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 How do I catch those burbot?

Ryan Mosley, Flaming Gorge Project Leader, shares his tips on how to successfully fish for burbot.

Ryan Mosley
Ryan is a fisheries biologist whose work focuses on both the Green River and Flaming Gorge Reservoir. He loves to hike, hunt, fish and play in the surrounding hills when he's not at work.

THIS IS THE TIME of year when I receive numerous contacts, all asking the same general question, “How do I catch those burbot?” I enjoy talking to anglers from different walks of life, but by now I’ve got my response to this question down.

First things first. Burbot are ugly, invasive and problematic for some fish species in Flaming Gorge. In this situation, a dead burbot is a good burbot, and anglers are the most available weapon to reduce burbot impacts on the fishery. When it comes to fishing, they’re rather easy to catch, can provide a lot of sustenance (because there’s no limit on how many you keep) and are actually very tasty in a variety of recipes (boiled, fried, used in chowders, etc).

Ironically, burbot are considered an elusive fish within their native range, west of the Continental Divide. Many anglers have never even seen one, let alone caught one. Due to their abundance, and subsequently high catch rates in the Gorge, this burbot fishery is unique relative to others across the country. Flaming Gorge provides a one-of-a-kind fishing opportunity.

A night’s worth of burbot and lake trout, caught by Utah anglers Keith Bigelow, Wes Norris and Cory Hays. Photo courtesy of Cory Hays.

A night’s worth of burbot and lake trout, caught by Utah anglers Keith Bigelow, Wes Norris and Cory Hays. Photo courtesy of Cory Hays.

Burbot are really not too hard to figure out. They’re most active in the winter, at night in shallow water and will eat most anything that swims in front of their unappealing faces. It really doesn’t get much simpler. Although they can be caught in a variety of ways, nighttime ice fishing is probably the easiest, safest and most effective time to target them.

But, where in the reservoir do you catch them? In the initial stages of any fishing or hunting trip, I look at maps so I know where to go and how to get there. While planning your trip, consider buying a Flaming Gorge Map by Fish-n-Map Company. It not only shows reservoir contours, but most of the roads that can be used to access the reservoir.

Burbot are most frequently caught adjacent to rocky, main lake structure with a gradual, tapering slope. It’s the same structure you would look in to find smallmouth bass. Burbot mostly feed on crayfish and even small bass in the Gorge, so it makes perfect sense, right? I like to locate this habitat type where the old river or main channel sweeps closest to shore. These areas offer burbot refuge in deep water during the day and shallow water areas where they prowl for prey at night. See the map for a clearer picture of what these starred areas look like. Don’t get me wrong; there are other areas to catch them. I’ve just found these types to be more successful.

These areas offer burbot refuge in deep water during the day and shallow water areas where they prowl for prey at night.

These areas offer burbot refuge in deep water during the day and shallow water areas where they prowl for prey at night.

So, now that you’re at your preselected spot, you’re looking at the ice. What do you do? Hopefully you’re there well before dark so you can start your preparations. First, I try to avoid fishing areas that have already been hit, which are characterized by a lot of old holes close to the bank. I also auger all my holes before the sun sets, so I’m not spooking fish in shallow water.

I drill holes to reach water ranging from 10 to 40 feet deep, with most of the success coming around 20 feet. I’ve caught burbot as shallow as five feet and as deep as 91 feet, so anything is possible. It’s not uncommon for me to auger up to 20 holes, allowing me to spread out my search pattern with stationary gear or by ice trolling (hopping from hole to hole, actively jigging for about five minutes at each).

Remember, when you’re on the ice at Flaming Gorge in Utah or Wyoming, you can use up to six poles or tip-ups without a second-pole permit. Take advantage of this special provision, which should help you put more burbot on the ice. After drilling holes, I set up five poles or tip-ups at varying depths and start jigging with the sixth. Some nights, active jigging catches the most burbot. Other nights, motionless or dead-sticked presentations prove more successful.

What about gear, you ask? Medium to medium/heavy power rods with six pound or higher line should provide a quick, rigid hook-set for these hard-mouthed fish. When it comes to bait, if it glows and stinks burbot will likely hit it. Overall, my most productive lures are Northland Buck-Shot spoons in super-glo colors and Gary Yamamoto four-inch, single tailed grubs in luminous white (glow), each in 3/8 oz weights. Tip these offerings with sucker or chub meat, but not so much as to fill the gap on the hooks. Filling the gap with bait will reduce hook penetration.

As the night progresses, recharge or re-bait frequently to keep things fresh. Burbot will commonly hit after you drop in your fresh presentation! Place your offering just above the bottom, and I mean within just a few inches. Burbot are prowling the bottom; so you want them to run into your presentation, not swim underneath it.

Some things that can really help you keep a handle on your gear at night are lights that shine on your rod tips, and even bells rigged on your tip-ups. Wear a bright headlamp or carry a flashlight to shine your gear and glow your lures. Finally, bring a towel for handling these slimy vermin and a large trash bag or cooler to haul your catch home.

When it comes to ice fishing, especially at night, let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll return. Also pick up a guidebook or proclamation for the state you’re fishing in, and don’t forget to update your fishing license. You can find specific regulations in the 2014 Utah Fishing Guidebook  and the Wyoming Fishing Regulations brochure. Most importantly, have fun with family and friends on the ice.

In addition, inquiring anglers should note that several articles, forum posts and videos about Flaming Gorge burbot are available online. A quick Google search of  “Flaming Gorge burbot” before typing up this post produced 35,000 results!

Thanks for doing your part to help us rid the Gorge of a few more burbot!

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