Although I spent much of the first eighteen summers of my life floating on Alaskan rivers, I didn’t know about burbot until my partner, our dog, our housemate, and I drove to a trash-ridden bank of the Tanana River last fall. As always, the water looked brown and uninviting under a nondescript gray sky. The muddy islands between the river braids were sloughing off with soft plops. This is where the ugly, yet delicious, tender-fleshed burbot live.
Tanana River near the Richardson Highway, Alaska. PC Don Angle Photography.
Even the Alaska Department of Fish & Game admits that burbot (Lota lota) are not the most attractive fish. Burbot are distinguished by their mottled green-black-and-yellow skin (which is incredibly slippery and slimy), elongated dorsal and anal fins, and a small chin barb. Notably, they are the world’s only freshwater cod. Mature burbot can have extremely large heads with huge gaping mouths and a protuberant stomach. Unusually, burbot spawn in the winter, under the ice, and do so in a large, writhing ball.
Furry meets slimy: Junie with a burbot caught on a tip-up at George Lake.
We had come to the Tanana equipped with 15 set lines. Sturdy birch branches had been cut and chiseled to a point at one end. The other end was an attachment point for a long fishing line with a weight and a baited hook. We each set out with five set lines to place along the disintegrating banks. Once the pointy ends were securely jammed in the mud, we tossed out our lines spiraling with weights into the silty water. The lines were left out overnight (our experience has been that burbot are particularly active and more prone to munch at night) and checked the following afternoon.
It’s fun to check the lines. You slowly start pulling, reeling in one hand over the other, and right away you can feel that there is something weighing down your line. It’s particularly exciting if that something feels particularly heavy. As I’ve only fished for burbot in murky rivers, you can’t see what’s on the end until it’s exited the water, so you are left to your imagination until the fishy monster is on the shore.
We may have caught one or two that first go-around on the Tanana; memory does not serve me well here. Subsequent fishing trips (the Ray River off the Yukon, George Lake off the Richardson Highway) have yielded several nice, fat burbot.
Burbot flesh is advertised as being lobster-like, tender and delicious, great with butter. I can attest that these descriptions are quite true, and marvel that such delicious meat comes from such a slimy beast.