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Meet the burbot: The slimy fish that only spawns in winter

A man holds a speckled, slimy fish while kneeling on snow.
Zachary McNaughton
/
Courtesy
Jud Kratzer, a fisheries biologist for Vermont Fish and Wildlife, holds a freshly-caught burbot measuring 24.5".

Beneath the ice in Vermont’s lakes and streams lives a cold-loving fish with a “beard” and the odd trait of spawning in freezing-cold water.

The burbot, the only fully freshwater fish in the cod family, is found at northern latitudes around the world, appearing everywhere from a short story by Anton Chekhov to the origin of an American pharmaceutical company. It has a wide variety of names, many of which belong to other, similar-looking species, including the eelpout, ling and cusk.

Its beard is a barbel, a sensory organ extending from its mouth it uses for taste. It’s the same organ that makes up a catfish’s iconic “whiskers.”

The burbot gets its name from the Middle French word borbeter, meaning to wallow in mud, fitting for a fish that lives at the bottom of bodies of water. It is one of the few fish species in Vermont to spawn during winter.

“They congregate in large spawning aggregations, usually over some sand or gravel bottom, and they get in these balls of burbot swimming all around each other,” said Jud Kratzer, fisheries biologist for Vermont Fish and Wildlife. “They’re releasing milt [seminal fluid] and eggs into the water in this massive ball of burbot. I’ve heard it looks kind of creepy.”

Like some of their cod siblings, male burbots are also able to vocalize, and that vocalization is associated with their spawning period. The sound is not audible on land, Kratzer said.

There are burbot populations in streams and lakes across the state, but the largest fish – the ones large enough to be worth catching and eating – live in lakes, Kratzer said.

Burbot, like trout and salmon, are adapted to cold water, and thus most active in the winter. As such, most people catch them by ice fishing, Kratzer said.

Zachary McNaughton, who runs a YouTube show called Vermont Master Anglers on fishing in Vermont, was introduced to burbot fishing by Kratzer for an episode filmed in 2019. Since then, he’s gone out to fish for burbot with his now 7-year-old son, Fisher, every year.

The burbot is Fisher’s favorite fish: “I like the camo on their back. They’re slippery and slimy and I like their tail,” Fisher said.

A young boy with red cheeks from the cold holds a fish covered in ice.
Zachary McNaughton
/
Courtesy
Fisher McNaughton holds his Master Angler burbot in 2023.

Burbots are an interesting-looking fish without spiky parts or sharp teeth to injure yourself on, McNaughton said, making them a fun way to introduce kids to fishing.

Burbot feed at night, so McNaughton’s strategy is to set up tip-ups, a tool which sits over the frozen surface of a body of water and notifies a fisher that something has taken the bait by lifting up, raising a flag, or in McNaughton’s case, tripping an alarm.

“Basically, we set up bunk beds in a tent and we sleep and when the alarms go off, they wake us up and we run out and pull in the fish,” McNaughton said. They usually get around 10 fish in a night, but it varies a lot – last weekend, McNaughton said, they only caught one fish.

As burbot are carnivores, it’s best to use baitfish like smelt or shiners (fish with reflective scales), McNaughton said. He’s had the most success using a clear mesh bag of chopped, frozen smelt as a lure. Burbot are attracted to light, vibration and smell.

Burbot are not commonly-caught fish, and because of that, there aren’t any state regulations specifically for them. While burbot are popular in the Midwest, McNaughton said, they’re far less popular in Vermont, where the species doesn’t grow as large.

Though slimy and not especially pretty, Burbot are excellent food, McNaughton said, describing it as a nice whitefish, owing to its membership in the cod family.

“They are one of the best-tasting fish we have in the state,” Kratzer, the fish biologist, said. “It’s a very mild flavor but not tasteless, and the meat is nice and firm.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Corrected: March 5, 2024 at 3:15 PM EST
The original version of this story referred to northern elevations when it should have referred to northern latitudes. This error has been corrected.
Corey Dockser is Vermont Public’s first data journalist, a role combining programming and journalism to produce stories that would otherwise go unheard. His work ranges from complex interactive visualizations to simple web scraping and data cleaning. Corey graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a BS in data science and journalism. He previously worked at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York as a Dow Jones News Fund Data Journalism intern, and at The Boston Globe.

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