By Matt Stansberry, Illustrations by David Wilson
In an undisclosed parking lot somewhere on the southern shore of Lake Erie, the weak December sun fizzled out like a match dropped in the snow.
I watched Cleveland Metroparks fisheries biologist Mike Durkalec assemble his fishing wagon. The modified Radio Flyer held bait, food, chairs, a lantern, rods, and tackle – everything we might need for a night on the lake.
As we towed the wagon down the breakwall, I noticed what looked like a crowd of anglers in the dying light. Durkalec couldn’t believe his eyes.
…I begged to tag along
on his next trip, vowing secrecy. I would not give away the location.
I couldn’t imagine two dozen people knew what a burbot was, let alone would get off the couch in the middle of the night in winter and try to catch one. But the internet does strange things to folks.
Word had gotten out that Durkalec had broken his five-year curse and had finally found the motherlode of Lake Erie’s most mysterious fish.
Over 1,100 people follow Durkalec on Facebook: friends and family yes, but also a large, unsavory crowd of strange men that smell like freezer-burnt gizzard shad and cheap cigars.
You see, Durkalec represents something incredibly rare – a fisherman who isn’t full of shit. I’m sure he’d love to lie through his teeth like the rest of us, but as a public official and a scientist, he has to maintain at least some minimum level of credibility.
So we angling addicts troll his Facebook feed for information, offhand comments that might reveal hot fishing spots.
When I saw the photos of Durkalec holding thirty-inch-long, slimy whiskered beasts, I begged to tag along on his next trip, vowing secrecy. I would not give away the location.
And yet, here we stood, at the end of the crowded pier with no room to fish.
Unperturbed, Durkalec squeezed into a gap in the ranks and set to work. He strung up his heavy-duty fishing rods, outfits typically used for saltwater surf casting. The size wasn’t necessarily for the fish, though they could grow to nearly twenty pounds, but rather to cast the weight required to hold bait on the bottom in the ripping current.
Durkalec heaved out the pyramid-shaped hunks of lead and huge snelled hooks baited with frozen shad into the water and we waited. People wandered up to us out of the dark, including a man who seemed to be in his late forties and desperately drunk, and said, “I’ve been fishing for burbot for twenty years and have never even seen one.”
If the statement was even half true, God help him.
* * *
The burbot, also known as an eelpout, cusk, or lawyer, is one of the most bizarre animals to roam the Great Lakes region.
They’re a freshwater cod with a single dangling barbel or whisker hanging off their bottom lip, like some horrible soul patch.
Behind the head, they’re all guts, a gelatinous bloated mass of organs and half-digested fish. In fact, their giant livers account for ten percent of their body weight.
Behind the gut sack is an elongated eel-like body. If you bring a burbot to shore, it will wrap its tail around your arm like a constricting snake. It will grunt at you – flexing an internal muscle to vibrate its swim bladder.
Burbot mate in the dead of winter under the ice when water temperatures are between 32º and 40º F, forming spawning balls. The slimy fish wriggle in a spherical mass – one or two females and a bunch of males – spraying eggs and milt all over each other.
Burbot are covered in thick slime. And once dead, the smell of the carcass is intolerable.
I can’t explain why I find all of this appealing, aside from a lingering boyhood interest in slimy creatures that live in the dark.
“It’s their secretive nature,” Durkalec said. “They live in the deepest corners of lakes and rivers, and on Lake Erie they’re only reachable by the average angler in the middle of winter at night. The fishermen most likely to unintentionally catch a burbot are perch anglers, and those guys might fish fifty years and only see one.”
If you bring a burbot to shore, it will wrap its tail around your arm like a constricting snake. It will grunt at you – flexing an internal muscle to
vibrate its swim bladder.
The annual International Eelpout Festival in Walker, Minnesota, claims fame due to its ridiculous amenities: Ice shanties with full service bars, a bikini ice fishing team, mechanical bull riding, and pretty much any other madness you might think drunken ice fishermen might enjoy.
Lest you think this is just an excuse for Minnesotans to drink themselves to death, some of them actually catch burbot. In fact, a winning team of no more than twenty anglers put 1,300 pounds of burbot on the scales one year. That comes out to sixty-five pounds of live eelpout per angler over 48 drunken and distracted hours.
So it’s not that burbot are rare. It’s just that they’re rare to the southern shore of Lake Erie.
* * *
The burbot population collapsed throughout the Great Lakes with the arrival of the invasive sea lamprey, a parasitic fish native to the Atlantic Ocean.
Google Image search “sea lamprey” if you want to have nightmares for a week. While I love the burbot for its odd appearance, I can’t extend that goodwill to the sea lamprey.
Sea lampreys feed by sucking blood and other fluids through the bodies of other fish. They latch onto victims with horrible sucker mouths that resemble the Sarlacc Pit from Star Wars.
These ancient eel-shaped fish evolved 340 million years ago and haven’t changed much since. They have survived through at least four major extinction events.
In their native Atlantic Ocean, sea lampreys evolved as parasites and typically do not kill their host fish.
But fish in the Great Lakes didn’t evolve with lampreys and often die from sea lamprey parasitism, either directly from an attack or from infections in the wound. In the Great Lakes, each individual sea lamprey is capable of killing up to forty pounds (eighteen kilograms) of fish over a twelve to eighteen month period.
According to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission:
The first recorded observation of a sea lamprey in the Great Lakes was in 1835 in Lake Ontario. Niagara Falls served as a natural barrier, confining sea lampreys to Lake Ontario and preventing them from entering the remaining four Great Lakes. However, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, improvements to the Welland Canal, which bypasses Niagara Falls and provides a shipping connection between Lakes Ontario and Erie, allowed sea lampreys access to the rest of the Great Lakes.
Lampreys prefer small-scaled fish like lake trout and burbot. The thin skin makes it easier for them to suck out their food.
According to a US Fish and Wildlife study on the “Status of Burbot Populations in the Laurentian Great Lakes,” burbot populations collapsed in Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Ontario between 1930 and the early 1960s.
The collapse in those lakes was mainly due to lamprey predation.
The collapse in Erie occurred at the same time, but was more complicated, “likely due to a combination of overexploitation, decreased water quality, and habitat degradation.”
The lampreys sure didn’t help, but our burbot had other issues. Our watersheds were so polluted that the invasive sea lampreys couldn’t even take hold until the 1970s, when habitat and water quality substantially improved. At that point, the burbot populations had already crashed.
Due to habitat recovery and sea lamprey control in recent decades, burbot populations have rebounded significantly in the cold, deep water of Lake Erie’s eastern basin.
Lake Erie is the southern range of the burbot’s distribution in North America. The animals do not thrive in water where summer temperatures climb above 69 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ohio is a population boundary or habitat edge for a lot of species.
The genetics of the burbot thriving in this southernmost, shallowest Great Lake might be incredibly important to the overall health of this animal in the future…Where the Great Plains meet the Alleghenies and the boreal forest meets the temperate deciduous, we find a lot of species diversity.
And yet, these peripheral or remnant populations, often a tiny fraction of a much larger population that resides in a different political or bureaucratic boundary, have historically been given little consideration by natural resource managers.
Organizations decide that these remnant or peripheral populations are either unrecoverable, or never were that large or important to the overall population’s health, and scant agency resources should be used elsewhere.
But new research is pointing to the significance of these inhabitants living on the edge.
Individual animals living on the boundaries of their habitat range are more likely to develop the biological diversity to ensure overall species resiliency. Dealing with adverse environmental conditions drives adaptations. The genetics of the burbot thriving in this southernmost, shallowest Great Lake might be incredibly important to the overall health of this animal in the future, even if its range extends to Alaska and beyond.
* * *
I thought I knew cold.
During the polar vortex of the winter of 2014, temperatures crashed so far below zero in Cleveland that the landscape seemed stunned, paralyzed. I spent many days outside that winter, mostly watching birds, and never felt anything like what I experienced burbot fishing.
“Dress twice as warm as you think you’ll need,” Durkalec had said on the phone. Out on the lake with a west wind howling and sleet flying against my hood, I huddled down into several inches of insulated synthetic layers and a Gore-Tex shell. I wore everything I owned.
The temperature hovered in the mid-thirties, balmy by most northerner’s standards for late December. And yet, the cold wormed its way through my layers. The wet wind drove under my collar, and the night air seemed to soak into my skin. I turned back to the pier, just an hour after we’d arrived, and noticed the entire group of anglers had cleared. Not a single fisherman was left.
Durkalec kept warm by manically tweaking the rods. The wind would gust around the pier, shift slightly, and the current would build and change direction. Durkalec had to constantly adjust the placement of the bait, reeling it in, checking the hooks, and recasting. I sat huddled in my shell and tried not to move or else I would let the damp, cold air into my coat.
The conditions were worsening – weather reports said the winds might have been blowing 15 mph, but gusts felt closer to 25 mph.
The burbot are lazy fish and would not bite in a fast current. Durkalec needed to find the places along the breakwall where the currents slowed, so he cast and repositioned the bait every few minutes, moving the weights to an eddy or slow spot.
There was a moment when the currents were ripping and we couldn’t find a place to cast, the sleet stung our eyes, and every other fisherman had packed up and gone home.
In that moment Durkalec should have given up.
Moments like these define the best anglers, separate them from the rest of us. I’ve watched guys like Durkalec my whole life.
I turned back to the pier, just an hour after we’d arrived, and noticed the entire group of anglers had cleared. Not a single fisherman was left.My younger brother has been a fishing guide for over a decade, and we have maybe a dozen other friends in the business. Guys like Mike and my brother don’t give up. They grind out fish, even under the worst conditions.
Durkalec was a collegiate wrestler at Baldwin Wallace. If you’ve ever spent time around wrestling, you understand the physical toughness the sport requires – starving throughout the week, lungs and muscles burning from training, the uncountable painful moments of battling with an evenly matched partner every day.
High school wrestling builds character. But to pursue it through your twenties at the collegiate level, you have to be slightly insane. I can’t think of a more grueling, thankless activity.
I watched Durkalec rebait the hooks, making quick adjustments, constantly evaluating his position. He still carried himself like a wrestler, determined to do battle with a difficult adversary.
I pulled from my flask of brandy and watched with detached resignation. I knew that we were in for a long night.
* * *
As the poet Pattiann Rogers writes in “The Natural Nature of Late Night Prayers,” most are “horribly tangled… more knotted than smooth.”
That night, for the first time in my life, I prayed for the fish not to bite.
I hoped for the wind to blow us off the water. If a fish were to bite, I wished it to die immediately, hooked deep and mortally in the guts. I prayed not to have to watch the sun rise over the lake from this frozen rock wall.
The trip had been scheduled as an all-night endeavor. If we caught burbot, Durkalec had promised some local biologists that he would keep specimens alive through the morning, and drop them off at a local wildlife office with large holding tanks, so that the elusive Lake Erie burbot might be photographed and studied for an upcoming book on Ohio’s fisheries.
Catching a fish and keeping it alive would require that we stay out until at least until 8:00 a.m., which translated to sixteen hours of burbot fishing and restless attempts to sleep through the winter night outdoors.
An intense travel schedule for my day job and sick kids at home had conspired so that I’d lost at least a half-dozen nights’ sleep in the two months previous.
For weeks my mind had felt grainy. Flitting thoughts seemed to persist in my brain the way an image might burn-in on an old TV screen. I dreaded what another night of fumbling wakefulness would do to my body.
And yet, I risked it, for the opportunity to fish with Durkalec and to see a burbot. But once out on the water, I hoped to escape my fate.
As the night wore on, it seemed that I might. And then, something tugged on the line. Durkalec reeled up a writhing mudpuppy. These huge aquatic salamanders are nocturnal, eat almost anything they can fit in their mouths, and somehow thrive in the dead of winter on Lake Erie.
We’d hooked it cleanly in the side of the mouth. The slimy cod was as long as my arm and rippled with muscle. We celebrated in the dark – a fish for the biologists!I examined the strangely powerful animal as it tried to escape my grip. They grow to nineteen inches long, and have bushy external gills sprouting off the backs of their flattened heads.
The mudpuppies were a sign that we were in the right water, a place where the current slowed enough for animals to feed. The burbot should follow.
Moments later, the first fish took the bait.
I winched the reel while Durkalec worked his long-handled net and pulled the fish to hand.
We’d hooked it cleanly in the side of the mouth. The slimy cod was as long as my arm and rippled with muscle. We celebrated in the dark – a fish for the biologists!
But I dearly wanted to smash it against the rocks.
* * *
We caught one more burbot before the wind and current made fishing impossible.
I held two live animals lashed through the lower jaws, burbots on a leash, as we made our way back toward the parking lot.
Mike lowered a bucket into the crashing lake on a rope, pulling out gallons of water to fill a giant cooler. He’d rigged the plastic container with two large capacity aerators, hooked up to his car battery. The makeshift aquarium would keep the fish cold and oxygenated for the several hours until the wildlife facility opened.
There were picnic shelters nearby with large tables. Durkalec and I curled up on our respective flat surfaces and tried to get a few hours of sleep. The wind continued to drive sleet against my hood. I couldn’t get warm. After a few hours, I tried to convince Durkalec to go to an all-night diner. But he was sleeping soundly.
So I found my way to his Subaru with its heated passenger seat, and listened to the burbot sloshing in the dark, the aerators burbling until sunup.
We pulled into the wildlife center at 8:00 a.m., found the biologists, and unloaded our slightly disoriented burbot into their large holding tanks.
Weeks later, it all feels like a strange dream. I don’t remember the way the fish looked, or how they fought. All I can remember is the cold and the sound of freezing rain pelting against my head.
And I remembered that strange man who’d sought these fish for twenty years without ever even seeing one. That guy had come back the next morning, while Durkalec and I had been packing up.
God knows what had driven him to come back in the sober dawn, hours after every other angler had left, to see if anyone had seen these mysterious fish.
“Did you guys see any burbot?” he asked. “I’ve been fishing for them for twenty years and have never even seen one.”
I looked at Durkalec. “Burbot? Never heard of ‘em.”
Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, Ohio. He is a dad, nature writer, and fly fisherman. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish. More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at dwillustration.com.
Matt and David’s monthly column, “North Coast Biodiversity,” is collected here. Order copies of the first edition of Redhorse — a print collection of the first six “North Coast Biodiversity” columns — here, and signed prints of David Wilson’s original art for the column here.
Find out more about Matt & David’s publications/additional projects on the newly launched Redhorse site: http://redhorsemag.com.