The Search For Alaska’s ‘Poor Man’s Lobster’

 

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The following appears in the December issue of Alaska Sporting Journal 

BY DENNIS MUSGRAVES

Ice fishing after sunset on Alaskan lakes has typically been an uneventful experience for me. Trying to tease a bite out of a trout or char while vertically jigging in the dark seems random at best, and usually unproductive.

There are, however, certain creatures of the night that exist below lakes’ frozen lids that are eager to feed. These freakish-looking fish become active when the sun goes down.

Ice anglers searching for action during frigid winter nights can certainly find some by targeting the only freshwater cod found in North America: burbot. These weird flat-headed fish become increasingly active after dark, migrating to shallow water to forage for a meal. They’re enthusiastic and opportunistic feeders and will chomp down on just about anything natural or unnatural attached to a hook.

Alaskan sourdoughs familiar with catching the unusual fish shaped like serpents easily overlook their strange appearance for their flavor on the table. Sampling the fish’s delicate mild white meat willl provide instant understanding of why burbot are considered among Alaska’s most tasty freshwater species. Most people compare the flavor to that of a popular and delicious crustacean, hence the reason why the burbot is often referred to as a “poor man’s lobster.”

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MY FIRST EXPERIENCE ice fishing for burbot was several years ago with my longtime friend and fishing partner Chris Cox. We planned our outing at a popular roadside location along the Glenn Highway, and it did not disappoint.

After a short trek, we set up our portable ice fishing shelter on the snow-covered lake and waited for sundown. The spot we picked was the perfect choice: It featured  2-foot depths on a large flat section of lakebed. Like clockwork, our rod tips began twitching just after sunset. We enticed strikes using several types of ¼-ounce plastic and marabou jigs in various bright colors. Although most of the fish went under 2 pounds, we experienced a fun frenzy in the darkness. Turning the light switch off at sunset seemed to be like ringing a dinner bell for the fish; they showed up in force and could not resist our offerings.

Indeed, ice fishing for burbot is far from complicated. Fish can be easily located and are not difficult or challenging to bring to the surface with a rod and reel. Active fish can be found searching for food at depths of 2 to 5 feet during periods of darkness. Drill a hole through the ice, present your bait with some tantalizing jigging and wait for the bite.

Although this fishing is not technically difficult, there are a few aspects I learned over my winter burbot trips that helped add to my catch rate.

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INCREASING THE ODDS of hooking up with a burbot is directly related to water depth and the structure on the bottom of a body of water. If you know what the bottom looks like, you can set up over locations that will provide the best potential. A bathymetric map of a lake you’re planning on fishing will help prepare you for knowing where to go before drilling out a single hole.

Bathymetric maps are charts depicting an accurate, measurable description and visual presentation of the underwater terrain. The Department of Fish and Game is a good resource for the special maps and has many lakes available online (adfg.alaska.gov) to view and print. The maps won’t guarantee you catch fish, but they will provide a better insight to know where the shallow areas adjacent to deep drop-offs are at and where burbot can usually be found.

Another tool I use to find the actual depth of water is my fishing sonar, or a fish finder. My electronics allow me to see through the ice, without drilling a hole, and know accurate depth. The device can be a big time saver, especially if you are fishing a remote lake which may not have any charting information available.

I have used various types of lures and bait to catch burbot. I have never found burbot to be finicky; normally, if they are present, they will bite. Burbot are known to be aggressive predators; their wide jaws and small rows of teeth are designed for snatching prey and swallowing it whole. They depend on their sensitive lateral line and two large open nostrils to sense vibrations and smell when roaming the bottom for something to eat.

Indeed, your presentation should be kept near the bottom. I like to be about 3 inches off the lake floor, and I use irregular twitch-pause patterns to try and attract the fish. Shiny jigs, spoons, and glow-in-the-dark plastics are popular for attracting fish by sight.

Some anglers are more confident in teasing a burbot’s sense of smell and simply use a baited hook. Cut whitefish, herring and lamprey eel are commonly used baits and can be very effective. Make sure to change your bait consistently to provide a good scent. Bait can become waterlogged after soaking too long, decreasing the odds of stimulating hungry fish.

Maximizing your presentation can help your cause. My recommendation is to try using a combination of something flashy and smelly – a bright-colored lure tipped with a chunk of whitefish is a good bet. Call it a dual threat to encourage a bite.

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SINCE BURBOT ARE well-distributed in a large portion of Alaska, opportunities to catch them are reasonable. Healthy populations can be found in the lakes of the upper Tanana, upper Copper, and upper Susitna River drainages. A few lakes located alongside the Glenn Highway also have good possibilities and are manageable drives
from Anchorage.

Catching these odd fish out from under the ice is a fun adventure for me. It’s an opportunity to get outside during the long winter season and provide a harvest to enjoy.

Burbot are certainly more than just a good source of protein; they also represent another part of what makes Alaska so unique.Ice fishermen like myself rejoice in knowing that when daylight dims, the fishing does not have to end in the Great Land. ASJ

Editor’s note: For more on Dennis Musgraves’ Alaska fishing adventures, check out alaskansalmonslayers.com.

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