills, grab onto the skin with a pair of pliers, and pull. The entire slippery mess should come off like a sock, leaving a clean fish with fillets attached. These are now easy to cut off the body in much the same way you’d do with other game fish.

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Once the cleaning is done, your options for preparing them are almost endless—from soups to bacon-wrapped burbot bites. When baked or fried, many liken the light flakey meat to cod, but when poached, the nickname “poor man’s lobster” rings true. You can get fancy with a curry or fish pie or keep it simple by cooking burbot with butter and garlic. Regardless of how you decide to prep them, these fish are versatile and easy to clean and cook, regardless of your skill level.

The burbot’s unrecognized and underappreciated status among anglers is genuinely mystifying to the enthusiasts who adore them. Some find them ugly, while others revel in their uniqueness. Some anglers can’t imagine eating such a mucky fish, while some drool at the thought of them. Some fishermen target them exclusively, and yet others throw them back with disdain.

While their regard among anglers is a point of contention, a few simple undisputed facts about burbot hold up: they are easy to catch, easy to clean, and they taste delicious. For those of us drooling over a hearty meal rather than a sleek shimmering sport fish, that’s more than good enough.

ling fish, burbot, recipe
A “peeled” burbot, ready to fillet.

BASIC BURBOT BITES

  • 3-4 Burbot fillets (cubed)
  • 2 Tbsp Butter
  • 1-2 Cloves Garlic (minced)
  • Pinch of Salt

Heat Butter on medium high, add Garlic and simmer till fragrant. Add cubed Burbot and fry until golden, salt to taste.

Keep it simple and add the bites to Tomatoe Soup, Salad or Tacos!

Shred the cooked fish and add a Tbsp of Mayo, Tbsp of Cream Cheese, 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan and a dash of shredded Parsley. Stuff the mixture into plain white Mushroom caps. Bake at 375 till golden brown. A classic appetizer sure to please!

Simmer some Onion, Carrot, and Celery in Veg oil on medium heat. Add a can of Diced Tomatoes, 1 cup of Clam juice or Fish stock, and 1 cup of White Wine and bring to a low boIl. Add diced Potatoes, cook till tender. Add water to reach desired consistency return to a simmer, add Burbot Bites, fresh Parsley, Salt and Pepper to taste for a hearty Fish Stew.

Or check out this ling fish “Lobster Roll” video!

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