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Idaho Fish and Game

Adult Burbot collected from the Kootenai River

The prize of the Kootenai River—a lobster-flavored freshwater cod—is the perfect way to cure cabin fever


If you’re suffering from cabin fever this winter, consider fishing for burbot in the Kootenai River

Burbot fishing on the Kootenai River is most productive during the winter months as burbot prepare to spawn in February and March. Unlike the summer months when burbot often hunker down in deep pools or in Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, this time of year they can often be found in shallower water or in tributaries to the river.

What the Heck Is a Burbot?

Burbot—also known as bubbot, cusk, freshwater cod, ling, lingcod and eelpout—are the only freshwater cod species in North America, and they have a special place in Idaho’s heart. These long-bodied, cold-water fish are not your run-of-the-mill sport fish. Burbot have flat heads and long bodies that sprout long pectoral fins just behind their gills. Their back-half is eel-like, with stumpy rounded fins. Burbot have brownish-yellow mottled skin, earning them the nickname “Kootenai leopards” among anglers.

native burbot being held for habitat restoration head shot April 2017

As the name implies, these leopard-like fish are predatory and feed during the night. They hang out during the day in deep, slow-moving pools, then seek out food such as crayfish or small fish in shallow water. With the help of inward slanting, sandpaper-like teeth and a funky little chin whisker called a barbel, burbot have no trouble scoping out and hanging on to prey.

Burbot march to the beat of their own drum in more ways than one, but when it comes to reproduction, things get even weirder. Unlike most freshwater fish that spawn in spring or early summer, burbot prefer to do their business in winter. Most spawning occurs from mid-February through mid-March. Females will lay anywhere between 60,000 to 3 million eggs, each being the size a grain of sand. Burbot will often live to 8-10 years old, and even longer in other parts of the world.

A Kootenai Leopard Hunt

Hit up your buddy to take the rods out on the Kootenai River and its tributaries in mid-winter and you might get a solid “no” before you can even finish your sentence. But tickle their fancy with a prized fresh-water cod that tastes like lobster, and it might change their tune.

Young angler with burbot

Anglers will most likely find burbot between mid-February and mid-March when spawning is at its peak, but because burbot fly by night usually, it can be a little challenging to locate them. But before you cast off these unicorn fish as a myth, here are a few fishing tips to help you track down a “Kootenai leopard”:

  • If fishing at dusk or night, try fishing shallow flats or deep holes (5-15 feet deep).
  • If fishing during the day, try dropping a line in 40-plus foot deep holes. Burbot like to rest in these deep pockets during the day.
  • Try river junctions where smaller streams flow into the mainstem of the river.
  • Worms, cut bait and shrimp work well for bait.
  • Use weights to get the line down deep towards the bottom.

HOT TIP: Burbot are similar to catfish, in that they cruise along the bottom of the river looking for other fish to eat. Try putting a piece of cut bait, shrimp or worm on your hook and soaking it on the bottom of the river, waiting for a burbot to latch on.

Kootenai River burbot with a tag in its back

If you decide to give burbot fishing a try this year, remember to participate in the Kootenai River Angler Science Program to potentially win prizes and help us make burbot fishing even better in the years ahead. Remember, you don’t have to catch a burbot to be eligible to win, but you do have to record information about your trip. If you participate in the program, remember to record every burbot fishing adventure on which you embark—even if you don’t catch one. Believe it or not, the trips where you don’t catch a burbot provide incredibly valuable information for local biologists. Visit this link to learn more about the program.

And another reminder, if you catch a burbot with a tag in its back, make sure to report it! 

Fishing for burbot can be a great way to kick off any angler’s new year. Be sure to dress warm and bring extra layers in case that North Idaho weather takes a turn. Whether you land one of these leopard-like cod or simply use it as a way to get outdoors this winter, burbot fishing can be a great chance to put a delicious, native fish on the supper table.