Dokken: 1954 article puts then-lowly status of burbot on Lake of the Woods into clear focus
Titled “Mink Sink, Swim on Burbot Catch,” the 1954 article featured commercial fishermen who were netting the “voracious predatory monsters” through the ice on Lake of the Woods for use as mink food.
The January/February edition of “Pages of Time,” a newsletter published by the Roseau County Historical Society – of which I’m a member – included a “willies”-inducing” article about burbot that originally appeared in the March 25, 1954, edition of the Roseau Times-Region newspaper.
Burbot, of course, is just one of the many names for the freshwater cod species that is often known by such other monikers as eelpout, lawyer, ling and mariah – to name just a few.
Written by W.S. Adams, a longtime editor of the Times-Region, the 1954 article, titled “Mink Sink, Swim on Burbot Catch,” featured commercial fishermen who were netting burbot – “voracious predatory monsters” – through the ice on Lake of the Woods for use as mink food.
Raising mink for their fur was a big business in the Lake of the Woods area back in those days. But, before a “short pipe-smoking mink rancher” discovered quite by accident that burbot “were without peer as mink feed,” the article stated, the slimy, slithery fish were considered a scourge to the big lake’s populations of walleyes and other popular sportfish species
An excerpt from the story:
“Commercial fishing had long been a livelihood among the islands. Fishermen plied their nets in waters filled with walleye and bass. They bought good nets and drove good boats pulling barge loads of fish to market. Sea gulls swarmed over them as they worked in the sparkling sunlight. Sportsmen spent idyllic days trolling and casting along the rocky shorelines until the picture began to change!
“The burbots moved in! Nets started to fill with the repulsive creatures. Fishermen hired men to bail them out and left them rotting on the shores. They thinned their ranks and fishing was well worth the effort it called for.
“Then one year commercial fishermen were told they could no longer fish in that area. They moved on and the burbot took over … eating their way past shorelines dotted with rotting barges and nets that had once kept them down. The gulls moved on, game fishing declined and hook and line fishermen cursed when more and more frequently, they had to take the ‘lawyers’ off their hooks. It looked as though the burbot had won.”
In that context, mink – and their insatiable appetite for burbot – were seen as the savior of Lake of the Woods’ walleye populations. Mink fed a diet of burbot, the story stated, were “healthier, lustier and mature with a beautiful sheen that literally sparkles.”
“The burbot are eating everything else in the area. Pike ranging up to 18 inches have been found in their big stomachs. One held six walleyes. Fishermen are emphatic that the burbot are a greater danger to game fish than all the commercial fishermen and hook and line sportsmen combined.”
And later in the story. …
“If more fyke nets are not put in the lake to catch these creatures, it may not be too long before sportsmen are referring to Lake of the Woods walleye fishing as the ‘good old days.’
“Burbot – a curse and a blessing,” the article concludes. “Burbot – a threat and a promise. Where will they lead us?”
My, how times have changed.
Time was – and not that many years ago – when anglers fishing Lake of the Woods would discard burbot on the ice and leave them to lay, a practice that is not only unethical, but illegal.
It happened gradually, but in the past 20 years or so, burbot have become desirable among forward-thinking anglers who pursue the fish passionately late in the winter, when burbot spawn under the ice.
What’s not to like, after all? They grow big – state records in both North Dakota and Minnesota exceed 19 pounds – fight hard and are excellent tasting. A native species that requires cold, high-quality water to survive, burbot are often referred to as “poor man’s lobster” for their firm, white flesh.
As further evidence of their elevated status, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 2022 designated the burbot as a gamefish species. And while there’s still no bag limit in most of the state, anglers fishing Lake Mille Lacs must immediately release any burbot they catch. They’re also considered a game fish in North Dakota, which has a daily limit of 10 and a possession limit of 20.
It would be interesting to know what Adams – and the fishermen featured in his 1954 article – would think about the status burbot have achieved among anglers and fisheries managers of today.
My, how times have changed.