State na­tive bur­bot de­serves re­spect

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Outdoors - Out­doors Paul A. Smith Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel USA TO­DAY NET­WORK – WIS.

Some peo­ple con­sider the bur­bot the “Rod­ney Danger­field” of the fish world.

With a flat­tened head and eel-like body, it doesn’t win many beauty con­tests. And too of­ten it gets “no re­spect,” as the co­me­dian fa­mously said of him­self.

Fur­ther, con­sider this: One of the fish’s nick­names is lawyer, a ref­er­ence many be­lieve is linked to its slimy skin and slip­pery na­ture.

But if you get be­yond looks and an un­founded rep­u­ta­tion as a “trash” fish, the bur­bot takes on an en­tirely dif­fer­ent – and truer – char­ac­ter.

In fact I’d ar­gue the na­tive species should be re­garded as highly as any fish in Wis­con­sin.

I get to think­ing about bur­bot this time of year be­cause it’s when I’ve en­coun­tered them most. The species spawns in win­ter (mostly) and is known to make runs out of lakes and up rivers to re­pro­duce.

Ev­ery few years I make a trip in Jan­uary to the St. Louis River west of Su­pe­rior, Wis­con­sin, to ice fish for them.

I con­sider the fish an an­gler’s de­light. They hit ag­gres­sively, fight hard and pro­vide ex­cel­lent ta­ble fare.

Not all fish­er­men see them the same way, how­ever. It’s com­mon in some places for bur­bot to be caught and dis­carded on the ice.

Reg­u­la­tions in Wis­con­sin and sev­eral other states haven’t done the species any fa­vors. The De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources fish­ing pam­phlet lists bur­bot as a rough fish, with no pro­tec­tions such as closed sea­sons, bag lim­its or re­stric­tions on meth­ods of take.

Ev­ery so of­ten I’ll catch one while fish­ing in win­ter in the Mil­wau­kee har­bor or Mil­wau­kee River. I con­sider such events happy ac­ci­dents.

But the pres­ence of bur­bot in Mil­wau­kee wa­ters and else­where is not by chance – the species is a sur­vivor.

And while other Great Lakes fish have been as­sisted by ex­pen­sive stock­ing pro­grams and restora­tion ef­forts af­ter they were thrashed by pol­lu­tion, habi­tat loss and in­va­sive species over the last two cen­turies, the bur­bot has made it all on its own.

Yes, this fish – whether you call it bur­bot, lawyer, eelpout or ling­cod – de­serves to be best known for its many mer­its.

“They are won­der­ful fish,” said Dave Jude, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan and vet­eran of more than four decades of fish­eries re­search on Lake Michi­gan. “Lit­tle known, per­haps, but with a large eco­log­i­cal role in the his­tory of the lake.”

Bur­bot have a large, wide mouth, with small teeth on both jaws, and mot­tled, smooth skin. The long, low dor­sal fin runs to the tail, giv­ing the fish the look of an eel.

The bur­bot also fea­tures a sin­gle bar­bel on its chin, giv­ing it a hip­ster ap­pear­ance. The anatom­i­cal fea­ture helps the fish de­tect prey.

Bur­bot are most ac­tive af­ter dark and spend most of their time in the ben­thic zone, or near the bot­tom, of lakes and rivers.

In Wis­con­sin, bur­bot are found widely, in­clud­ing Lake Michi­gan, Green Bay, Lake Su­pe­rior and the Win­nebago sys­tem as well as the St. Croix, Mis­sis­sippi and Wis­con­sin river drainages, ac­cord­ing to “Fishes of Wis­con­sin” by Ge­orge C. Becker.

In parts of their range, bur­bot are re­ported to weigh as much as 60 pounds. The Wis­con­sin record bur­bot was a 37.8-inch fish that weighed 18 pounds 2 ounces; it was caught in 2002 in Lake Su­pe­rior.

Bur­bot claim a num­ber of dis­tinc­tions in the fish world.

For starters, they are the only fresh­wa­ter mem­ber of the cod fam­ily.

Like its salt wa­ter cousins sold in mar­kets world­wide, the bur­bot fea­tures de­lec­ta­ble, white flesh.

Very lit­tle com­mer­cial fish­ing of bur­bot oc­curs in North Amer­ica, how­ever.

One com­mer­cial fish­er­man who has tapped into the bur­bot re­source is Ken Koyen in Door County. Koyen catches bur­bot year-round in the cold wa­ters of Lake Michi­gan and serves them at his restau­rant, KK Fiske, on Wash­ing­ton Is­land.

My fa­vorite bur­bot recipe is to cut the meat into 1-inch cubes and drop the pieces into boil­ing 7-Up. Af­ter about a minute, re­move the fish and serve with drawn but­ter.

One taste and you’ll know why bur­bot is also called “poor man’s lobster.”

Jake Van­der Zan­den, a fish­eries pro­fes­sor at UW-Madi­son, used to catch an oc­ca­sional bur­bot in his youth while fish­ing on Lake Win­nebago.

Van­der Zan­den has doc­u­mented bur­bot in sev­eral stud­ies over his ca­reer.

“It’s a top preda­tor, for sure, and it eats a su­per wide range of other fish as well as crus­taceans,” Van­der Zan­den said.

Bur­bot is also re­mark­able for its re­pro­duc­tive habits. It’s the ear­li­est spawn­ing fish in Wis­con­sin, ac­cord­ing to Becker.

But John Janssen of the UWM School of Fresh­wa­ter Sci­ence also found ev­i­dence of bur­bot spawn­ing later in the year.

Turns out the bur­bot is a bit of an eco­log­i­cal ninja.

While lake trout were ba­si­cally wiped out by sea lam­preys in the 20th cen­tury, re­quir­ing ex­ten­sive stock­ing to help re­store the species, the bur­bot was buf­feted but un­beaten.

It not only sur­vived the on­slaught of in­va­sive species over the last 75 years, but has adapted in the face of change.

Diet stud­ies in the last two decades have shown bur­bot feed heav­ily on the round goby, an in­va­sive species that has in­un­dated nearshore habi­tat in Lake Michi­gan and spends much of its time near the bot­tom.

“Bur­bot just vac­uum the go­b­ies up,” Jude said. “They are re­spond­ing to a new op­por­tu­nity.”

Bur­bot have been em­braced by lo­cal cul­ture in parts of its range, too.

The big­gest and ar­guably most well-known fete of the species is the In­ter­na­tional Eelpout Fes­ti­val on Leech Lake in north­ern Min­nesota.

Held for the last 40 years, the three-day event draws more than 10,000 peo­ple to tiny Walker, Min­nesota (pop. 1,069).

This year’s gala, which awards prizes for the big­gest ’pout catches as well as “team ton­nage,” is sched­uled Feb. 21 to 24.

In Swedish La­p­land, the lo­cals also cel­e­brate the fish at the Am­marnäs Bur­bot Fes­ti­val.

The event fea­tures a cel­e­bra­tion din­ner of braised bur­bot served with a béchamel sauce, liver and roe pouches.

Trash fish? Not on your life. The bur­bot has earned a place on the pan­theon of fresh­wa­ter species.

PAUL A. SMITH

An eelpout (also known as bur­bot and lawyer) is shown on the ice dur­ing an out­ing on Lake of the Woods, Min­nesota. The tasty rel­a­tive of the cod is some­times re­ferred to as “poor man’s lobster.”

PAUL A. SMITH / JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

A se­lec­tion of fish caught on an ice fish­ing out­ing on Lake of the Woods in­cluded (top to bot­tom) tulibee, wall­eye, yel­low perch, bur­bot and sauger.

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