The name burbot (scientifically known as Lota lota) comes from the Latin word barba, meaning beard which sums up the funny looking barbel, or “ugly mug whisker” as dad used to jokingly call it, that sits on the fish’s chin.
When I was a kid, burbot was our number one winter catch, but in those days many prejudiced fishermen considered them to be a lowly fish not worth hauling off the ice–let alone returning to the frozen depths of the lake! Thank goodness times have changed and burbot are earning the respect they deserve; not only as a sporty fish to catch but also as good eating! At least I’m always tickled when one tackles my line.
Burbot have light-coloured, firm flesh that tastes a lot like cod, which is why some connoisseurs dub it “freshwater cod” or “ling cod” but technically, in spite of the resemblance on the plate, the two fish are not related since one is freshwater fish and the other a salt water dweller. However, they can certainly stand in for each other in any recipe with good results.
I find the most prospective place to fish for early winter burbot is along the bottoms of deep, rocky shorelines where the predators can be found gorging on minnows, shiners, suckers, shrimps and other foods that are easy to forage. Since they locate their food by smell and vibrations (unlike most other species of sport fish that use sight for spotting prey) burbot continue to feed through the night, making them a good target for late afternoon and evening fishing fun when other catch normally aren’t biting.
As the ice grows thicker in later parts of winter, the water becomes less oxygenated- offering less feed, so burbot will move into shallower areas where other species of sport fish are typically caught, which is why they are often considered a secondary catch, sometimes biting when least expected!
Burbot have big appetites and I find they’ll tackle anything from ice jigs, spinners and spoons to a simple hook dangling a hunk of any kind of bait that’s legal to tempt them with! A nifty old trick of dad’s that often works for me is to drop a hefty, flashy spoon to the bottom of the lake, work it about to stir up some mud and then do a little jigging. This method usually generates some interest and, when luck is on my side, yields me a good supper.
Use a club to dispatch the fish immediately upon catching or else it will freeze on the ice in a curled up position that makes it more difficult to dress out at home. I do not gut the fish– after killing or upon dressing–because if you rupture the stomach and contents come in contact with the meat it can give the flesh an “off” taste.
There are various ways to dress a burbot. Some fishermen nail it by the head to a tree, slice a circle through the skin around the head and then grasp the flesh with a pair of pinchers and slip it off downwards like a sweater. I use the clamp on my fish board to hold the head in place while I remove two fillets from the tail end to about the middle of the body, then I flip it over and go down from the back of the head to meet the first cuts on each side, leaving the backbone and gut intact. This produces four boneless fillets which are now ready to be skinned and cooked. Try my recipe below for starters. Serves four.
1 pound burbot (or any white fleshed fish), cut into bite-sized strips
6 potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large diced onion
3 tablespoons diced celery
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons paprika
1/4 cup softened butter
1 cup light cream
A few sprigs fresh minced herbs–parsley, rosemary, basil (or pinch of dried herbs of choice)
Grease a deep 10-inch baking dish generously with butter. Layer 1/3 of the potatoes in the bottom of the dish.
Scatter with 1/3 of the onions, 1/3 of the fish and 1 tablespoon of celery. Mix the flour with seasonings, setting aside 1 tablespoon of the paprika for topping.
Sprinkle 1/3 of the flour mixture evenly over the fish and vegetable mixture and dot generously with butter. Repeat twice, and then cover the top with one last layer of potatoes.
Pour cream over the potato mixture and sprinkle with herbs and remaining paprika.
Cover the dish and bake in preheated 350F oven for 1 hour. Remove lid and continue baking 1/2 hour or until top is golden and potatoes are tender.