Ice Fishing For Burbot

Burbot, ling, eel pout or mud shark are just a few of the seven or so different monikers this sometime maligned and disrespected fish gets called. I, unlike a lot of folks, don’t think of them as ugly at all, but rather as yummy, battered pieces of fish candy in my deep fryer. Incidentally, the burbot is the only fresh water representative of the cod fish family in North America and it has succulent, mild tasting, white flaky, firm flesh.


The rather elongated body is very eel-like in appearance. It has mottled olive/black or brown chain-like spotted skin, interspersed with golden to yellow colored patches. This skin appears to be scaleless, but in fact has almost microscopic scales and thus must be treated differently than regular fish when preparing them for the table. They have a very broad, flat heads with a short barbel on each nostril and a third, single, long barbel on their chin. Large mouths with rows of sharp inward pointing little teeth designed very much like that of a shark. They have powerful jaws. The most striking feature in my opinion is the longest of two dorsal and anal fins that run from the middle of the body almost right to the rounded tail exclusive to the burbot, rather than the v-shaped tail found on most other types of freshwater fish. The larger burbot feed exclusively on fish, live or dead. The adults may appear to be somewhat sluggish but they are actually voracious predators and are very reluctant to release a fish that it has clamped its powerful jaws on. These fish are truly deep-water fish and have actually been caught at depths of some 213 meters (700 Ft). They are very much a nocturnal fish, hence the night fishing for them.

They spawn under ice in February through to March in the nighttime. They congregate in groups and form writhing balls of large numbers of burbot rolling along on the lake bottom in a squirming, spawning orgy, unrivaled in the fish world. The world record burbot was caught in 1996 in Angenmaneiren, Sweden and weighed in at 18 lbs, 11oz.


Safety First on the Ice

The prime fishing for these tasty fish is late winter/early spring, February through March and a few dangers are apparent at this time of year. While fishing burbot one should be fishing at night. Headlamps and/or flashlights are essential and should be used at all times when moving on the ice, even if you are utilizing your vehicle headlights from the shore to check for flags. This is not a good time to be taking any motor vehicles onto the ice, as the ice is very unstable from thawing and freezing repeatedly at this time of year on most north western lakes and reservoirs. Be wary of open water, even if the ice is very thick when you drill holes. Be sure to bring along equipment such as the Ice Claws made by the people at Rapala. They are two hard plastic handles that are equipped with 10-centimeter long stainless steel picks. You wear them on a string around your neck and hold them in the palm of your hand and stab them into the ice to pull yourself out of the water and back onto the ice should you fall though the ice.

Tip Ups

“What’s a tip up?” You may ask. Well, a tip up is a specifically designed ice-fishing device. They come in a wide variety of makes and models, both commercial and home made. The prairie farmer’s five gallon pail/ reel /flag style is really a work of ingenuity, or indeed art. But for me the polar tip up is my preferred model. The flag is a small florescent orange waterproof patch about 30 by 30 centimeters square, that is affixed to a stainless steel rod about 150 centimeters long attached to a spring mounted on the tip up’s base/frame. There is a stainless steel “T” attached to a small rod and spool to accommodate your fishing line. The baited three prong or gorge hook is allowed to sink to the bottom of the lake, then the tip up spool and “T” assembly are placed in the ice fishing hole after winding up any slack line back onto the spool. The base of the tip up straddles the fishing hole and the flag/rod assembly is set just under one side of the “T” held down to the base by the “T”.


When a hapless burbot takes the presentation, it pulls the fishing line from the spool turning the rod and the “T” on top, thereby allowing the steel rod and flag unit to trip and spring up, alerting the fisher that he has a fish on his line. It is important to keep the ice hole free of fast forming ice and drifting snow on those windy days on ice. Clear the fishing hole frequently. A number of tip up manufacturers have designed round insulated tip ups that actually cover the entire ice fishing hole and eliminate the need to clear ice and snow from the ice hole, as it seldom freezes over under the round models. I have been converting to the round ones, adding one or two every year to my tip up arsenal.

Also of interest are some of the new light type of tip ups that have battery powered tilt switches that make contact and switch on a light affixed to the tip up flag assembly when the flag is tripped- the night time burbot fisher’s dream. I have been adding these to my tip up collection as well.

The Presentation

Most folks like to use a three-pronged hook and simply push the eye and shank of the hook through the center of the bait fish coming up from the belly, protruding out from the back of the bait right at the dorsal fin and hooking the bait in the belly on two of the three prongs holding it upright on the hook. The gorge hook on the other hand is a two-pronged hook/steel leader that comes equipped with a long needle for piercing your bait fish through the mouth, threading the leader the length of the fish’s body and the two hooks sit alongside the bait’s mouth. They are easy for the fish to take in and seem to hook them very well. It is not recommended that one utilize the gorge hooks in waters that are catch and release, or may have size limits on fish as they are generally down deeper in the fishes mouth or stomach. The burbot spawn in February and March, moving into the shallow waters in the evening and night as they shed their eggs at night. Fish in bays and river and creek mouths, entering the lake for best results at all times. As a general rule I will set up in late afternoon and fish right on well past midnight, and often times do all-night long fishing expeditions, as I have been a shift worker for nearly three decades. Half my shifts at work are night shifts, so I love to pull all-nighters.

The smelts will sink to the bottom and you should let them lay on the bottom or just a tiny bit off the bottom of the lake. Remember, the burbot has catfish-type whiskers that it utilizes to locate food sources on the bottom of the lake, be they live fish or dead.

Electronics on Ice

The last number of years we in the ice fishing realm have been getting all different types of ice fishing electronics such as fish finders and fishing video units that one can use to observe the fish as they go about their routines below the ice surface. I have two different types in my arsenal, one for video and one to locate fish and depth find, and it even tells me if a fish is coming to my presentation. I am still learning about these two items but I have enjoyed the limited use I have got out of them in the last year. I think they will really aid me in finding good places to concentrate my fishing efforts.

The girls and a burbot
Via W.P. Williamson