Michael Goetzman

Wisconsin Lawyer Fish

The Wisconsin Lawyer (Burbot) is a little-known delicacy. Its white, firm flesh resembles that of the haddock or the cod is a favorite of the locals and tourists of Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin. The lawyer contains omega three fatty acids (EPA+DHA) at 45 gms in every eight ounces. The lawyer liver oil contains vitamin D potency that is just as high as the one acquired from the cod liver. The liver is also believed to contain high vitamin A and D. The liver of the lawyer is about 10% of its whole body and its six times bigger than the liver of the other freshwater fishes. The Burbot is considered a very rough fish. And its fishery is unregulated. This is because it has a low market demand and what is fished is used in local restaurants.

The low market demand is brought by the fact that most people do not know how to prepare the fish and its unattractive appearance also contributes to its under-utilization. The flavor, the texture and the appearance of the flesh resemble all the other codfishes. It has a white, firm, flaky flesh that's mildly flavored. It's very low in oil and also free from bones. It's, therefore, the kind of meals that are relished by those that desire foods low in fats and high on proteins. The burbots large liver is hardly ever used mainly because the people lack knowledge of its health benefits. The liver contains quite a substantial amount of the easily digestible oil that is rich in vitamins A and D.( "10 fishy facts about burbots", 2015).

Research by Rummykhan (2012) found that when a fisher gets back with his burbot catch, there are so many appetizing recipes that they could prepare. The most common recipes are frying the fish or roasting the chunks and then dipping them into butter. There are also other recipes that are hardly prepared that would help people appreciate further the fishery resources found in our lakes and rivers. The most common top of the stove recipe entails sprinkling prepared filets with pepper and salt. Roll them in cornmeal or flour or even in a mixture of the both. In a heated skillet place the fillets side skin facing down. Let it cook until brown then turn over and brown the other. Reduce the heathen cook for 15-20 min or until it's done. The amount of time taken depends on the thickness of the fillet. Coating the fillet with cornmeal gives it a crispier crust than that of the flour. You could also deep fry, boil, steam, Creole, hash, and Cream with butter and vegetables. Burbots oven recipes include boiled fillets, soufflé. Dorothy's casserole, roll with cheese sauce, stuffed tomatoes, sandwich and salad, molded salad, loaf, stuffed burbot roll, deviled burbot, burbot potato salad, broiled burbot sandwich. These are just a few of the recipes that could spice up and encourage more people to appreciate the lawyer's fish delicacy

The lawyer according to Froese, Rainer, and Pauly, Daniel, (2006), is a mystery, an enigma and a freshwater fish like no other. It's also known as the freshwater ling, burbot, the lawyer, lingcod, Coney fish, eelpout, and Mariah. The lawyer fish species is commonly related to the cusk and the common marine ling. It's the sole member of genus lota. It is a member of the codfish family which are the essential food fish ever existing. Just like its saltwater cousins, the lawyer fish descended from the north. It is a fish of ice wracked stormy waters. The lawyer prefers cold water, deep, darkness and secret hiding places. The lawyer is a winter spawner; it moves in the shallows at the darkest in the night and spawns under the ice. They also spawn in streams and lakes, the smaller lawyer fish almost a foot long is found commonly in cool and cold streams. They are naturally nocturnal and feed during the dead of night.

Burbots live under ice for sometimes in the year, and they need these freezing temperatures to breed. The life of a lawyer fish is timed on a weird cycle: the winter, the wind, the outer darkness and finally the midnight sun. The lawyer fish is a devourer ("10 fishy facts about burbots" 2015).; it's an ambush predator it attacks and swallows anything that comes its way whether living or dead. Typically, the burbot fish can live in either river or lakes as long as the temp is below seven degrees, the water is clean and oxygenated, and there is plenty of food. Their favorite hiding places are the shipwrecks, rock crevices, and logs. Where there is no cover, the burbots hide in circular, wide, crater-like depressions that have been excavated by generations of burbot. Many burbots survive all year round in the clean cold rivers south of the Arctic. The lawyer fish also thrives well in the lakes and rivers of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia.

The burbot appears like a cross between an eel and a catfish; it has a serpent-like body renowned by a single barbell on its chin. It has a long body laterally compressed with single tube-like projections from its nostrils and a flattened head. The mouth is quite wide with many small teeth on both the upper and the lower jaws.  It has two dorsal fins one being short and low while the other is much bigger. The anal fin is long and low. It has a rounded caudal fin, fan-shaped pectoral fins and finally, the pelvic fins are quite narrow with an extended second fin ray. The lawyer fish according to Froese, et al. (2006) has small fin relative to its body size which shows that the fish has a benthic lifestyle which is low endurance while swimming and the inability to endure strong water currents. As a benthic fish, the lawyer fish tolerates various substrate types which include sand, mud, rubble, silt boulder and gravel while feeding. They also create extensive burrows in the substrate for daytime shelter. The eyes of the burbot appear glassy white and reflective like the zombie eyes, other times the eyes look dark and alive.  From the lower jaw grows a single whisker-like barrel that it uses to probe the mud, the substrates and the scents of their next victim

The reason why burbot fish is also referred to as a lawyer fish is that it is as slippery as a lawyer. It has this odd habit where it wraps its slimy tails around the arm and hand of the unsuspecting anglers like a pseudo slimy lawyer who shakes your hand with his both hands. The lawyer fish takes four to seven years to reach sexual maturity. The spawning season starts in December and ends in March under extremely low temperatures or under ice between one and four degrees. The lawyer fish spawns multiple times though not every year. Like all codfishes, burbots spawn in winter. Some of them migrate out of the lake into the connecting tributaries streams just to spawn. The others spawn on shoals and rocky reef within their home lake. The migratory and the non-transient burbot population may be harbored by a single lake during the spawning period. ("10 fishy facts about burbots", 2015).

The male lawyer fish rubs the sound producing muscles against their swim bladder producing a drumming noise that attracts their mates. The sound is exactly like that of the grouse drumming. It’s amazing how difficult it is to predict the time to spawn. The southern population spawns way earlier than those in the north. It's not known what natural phenomena trigger the migration and the spawning but many believe that it could be the dark moons, the full moons, equinoxes the day length or even the water temperature. Establishing this timeline is vital to the mastery of your local burbot population. The smaller males start arriving at their spawning destination weeks before spawning time. The larger females are only visible a few days before and after spawning

The lawyer fish according to Froese, et al.(2006) doesn't have a precise nesting site rather it releases its sperms and eggs into the water column to drift and just settle on their own. Many males during spawning gather around one or two females and form a spawning ball. Males and females simultaneously writhe in open water and release the eggs and the sperms. The incubation period is dependent on the water temperatures and could take between thirty and one hundred and twenty-eight days. The fertilized eggs drift away until they settle on the voids and the cracks of the substrate. Fertility or the productivity of a female burbot depends on the body size and ranges from 63,000 to 3,478,000 eggs per batch. The water temperatures also influence the longevity, rate of growth and the sexual maturity of the lawyer fish. The older and larger burbot fish produce more eggs than the younger and small individuals. Its eggs are young and contained in a large oil globule. The eggs optimally incubate at between one and seven degrees. When the eggs hatch, the larvae's become pelagic. This means that they passively drift in the open water. Growth is rapid during the first and the second year where they gain around 12 and 10 centimeters respectively. When they reach adulthood the burbot translate from the pelagic habitat to the benthic environment. At maturity, the lawyer fish can have an average length of 40 cm and the weight ranges from 1-12kg.( Froese et al, 2006).

The small burbots in rivers and streams diet on an assortment of invertebrates including caddis flies, scuds, and mayflies. The larger burbot which is likely to be found in lakes diet on other fishes like the bloater, alewife, sculpin, and other small fish. The lawyer fish according to ( Froese, et. al. 2006) has in leech lake Minnesota become a fun sport where people from all over come for the burbot ice fishing contest commonly referred to as international eelpout festival. This tasty but unusual fish has also become a pivot for the winter festivities in Walker Minnesota. The best method used in fishing is the mowing at night. This method is believed to deliver twenty percent more than other methods. This fish may be considered ugly, but the truth is that burbot is a huge, abundant and delicious fish.

~Michael Goetzman


Annual International Eelpout Festival. (2008)Annual International Eelpout Festival.

Froese, Rainer, and Pauly, Daniel, eds.  (2006). "Lota lota" in Fish Base.

Rummykhan (2012) Poor-Man's Lobster Eelpout/ Burbot Recipe

"10 fishy facts about burbots"(2015). bbc.co.uk. British Broadcasting Corporation.

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