For the first time in 26 years, it’s bur­bot sea­son in Idaho

The Idaho Statesman - - Local - BY ERIC BARKER

Jake Kre­mer is the type of an­gler who em­braces the di­ver­sity of fish in Idaho’s wa­ters and isn’t con­tent to an­gle for only pop­u­lar species such as bass, trout, sal­mon and steel­head.

If there is a catch­able fish out there, Kre­mer wants to hook and land it, ex­am­ine the fish and, if rules al­low, take it home for a meal.

So when the for­mer Lewis­ton res­i­dent and now Koote­nai County sher­iff’s deputy who re­cently grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Idaho with a ma­jor in fish­eries re­sources learned the Idaho Depart­ment of Fish and Game was about to open a bur­bot sea­son in the Koote­nai River, he was all in. Kre­mer jumped on the in­ter­net and stud­ied the var­i­ous meth­ods an­glers use to catch the fish de­scribed as a fresh­wa­ter ling cod.

The sea­son opened on Jan. 1, a day he was sched­uled to work. But Kre­mer was free the next day and made plans to try his luck for the species that had not been le­gal to catch and keep in Idaho since 1992.

“I’ve al­ways been kind of a fish con­nois­seur. The bur­bot has al­ways been one of those in­ter­est­ing fish. It’s the only fresh­wa­ter cod in North Amer­ica,” he said. “It was just one of those ones I’ve known about just through my stud­ies and a life­time of fish­ing and seek­ing to catch new and in­ter­est­ing things.”

The elon­gated fish with fat bel­lies, flat heads and dap­pled skin pat­tern are na­tive to the Koote­nai. The river has its ori­gins in Bri­tish Columbia, Canada, then dips into Mon­tana be­fore cut­ting north­west across the corner of Idaho’s Pan­han­dle and back into Canada where it en­ters Koote­nay Lake and even­tu­ally joins the Columbia River.

Bur­bot pop­u­la­tions dipped per­ilously low to­ward the end of the last cen­tury. Ac­cord­ing to the Idaho Depart­ment of Fish and Game, the pop­u­la­tion was es­ti­mated at only about 50 in­di­vid­u­als in 2004. That prompted a joint re­cov­ery ef­fort by the depart­ment, the Univer­sity of Idaho, Koote­nai Tribe and Mon­tana and Bri­tish Columbia fish­eries agen­cies that cen­tered on a hatch­ery pro­gram and habi­tat restora­tion.

It worked. Now the pop­u­la­tion is es­ti­mated to num­ber be­tween 40,000 and 50,000 fish, enough to sup­port sport angling. The sea­son was once quite pop­u­lar and even sup­ported a com­mer­cial fish­ery, ac­cord­ing to T.J. Ross, a se­nior fish­eries bi­ol­o­gist for the Idaho Depart­ment of Fish and Game at Coeur d’Alene.

“It was a very val­ued re­source, so when it went away it was prob­a­bly a big deal in Bon­ners Ferry and B.C. To bring it back now is pretty ex­cit­ing for us and the Koote­nai Tribe of Idaho and all of the pro­ject co­or­di­na­tors that have been a part of this,” said Ross.

HOW TO FISH FOR BUR­BOT

Al­though there are quite a few peo­ple old enough to re­mem­ber fish­ing for bur­bot in the old days, Ross said it could take many an­glers some time to fig­ure out the best way to fish for them and for the fish­ery to re­gain its pop­u­lar­ity.

“I think peo­ple are start­ing to fig­ure it out,” he said. “I think it’s go­ing to be one of those things that is go­ing to take a cou­ple of years. We didn’t know what to an­tic­i­pate. We didn’t know if peo­ple were go­ing to be in­ter­ested.”

The newly ap­proved sea­son is open year­round, though the fish are most ac­tive at night dur­ing win­ter months when they spawn and feed ag­gres­sively. Ross said the bulk of fish­ing ef­fort is likely to be in Jan­uary, Fe­bru­ary and March.

Kre­mer said he didn’t ex­pect the fish to re­cover in his life­time. Nor did he ex­pect to have any luck as he headed for the river on the sec­ond night of the new year.

“I went up there think­ing there is no way I’m go­ing to catch one of these fish, but I’ve got to try,” he said.

The ar­ti­cles and videos he pulled up on the in­ter­net were mostly geared to­ward fish­ing for bur­bot in lakes or big river sys­tems. But Kre­mer found a few that sug­gested a sim­ple tech­nique might work on a smaller river like the Koote­nai.

“I knew they were ag­gres­sive fish eaters. I went with a cou­ple of the odd ar­ti­cles that said just to use cut bait,” he said. “I went and bought some her­ring and an ounce to an ounce-and-half weight, dropped it in the deep­est hole I could find and sure enough they were down there.”

He was im­pressed at the strength of the first one he hooked.

“It fought so hard I thought I might have caught one of the smaller stur­geon in the river,” he said. “When it came up, I couldn’t be­lieve it. It was the first wild bur­bot I had ever seen.”

He went on to catch four that night, the big­gest one mea­sur­ing 28.5 inches and weigh­ing just over 5 pounds.

The taste of the fish with firm and sa­vory meat was equally im­pres­sive to the 27-year-old an­gler.

“I ate some last night. They were su­per good — ex­tremely good white meat, very sim­i­lar to ling cod. I would have a hard time pick­ing the two out from one an­other. They would make re­ally good fish tacos,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Jake Kre­mer

Jake Kre­mer holds a string of bur­bot he caught on Jan. 2 in the Koote­nai River in north­ern Idaho.

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