The September 21 voicemail only lasted one minute and 31 seconds, but left a lasting impression on my husband, Justin, and me.
“Hello friends. It is Jeffry from Talkeetna. I was calling to inform you that it is the perfect time to go burbot fishing.”
As relatively new Alaskan residents and outdoor enthusiasts in general, Justin and I felt the inescapable allure of fishing. Our friends suggested endless options during our first year: We could secure our Alaska resident fishing license, then go dipnetting for salmon on the Chitina, spearfishing for whitefish in the Chatanika River, and guided razor clamming in Cook Inlet, to name a few.
But burbot fishing? This was new.
Jeffry Hesse, for his part, typically marched to the beat of a different drummer. His years of subsistence living led to his curiosity about burbot fishing, which ultimately made him one of the fish’s biggest spokespeople.
The burbot’s reputation precedes itself. With its green-brown mottled and slimy skin, small eyes, downturned mouth, chin whiskers, and long, flabby body, it looks like an eel married to a catfish. I’ve heard several names for what some call the ugliest fish—from its Iñupiaq name, tiktaalik, to the French reference of Lota Lota.
Call it what you like, but one thing is for sure: It’s a misunderstood game fish.
“I think you will love burbot,” Jeffry’s voicemail continued. “They are delicious and tasty, even though they are the poor people’s lobster.”
In his opinion, the taste of burbot rivals salmon or halibut. It’s lean and picks up flavor easily. Plus, no bones, unlike salmon.
Another burbot bonus point: it’s easier to filet than pike. According to Jake Reakoff, lifelong Alaskan and fisherman, “It is best to take a sharp knife and split the skin—both sides of the dorsal fin around the back of the head—and pull the skin off with pliers. Flay the meat off the bones after putting the skinned fish on a clean surface, not back in the slime. Soak the meat in salted water for a while, which helps firm it up and draw out any blood.” Jack then suggests boiling the burbot in salt/sugar water, frying it in garlic and onions, or baking it with mayonnaise on top.
Burbot are abundant in large glacial river systems year-round, like the Copper, Yukon, Tanana, Kobuk, and Koyukuk—more precisely where you can see a clearwater tributary mixing with the glacial silt, even in an eddy. They migrate upriver to spawn in winter, so ice fishing for burbot is desirable. As burbot are caught using standard bait fishing techniques, some parts of the state allow set lines.
In his undisclosed secret spot, Jeffry had been setting lines from dusk until dawn during the summer of 2020 with a weight, leader, hook, and bait (i.e., candlefish, herring)—dutifully leaving his name and address on the line—and checking back once a day.
On October 1, he was pulling his line and thought it had gotten stuck on a log. “Then I realized,” he said, “it was either a mondo burbot or Jaws coming out of the water.”
As it turns out, Jeffry pulled up a 9.9-pound burbot measuring 37 inches and later received an official certificate for a trophy fish from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
Since the 1960s, anglers have been participating in Alaska’s trophy sport fishing program, where they gain special recognition when they reel in a fish meeting a certain weight or length. For burbot, it’s a minimum weight of eight pounds and length of 32 inches.
My Uncle Fred, who has lived in Alaska for 45 years, remembers catching a trophy-sized burbot in 1986 from the Tanana River, after trying for years. “My first daughter was born March 1, 1981. I took my father-in-law to the Chena River in Fairbanks that morning, and not only caught a burbot, but saved a woman who fell through the ice!”
At the beginning of 2021, eleven-year-old Aimee Pike received a certificate in the youth category for her 9.5 pound, 34.5-inch burbot from Lake Louise while ice fishing. The state record burbot came from the same lake, where George Howard caught a 24.75-pounder in 1976.
My husband and I never did try burbot fishing. Or salmon fishing. Or clamming. But adventure is the pursuit of awe, and I’m sure we have years of fishing ahead, especially if Jeffry or Uncle Fred has anything to do with it.