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The Lovely Ling
The Lovely Ling
By Matthew J. Breuer
Ling cod, eelpout, lota, lawyer, mud shark…. these are wonderful names associated with Minnesota’s most misunderstood fish, the burbot. Don’t let the goofy names or the stories of eelpout wrapping around your grandfathers arm scare you…. they’re ferocious fighters, and delicious table-fare!
My Love for Ling
I’ll never forget the day we met… my father had just cut the line after a great battle with another Lake of the Woods burbot. I was a young boy, and I didn’t understand why a grown man would be afraid of a fish, and why so many ling were lying about the ice. I eventually complained enough that my dad let us bring one into the house, where it proceeded to knock around everything we had on the floor, and eventually slithered it’s way back down one of the ice holes. That was my first face-to-face encounter w/ the slimy beast, and one I’ll never forget.
The Face Only a Mother Could Love
The eelpout is a long-bodied fish that looks like a mix between a catfish, an eel, and a salamander. With a dorsal fin that stops just shy of the tail, and an anal fin that does the same, it gives the appearance of an eel (hence the nickname eelpout). Its circular tail makes the burbot a powerful swimmer and fighter. Its lone whisker is unique, distinguishing, and is often called a barbel. The barbel helps the eelpout navigate and find food.
Color varies depending on water clarity, depth of the fish, time of year, etc… The main colors can be anything from tan to dark brown, usually with yellow blotches scattered about the body. I’ve seen burbot that were nearly colorless, with black spots all over the body. I’ve also seen them look so vibrant with yellow that they appeared to jump straight off a painting board.
Burbot are the only member of the cod family to live in freshwater lakes and rivers. They like cool-dark waters, and are most active in the winter. In late-February to mid-March while ice still covers the lakes, the burbot move up onto shallow humps or shorelines in search of a good area to form their “spawning ball”. Hundreds of burbot have been observed intertwined and curled into a single ball while spawning. A single female can lay 1 million eggs.
Like many fish, the burbot is an opportunistic feeder. They’ve been known to eat anything from small invertebrates to mice and shrews. Their main forage is fish, and the burbot is a ferocious feeder in the darkness. Like the walleye, the eelpout relates most often to the lake-bottom, however, when chasing food the burbot often rides high in the water column, even breaking surface.
Catching the Cod
Since eelpout are most active in the winter while packing on pounds, getting ready for spawn, this is also the most common time of year to catch the delicious urchins. I’ve caught burbot in depths ranging from 2’ of water all the way out to 60’ of water through the ice. Researchers have found burbot as deep as 1000 feet in the great lakes. Depth isn’t the key, structure is. Shallow flats that hold large pods of bait during the day can be productive, while shallow bars, breaks, or humps adjacent to deep water reign supreme after dark.
Simple walleye gear is sufficient for ‘pout. A 32” medium-powered St. Croix Premier Ice Rod teamed up w/ an ultra-light reel is perfect for the mid-winter beasts. 6-8 lb. test monofilament is usually sufficient. Large jigging baits such as the Salmo Chubby Darter or a Big-Nasty Trout & ‘Pout Spoon are great choices if you’re targeting them after dark. The amazing water-movement and vibration made by these big baits teamed w/ the weight to help stir the bottom is deadly. Adding the fact that you can get both baits in a mega glow color makes them even deadlier. Tipping your baits w/ shiner minnows on each treble is a proven tactic. Any extra scent you can get down to the bottom is a plus.
Electronics are a huge advantage when chasing ‘pout. While the majority of the eelpout you’re going to encounter are close to the bottom, some of the larger fish come through suspended. I don’t know how many times my Vexilar FL-20 has shown me suspended ‘pout that I would’ve missed if I hadn’t been using electronics.
Jig often and be aggressive. Calling in one burbot with aggressive jigging often leads to small flurries. Banging the bottom occasionally to stir up the bottom content is a good way to call their attention. When you mark a fish on your Vexilar, slowly lift your bait and keep it moving. Most of the ‘pout you mark are going to smack your bait, and when they do, hold on!
Next time you’re on the lake and you hook into a “pesky” burbot, don’t throw it on the ice, throw it back for another angler to enjoy or throw it in your bucket and give one of the aforementioned recipes a try!
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