A couple of months back, a reader of my columns and fellow colleague from Minnesota, emailed me with a completely different take on burbot (the game fish illegally introduced into Flaming Gorge Reservoir in far northeastern Utah).
Allow me to share a portion of one of his emails that will set the stage for the rest of my column.
“I just got done reading through your article in the Daily Herald, as well as a handful of blog posts on your website regarding burbot in Flaming Gorge.
“I thought it was interesting reading your perspective on the species in your fishery. Here in Minnesota (and the surrounding area), burbot are quite common, particularly in larger lakes and deep-water basins. Believe it or not, they are becoming more and more popular as a sport fish, providing a good fight and delicious table-fare.
“Biologists in Minnesota haven’t noted any adverse impact on other game fish species and are currently in the process of adding protective slot limits for burbot. Many of the best smallmouth fisheries in our region have burbot in them. Not all fisheries are created equal, but that’s what we’ve seen in our neck of the woods.”
I have written about and fished for burbot in Flaming Gorge for well over a decade, and have enjoyed exactly what my esteemed colleague, Nick Lindner, of Angling Edge Media, described. Burbot are fun to catch, put up a reasonably good fight, and are (in fact) delicious table-fare.
For me, however, that has never really been the issue. Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote an article for Bass West Magazine, in which I described the many differences between Eastern (and Northern) waters and Western waters. The main point was that fertility or the lack thereof was the reason Eastern (Northern) waters didn’t quite match up with our Western lakes and reservoirs.
For this discussion, “fertility” means a combination of plankton, grasses, cover, structure, biomass, and aquatic insect life which equates to healthy populations of sportfish.
The reason biologists are so concerned about burbot in Flaming Gorge is that the forage base is so small (chubs, carp, sucker, shiners, and small game fish) the burbot decided early on to target the smallmouth bass population along with the other forage species in the large, deep, reservoir.
Regardless of what happens in other parts of the country, at this point, the smallmouth population on the Wyoming side of Flaming Gorge is estimated to be less than 10 percent of population estimates from just five to seven years ago. If these reports are accurate, the reservoir has lost at least 90 percent of its smallmouth bass.
Burbot are now making their way (in larger numbers) into the Utah side and have discovered the prolific smallmouth bass population in the canyon area. Anglers report that numbers of smallmouth nearly one third of the way up the canyon towards the dam are dropping precipitously.
Two points are crucial to this discussion. First, there are prolific numbers of many forage species available to burbot in the lakes and reservoirs in the Minnesota area (perch, carp, shiners, ciscoes, darters, troutperch etc.) so burbot have a literal buffet of forage choices.
Second, and perhaps even more important, burbot are targeted by many more species in Northern waters as forage (large and smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, musky, catfish, trout, lake trout and more), thus apparently controlling the burbot population.
I don’t claim to have an answer to the burbot dilemma at Flaming Gorge. Though I do believe burbot will eventually find its niche and become just another species, much like Northern waters, that are both prey and predator, but for now, we must wait to see what happens in the future.
Even with a different look at burbot, we continue to hope for the best and plan for the worst. We hope burbot populations with stabilize become a great sport fish addition, and smallmouth bass populations will eventually recover. But, in the here and now, (by law) we still must keep and kill every burbot we catch.