What exactly is a burbot, you ask? They are what Captain Hook hated being called by Peter Pan, "codfish"! A burbot is a fish, scientifically known as Lota lota. They are a freshwater cod native to most waters of Alaska, Canada, northern U.S. southward to about 40 degrees north latitude and corresponding latitudes of Eurasia. Many Michigan anglers have never seen, nor caught a burbot.
In Michigan they are common in all the Great Lakes except Lake Erie and several of our deep, cold inland lakes like Crystal, Elk, and Torch Lakes, where anglers catch them while fishing for lake trout. They are also found in several of our large rivers. Burbot are indicators of excellent water quality.
Burbot are known by a variety of common names, depending on geographic location, including cusk, eelpout, freshwater cod, lawyer, lingcod, loche, lush, mariah and mud shark. The most common name in the Great Lakes region is "lawyer." Why, one can only speculate, but perhaps one look and/or touch will give you a hint. Another clue may be, they are strictly bottom feeders. They have an elongated body, with a long dorsal fin and rounded tail. Their coloration is a mottled olive-green to brown, with a cream-colored underneath. The most distinguishing external characteristic is the presence of a single chin whisker or barbel.
Burbot are a relatively long-lived, slow growing species. They can live over 20 years, while most live to 15 years. An average burbot is 20 inches long and weighs about three pounds. The Michigan state record is 18.5 pounds, with the minimum Michigan DNR Master Angler entry being five pounds. They spawn under the ice in late winter (February-March), which is fairly unique in the fish world. The spawn takes place in large communal groups of a dozen or more. They reach sexual maturity in their sixth or seventh year and a single female can deposit between 63,000 and 3.4 million eggs. The young feed mainly on aquatic insects and crayfish, until they reach 5 years of age, when they convert to eating other fish. They are voracious predators and feed mainly in low light conditions.
Fishermen catch them mainly through the ice in the winter by accident, but can be caught in the summer. The gear required is simple and inexpensive: a tip up or hand-line with 8-pound test line, a half ounce sinker 18 inches above a size four treble hook. Bait with a dead smelt, minnow, or chunk of fish (suckers will work) and lay the sinker on the bottom. Burbot are very poor fighters and one can barely tell there is a fish on the line during the retrieve. They have a tendency to "wrap" themselves around the line while being reeled to the creel. They are caught in Keweenaw Bay by anglers bobbing for lake trout.
Now comes the good part! Despite the burbot's homely appearance, its meat is delicious and nutritious and has great gastronomic appeal. In the U.S. they have long been overlooked as a food fish, as fishers looked upon them as "trash fish." A delicacy in Scandinavia, the burbot's liver, which is 10 percent of its weight and takes up over half of the body cavity, contains oil having three to four times the vitamin D and five times the vitamin A than good grades of cod-liver oil.
Cleaning is the most difficult part. My method is to hang the fish by the head and cut through the skin near the head and down the back a ways and pull the skin off with a pair of pliers. Next, simply fillet the tenderloins out with a sharp filleting knife. There's no need to eviscerate the fish, unless you desire to cook the liver. The tenderloins can now be cooked in any of the usual methods of cooking fish (frying, baking, poaching, etc.), but another method, which is my favorite, is suggested.
Cut each tenderloin into 2-inch chunks and boil in water seasoned with any of the commercial fish boil seasonings available for 5 to 10 minutes. Then serve with lemon or a garlic butter and you have "poor man's lobster," which will deceive the most discriminating palate.
You may want to try the following recipe at your next culinary event by serving a version of "Lobster Newburg." See your local commercial fisherman for the main ingredient.
Please give Mr. "Lota lota" a chance and do not be put off by his appearance, but rather discover his internal flavor.