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The mystery of the weird Lake Erie burbot, the fish you've never caught

By Laura Johnston • Jan 7, 2019 at 10:00 AM

Most Cleveland anglers have never seen a burbot.

Lake Erie is the southern edge of habitat for burbot (pronounced bur’-bit here), a big, eel-like, mottled-patterned fish that hangs out on the bottom of the lake. It’s the only freshwater member of the cod family.

“They’re such a weird, secretive fish, said Cleveland Metroparks aquatic biologist Mike Durkalec. “What it takes to catch them, they’re just aren’t a lot of people out there doing that.”

What it takes to catch a burbot is to fish at dark, in the dead of winter.

Durkalec worked with the Ohio Division of Wildlife and Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to catch two burbot in two gill nets in Lake Erie in December. They implanted the fish with transmitters and released them, to be tracked by sensors in the lake, in order to learn about their habits and habitat.

“We’ll see how well the fish do and how well they can be tracked,” Durkalec said.

At one point, burbot were plentiful throughout Lake Erie.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Ohioans could catch them offshore of Lorain and Cleveland.

Then, the fish were hit with a one-two punch of industrial pollution and the introduction of the sea lamprey, a creepy Great Lakes invader that preys on fish and grew explosively.

Since then, regulatory agencies have cleaned up the water and worked to keep the lampreys in check. In the 1990s, they had a bit of a comeback.

The record burbot in Ohio was December 20, 1999, caught off Fairport Harbor. It was 37 inches long and 17.3 pounds. The record was broken twice in a week.

“It must have been a good year for burbot,” Durkalec said.

Durkalec started chasing burbot in the last decade. In 2015 and 2016, he caught 10 in a night.

This year, he’s caught one, besides the fish netted for research.

In Ohio, burbot are officially listed as a species of concern, one step below threatened. You are allowed to catch them.

Burbot are delicious, Durkalec said, though they’re too soft to be conducive for commercial fishing. They’ve been called the “poor man’s lobster.”

Other nicknames include: lawyer fish, since they’re slippery, and eelpout.

Walker, Minnesota, draws more than 10,000 people to the annual Eelpout Festival every February for the past 40 years.

“As you get north, they can almost be a nuisance,” Durkalec said. “We’re just kind of unique here because we’re on the edge of their range, and their numbers have declined.”

Ohio and Pennsylvania officials worked together in December to tag two burbot, to track their movement in Lake Erie and learn more about them.

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