Burbot (Lota lota), also often called ling, appear rather like a cross between an eel and a catfish. They have cylindrical bodies, flattened heads and large mouths. A single barbell extends below the tip of the lower jaw. The body is yellowish cream or pale green with dark brown or olive green mottling on the body and fins.
The first dorsal fin is short and is followed by a very long second dorsal fin that is at least six times as long as the first dorsal fin and is joined to a rounded caudal (tail) fin. Burbot fins have neither dorsal nor anal spines, but instead have 67 to 96 soft dorsal rays and 58 to 79 soft anal rays. The caudal fins have 40 soft rays. The good size pectoral fins are rounded.
Thriving In Cold Waters
Burbot are adapted to thrive in cold waters typically avoiding warm water temperatures above 55 degrees F. They are the only freshwater member of the cod family and have a northern circumpolar distribution in North America, Europe and Asia. It should not be surprising that they are most active from late fall through early spring. During the summer they seek out the deepest parts of lakes and reservoirs.
They are voracious predators and their diet consists of over 80% fish, but will also take frogs, snakes and young swallows that fall into the water. Slow for a fish, they will use their natural camouflage to hide in wait for minnows and small fish. When their prey swim close enough the Burbot will grab them with their large mouth which is lined with several rows of tiny teeth.
Some biologists speculate that the Burbot was once a saltwater fish that somehow became “landlocked” millions of years ago. This is based on the unusual fact that the Burbot is the only fish to spawn in midwinter which is the exact same time that saltwater cod spawn. Burbot usually spawn beneath the ice and in water less than 30 feet over sandy shoals or mud flats.
The Burbot gather in a mass of ten fish up to a hundred intertwined bodies that move in and out of the mass of fish, releasing eggs and milt in one massive spawn. Upon rare occasions this mass of fish turning over and over has been witnessed through openings in the ice.
Incubation time is temperature dependent and takes place usually between 30 and 70 days. Newly hatched Burbot feed on plankton, then microscopic organisms, then small copepods (a kind of crustacean), followed by mollusks and insect larvae. Eventually the diet of the adults is almost entirely fish.
Nutritious and Delicious
Almost a hundred years ago it was discovered that foxes being raised in captivity and fed Burbot had better quality fur. The liver was found to be very high in vitamin D and A even when compared to good grades of cod liver oil. The Burbot’s liver is about 10% of its body weight and six times bigger than freshwater fish of the same size.
So the Burbot meat is nutritious and apparently palatable, but does that make them delicious? There seems to be a variety of opinions on that question. Perhaps distant childhood memories of having to take cod liver oil influence one’s opinion about the taste of Burbot. Or does it have something to do with the best fishing for them is at night through the ice?