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Dokken: How about that? Minnesota has a new game fish species – the once-lowly burbot

I remember rolling my eyes some two decades ago, when a DNR biologist friend with a reputation for occasionally having wild ideas said he thought it was time for a push to make the burbot a game fish species.

Brian Jones with eelpout extended for web.jpg
Cass Lake, Minnesota, fishing guide Brian Jones holds a burbot he caught and released in March 2016 during an evening fishing excursion on Cass Lake. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is designating the burbot as a game fish species in the 2022 fishing regulations booklet, which should be available sometime in the next few weeks.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

GRAND FORKS – All hail the once-lowly burbot, which now is considered a game fish species in Minnesota.

About time, I say.

Long considered the “ish of fish” – an understandable moniker, given its beady eyes, slithery appearance and a tendency to curl its tail around angler arms when held out of the water – the burbot has become cool in recent years.

It hasn’t always been so.


Growing up ice fishing on Lake of the Woods, I can remember friends and family grumbling in disdain when a heavy fish they hoped would be a walleye turned out to be a burbot instead.

The beady eyes peering up from the bottom of the hole were a dead giveaway.

Aquatic nuisance species violations were the top issues in the fishing realm, followed by anglers exceeding the limit for fish species.

Frozen burbot littering the ice were a common sight in those days, a practice that rarely happens anymore.

Good thing, too; besides being inconsiderate, it’s illegal.

Few fish have more nicknames than the burbot. I use “eelpout” interchangeably with burbot, but in North Dakota, they’re widely known as ling. Other nicknames include “lawyer” (I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that one), “cusk,” “mud blower,” “mud pout,” “poor man’s lobster” and “mariah,” (the common nickname in Manitoba, though I have no idea why).

I remember rolling my eyes some two decades ago, when a DNR biologist friend with a reputation for occasionally having wild ideas said he thought it was time for a push to make the burbot a game fish species.

It will never happen, I thought to myself at the time.

The change was gradual, but the burbot sometime in the past 10-15 years became a desirable species to catch. Social media had a lot to do with that, I believe, as numerous “influencers” hopped on the burbot bandwagon, posting videos on YouTube and other platforms and writing about the pure joy of pulling a burbot through a hole in the ice.


What’s not to like, after all? They grow big – Minnesota’s state record, from Lake of the Woods in 2016, is a whopping 19 pounds, 10 ounces; and the North Dakota record, from the Knife River in 1984, weighed 18 pounds, 4 ounces – they peel line from the drag like mad and they taste great.

All are very desirable traits in my world. Burbot also are an “indicator” species, requiring cold, high-quality water to survive and thrive.

By last year, the burbot had risen from rough fish status in Minnesota, as indicated on Page 12 of the 2021 Minnesota Fishing Regulations book, and when the new regulations come out sometime in the next few weeks, the burbot will be listed as a game fish. It will probably be next winter before the DNR implements a limit on them, said Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minnesota.

They’re also considered a game fish in North Dakota, which has a daily limit of 10 and a possession limit of 20.

Greg Power
Greg Power, fisheries chief, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

According to Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, burbot – or “ling,” as they’re most commonly called in the state – were upgraded from a nongame fish to a game species in April 1993, and the current limit was put in place in April 2004.

In North Dakota, they’re limited to the Missouri River System and the Red River, where burbot generally are quite small. In Lake Sakakawea, burbot do best in terms of body condition when the rainbow smelt population is strong, Power said.

“One thing for sure over my career, I’ve noted a definite shift in angler attitudes regarding ling – from a slimy (almost scary) rough fish to something much more desirable,” Power said. “A lot less wanton waste and a lot more keeping them for table fare – which personally I attest to.

“Over the past several decades, burbot have experienced a positive public makeover.”


CASS LAKE, Minn.--The fish took off on a line-peeling run, and all Brian Jones could do was hang on and enjoy the ride. Welcome to the world of eelpout fishing. "Whoa, he didn't like that," Jones said with a laugh as the drag on his reel screamed...

I’ve also targeted burbot and written about catching them on numerous occasions. Without exception, every encounter has been an absolute blast. Since burbot spawn under the ice, mid-February through early March is prime time for catching them.

The time is now, in other words.

One time, while ice fishing up at the Northwest Angle on Lake of the Woods, a friend and I set up in a spot where burbot are known to spawn under the ice. I’m not sure what makes the spot attractive – it’s about 14 feet deep and basically a sandy flat, as I understand it – but the burbot stage there every winter about this time.

Hit it right, and the action can be absolutely gangbusters.

We’d been having a hard time catching walleyes and saugers that day, and so we packed up and headed by snowmobile to the “pout hole.” We were set up and fishing by 5 p.m.

We caught a few burbot almost right away, but the action really kicked into gear at dusk, which came early on that gray, cloudy day.

The action was almost nonstop until we finally pulled the plug about 9 p.m. – exhausted, but giddy from the fishing we had just experienced. We released all but a couple of fish, boiling them up back at camp for a taste of “poor man’s lobster.”

As always, the burbot were superb.

Ugly? Yes, the argument could be made.

Slimy? Most definitely.

Tasty and fun to catch? Without question.

All hail the burbot – Minnesota’s newest game fish species.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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