By Louie Stout
A few years ago, we rarely heard of burbot, a freshwater member of the cod family, being caught in Lake Michigan.
Yet, in the past two months, the Indiana record has been broken three times.
The first occurred in December when Scott Skafar of Valparaiso caught two over 10 pounds, breaking the 1990 record of 7 pounds, 11 ounces. His biggest, 10.2 pounds, remained the record until last week when Phil Duracz of Chesterton broke it with an 11.4 pounder.
“I won’t be surprised if the record is broken again this year,” said Duracz, who catches them regularly and fishes Lake Michigan often during the winter. “I believe there are some 14 to 16 pounders out there.”
Adult burbot primarily feed on other fish species such as round goby, sculpin, and yellow perch. Native to Lake Michigan, they are sometimes called eelpout, lawyer or poor man’s lobster and have a single chin-barbel or whisker, similar to catfish whiskers.
Indiana Lake Michigan Biologist Ben Dickinson said he doesn’t believe there is a population explosion of burbot, but rather ideal conditions for catching them.
“First, we’ve had some really warm and calm weather the past few years so people can get out on Lake Michigan in late December and January when the fish are in close.
“Secondly, burbot are a native predator and a bottom dwelling fish that feed on the numerous gobies in that 30-50 foot range. The additional angler opportunity has created an awareness.”
Dickinson added that the same jigging tactics that anglers use while fishing for lake trout, another bottom dwelling fish, work for catching burbot.
“Jigging for lakers and whitefish has become more popular in recent years, so more burbot are being caught,” he said.
Burbot are winter spawners, using rock and other hard habitat to spawn when the water temperature is 30 to 40 degrees.
Although not particularly attractive, they are considered very tasty. They have a firm white flesh and are good fried, grilled or boiled then dipped in butter.
However, they can live for decades, hence they can accumulate contaminants, similar to lake trout, over time. Anglers should trim away belly fat and limit their consumption, similar to lake trout.