Don Allphin

The stomach content of a 19-inch burbot caught while ice fishing at Flaming Gorge on Friday, January 24, 2020. There were 17 crayfish in its stomach.

Fascination with what various fish species eat in the wintertime draws me like a magnet to the contents of their stomachs. If you find out what fish eat, you can imitate the forage and potentially catch more fish. Fly anglers routinely pump the stomachs of trout (without harming them) to see which flies they were eating, but I so rarely fly fish I don’t even own a stomach pump.

I have made some very interesting discoveries looking at fish from the inside out, but because I release the vast majority caught, I rarely have the opportunity to hone my stomach content research.

However, last weekend on Flaming Gorge Reservoir, the annual Burbot Bash was held and for the first time, I participated in the wild and crazy event. I will write about the tournament in a future column, but for now, the “catch and kill” order on burbot caught at Flaming Gorge allowed me to get serious about checking what burbot eat (at least in winter).

During practice, I caught, cleaned and filleted around 20 burbot. I checked their stomachs and found the identical contents in each. The burbot in Flaming Gorge (at least the ones I caught) eat nothing but crayfish — an enormous number of crayfish in all sizes from tiny (1/4-inch length) youngsters to five-inch adults. One 25-inch fish had 24 crayfish in its stomach!

This stunned me because there are other forage species (minnows) like chubs, suckers, rainbows, smallmouth bass, kokanee salmon, sculpins and lake trout in the massive reservoir. Yet, in those I examined, it appeared they were a one-food-source species.

This is fascinating when you consider that there are millions (estimated) of burbot now in the reservoir and when you consider that one 25-inch fish might have two dozen crayfish in its stomach at one time, you can’t tell me that burbot eating preferences aren’t impacting other species that historically have depended on a robust crayfish population to thrive or survive.

Although I have yet to discuss this information with biologist in Dutch John, I can’t wait to dive deeper into the subject and perhaps even provide some potential theories as to why the smallmouth bass population (which relies on crayfish as primary forage) in Flaming Gorge crashed. I will continue my research and let you know what I find.

For now, let me explain how I take information like that which I just discovered and apply it to fishing in winter on other bodies of water. At the end of the day, I discovered exactly what burbot were eating in January. Of course, there are other reservoirs where crayfish thrive (Strawberry, Scofield, Deer Creek, Sand Hollow, Lake Powell and many more).

Strawberry Reservoir has a robust population of crayfish and over the past 20 years I have reported how the lowly tube jig (Gitzit) has immerged as the most popular soft plastic lure used.

Under the ice, cutthroats and rainbows have plenty of potential food sources including crayfish. The stomach content of the burbot showed all sizes of crayfish from extremely small to very large. So, if I were to fish through the ice at Strawberry, I would definitely experiment using a tiny crayfish-style bait like a small Cut’r Bug, or a tiny tube jig (1/16-ounce and 1 1/2-inch length), or even a tiny spoon in crayfish colors.

Another potential lure would be a drop shot with the bottom weight actually being a crayfish-colored three to four-inch tube jig. Above the tube, you might put a black wooly bugger, or imitations of other aquatic insects.

Another suggestion would be to “jig” a small spoon or Rattle Trap (lipless crankbait) in crayfish colors. This type of presentation imitates a crayfish scooting away from a potential predator.

I know cutthroats and rainbows target crayfish in Strawberry three seasons of the year, so do they stop in the winter? I sincerely doubt it.

Experiment with this theory, check the stomachs of the fish you take home and maybe you will discover exactly what those fish eat in the winter. Good Luck.

Don Allphin can be reached at don@donallphin.com.

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