Burbot, or ling cod are eel-like fish that hold the distinction of being the only freshwater member of the cod family. You won’t confuse them with any other fish. First, there’s that eel-like thing. Then there’s the rounded tail and single whisker, or barbel, sticking out from their lower jaw. Top that off with spots all over their body and you’ll know why they’re sometimes called “The Leopards of the Kootenai.”
The spawning habits of burbot are a little odd. They spawn in the dead of winter in shallow water with much thrashing about involved.
The fish have been important to the Kootenai Tribe for generations. When the Libby Dam went in, just across the border on the Kootenai River in Montana, the population of burbot dropped like a rock. That was in 1974. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game banned fishing for burbot in 1992. By 2004, Fish and Game biologists could capture only a dozen of the fish for research in a five-month period.
An effort to bring back the population, led by the Kootenai Tribe and Bonneville Power, proved successful. The Tribe invested $15 million in a hatchery for burbot and the equally threatened white sturgeon. Now there are an estimated 50,000 ling cod in the river, so for the first time in 27 years a fishing season was set.
The fish are sometimes called “the poor man’s lobster” because of their slightly sweet taste.