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The Burbot is a slender-shaped, smooth-skinned fish with a single, large barbel in the middle of its chin. Dorsal fin is divided, with the first dorsal lobe short containing 8 to 16 soft rays. The second lobe is low, long, and has 61 to 81 rays. The anal fin is nearly as long as the second dorsal and has 52 to 76 fin rays. The pelvic fins with 5 to 8 rays are inserted slightly ahead of the pectoral fins. Scales are present, but are so small that they are nearly invisible--except on large adults. The back and sides of the fish are dark olive or brown with dark mottlings, and the belly is white or pale yellow. Fins are similar in color to adjacent body parts. Although it can attain lengths of over 30 inches and weigh over 12 pounds, most of the specimens in Iowa are considerably smaller.
The burbot is an uncommon but widespread inhabitant of the Great Border rivers. It is also an occasional visitor in other large rivers and sometimes enters the small coldwater tributaries. It prefers to inhabit areas with aquatic vegetation, rock piles, submerged logs, and various other underwater structures. It is listed on the state’s threatened species list (571 IAC 77.2(2) (2015)).
Not allowed for threatened or endangered species
Burbot, also know as eelpout, are celebrated annually at a huge ice fishing festival held at Walker, Minnesota on Leech Lake. In Iowa, it is illegal to fish for, take or possess threatened or endangered species, including the Burbot.
The Burbot is an uncommon inhabitant of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. It has been collected predominantly in northeast Iowa. The Burbot has also been documented in Turkey and Yellow rivers as well as many small coldwater creeks. It is listed on the state’s threatened species list (571 IAC 77.2(2) (2015)).
The Burbot is usually found in deep, cold waters of lakes but may also occur in the mainstream of large rivers or smaller coldwater tributaries. It is secretive, hiding about piles of rocks, submerged logs, undermined bridge supports and beds of aquatic vegetation during the daylight hours. Before 1950, it was found in the deep, cold waters of Lake Erie, moving into shallower water near tributary outflows in winter, though it has since drastically declined in abundance. Juveniles are often found along rocky shorelines and in the mouths of tributaries. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Burbot is common in large northern lakes and rivers.
The Burbot spawns in mid-winter or in very early spring before the ice melts. Spawning usually takes place at night with the eggs scattered over a sand or gravel bottom. Incubation lasts 4 to 8 weeks, dependent on water temperature. No care is given to the fry young. The Burbot is a rather reclusive fish, hiding about underwater structure during the daytime and foraging actively at night over the stream bottom. Burbots consume mainly mayfly nymphs and other insects while young. The adults shift to a diet of fish and crayfish.
Burbot caught by anglers are such a rare occurance that they usually generate curiosity by observers and fishermen alike, mostly because of their unusual physical appearance. There seems to be a wide variance of opinion concerning their edibility. Some northern states have attempted to encourage commercial use of burbot but have met with little success. In one location the Burbot, also known as an eelpout, is the focus of a mid-winter festival and fishing derby.
These fish have minimal importance to anglers. It is viewed as endangered according to the Iowa Wildlife Action Plan, and it is on the endangered species list in Iowa (571 IAC 77.2(2) (2015)).
Recent stream sampling information is available from Iowa DNR's biological monitoring and assessment program.
Harlan, J.R., E.B. Speaker, and J. Mayhew. 1987. Iowa fish and fishing. Iowa Conservation Commission, Des Moines, Iowa. 323pp.
Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Wildlife Action Plan
Loan-Wilsey, A. K., C. L. Pierce, K. L. Kane, P. D. Brown and R. L. McNeely. 2005. The Iowa Aquatic Gap Analysis Project Final Report. Iowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Iowa State University, Ames
Illustration by Maynard Reece, from Iowa Fish and Fishing