YELLOWSTONE RIVER — Burbot, which look like a cross between an eel and a catfish, are slippery creatures.
So it took a few doses of liquid sedative in a tub of river water to calm one enough so it could be handled for tagging last Thursday. The fish had been pulled onto the deck of an aluminum jet boat from the depths of the Yellowstone River, where it was trapped in a baited hoop net.
Earl Radonski and Brad Olszewski, fisheries technicians with Fish, Wildlife and Parks, were working with FWP’s Jen Ard to pull nets between Duck Creek and Buffalo Mirage fishing access sites. The netting is part of what has been a six-year study of burbot populations on the Yellowstone River between Park City and the mouth of the Bighorn River.
Tag, your ling
In Montana, the burbot is listed as a potential species of concern, meaning that so little information about the fish exists that it may be vulnerable. Burbot are mainly found in the Yellowstone and Missouri river drainages in Montana, as well as across much of the northern United States, Canada and Alaska. The fish’s name comes from the Latin word barba, which means beard and refers to the fish’s single barbel, or whisker, on its chin.
When enough time had passed for the sedative to take effect, Shepard plucked the burbot from the tub and wrapped it in lamb’s wool, which helped him hang onto it.
As Olszewski held the fish, Radonski poked two hollow needles through its skin just above its tail to thread a piece of wire through. Attached to the wire was a small numbered yellow tag.
“We call it ling bling,” Radonski said.
Once the wire was twisted tight, the fish was released into a cooler-sized netted enclosure in the river, giving the fish time to recover from the drug’s effects before being set free.
Burbot seem to be doing fine in the Missouri while their numbers have dropped in the Yellowstone. Anglers were the first to notice. In the late 1990s, Billings-area fishermen began complaining that they were catching fewer burbot -- also known as ling, ling cod, lawyer, eelpout and poor man’s lobster.
“I think our long drought had a lot to do with it,” Radonski said. “There was a lower volume of water so the water temps came up quite a bit. And some of it may have had something to do with overharvesting of the big fish.”
Fishing regulations now allow the taking of only five burbot.
The Yellowstone River’s constantly shifting channel, sediment buildup, large ice flows and spring floods could also have affected the burbot populations. It’s hard to say because the fish are so secretive and have slipped tags or avoided FWP’s attempts to radio track them. They are also hard to net.
“They are such an elusive critter, and there are not many of them left now in the Yellowstone,” said Ken Frazer, fisheries manager for FWP in Billings.
Anglers typically fish for the native species at night in the winter next to a bonfire built on the riverbank, often while consuming beer — hence the name “ling drinking.”
Burbot like cold temperatures, so they are most active and breed in the winter. When summer rolls around and the water temperature climbs consistently above 50 degrees, the fish go nearly dormant, seeking out deep holes and moving little.
As catch numbers dropped and angler complaints rose, FWP decided to try to learn more about the reclusive species for which it had little information. Crews began setting baited nets in pools below riffles along the Yellowstone in hopes of getting a better feel for the burbot’s distribution, movements and population. The fish have constantly challenged FWP crews.
Only five burbot that FWP crews have tagged have been recaptured. That may be because earlier tags fell off, hence the new wired-on tag method.
The crews’ catch rate last year averaged only 0.1 fish per net, although this year the number seems to be trending upward.
Unfortunately, Radonski said the study has raised more questions then it has answered, partly because the fish can be so difficult to capture. While one net may have 10 fish in it, another only 10 feet away will be empty.
It does seem like there is plenty of forage fish for the burbot to dine on, he said. They will eat trout or whatever else they can catch.
“We caught one 5-pounder with a 1-pound rainbow trout in its mouth,” Radonski said.
The largest burbot Radonski has ever netted was a 6-pounder.
“They can get big,” he said, but they tend to grow largest in reservoirs. The fish can also be long lived — 20 years in reservoirs, maybe 15 years in rivers where life is tougher.
A burbot study by FWP at Cooney Reservoir shows that population seems to be increasing, Frazer said.
Despite the dearth of information, FWP crews hit the Yellowstone River in jet-powered boats again this spring. They launched as soon as the ice went off and the slush was gone, typically around the first of March. They set 13 traps that are weighted down by old railroad iron and marked by orange buoys. The traps set for three days before being checked.
Each fish captured, even those that aren’t burbot, have their length and weight recorded. On Thursday, in addition to burbot, the crew caught long-nosed suckers, stonecats, whitefish, rainbow and brown trout. The fish are also checked for lesions or any odd growths. Fish showing such problems are killed for further study.
The crews marvel that every burbot captured has a different pattern on its skin. Some are lighter, others darker, each one traced with an intricate black design.
“That’s what’s really cool about them,” Radonski said. “With rainbows, you see one and they all look pretty much the same, but not ling. They’re my favorite fish.”
Radonski remains hopeful, despite years of frustrating netting results, that burbot may be coming back on the Yellowstone River.
“The population may not be as bad off as I initially thought,” he said. “I say that because we’ve caught more ling this year, and the ones that we did catch didn’t have tags in them.
“But it’s going to take some time to get a good feel about how the population is doing,” he added.