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KSL Outdoors: Burbot fishing at Flaming Gorge

By Adam Eakle

FLAMING GORGE — It was about six years ago that burbot, an invasive species, was found in the Green River drainage and here at Flaming Gorge. (Tonya) …and I just talked to the guys from Wyoming Game and Fish and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and just got done pulling our burbot nets. (Adam) …so tonight we've come to Flaming Gorge to give you an update on the fishery and the burbot.

(Ashley Bonzer) Here in this vicinity we've caught 900 fish in 8 trips. (Tonya) Really? Mother of pearl. (Ash) We haven't fished over 50 hours.

When Ashley Bonzer a local fishing guide at Flaming Gorge called and told us he was catching hundreds of burbot by boat, AND we heard biologists had discovered elevated mercury levels in some of the fish, we decided to investigate.

(Ryan) fish on!

(Fish surfaces) (Ash) burbot. (Lift fish into boat)

(Matt Anderson, Camp Chef) Ash, that took you about 30 seconds to get me on a burbot.

(Ashley Bonzer, FlamingGorgeFishin.com) you know I think that has to do with the numbers up here. (Matt) sure. The number of fish, even in the daylight hours you can come up and get a handful of fish to take home.

Burbot were first documented in Flaming Gorge in 2006. Since then, the Utah D.W.R., and the Wyoming Game and Fish have been conducting an annual trend netting survey. This years survey was completed three weeks ago.

(Ryan Mosley, Utah D.W.R. Flaming Gorge Project Leader) Basically, in the lower reaches of the reservoir, down in the canyon, populations aren't really increasing; they've pretty much stabilized.

(Ryan Mosley, Utah D.W.R.) the middle portion of the reservoir, the open hills, from like Buckboard down to Lucerne, we saw a 30% decline in burbot catch which is good, but unfortunately the bad news this upper end of the reservoir we saw a 60% increase.

(Ryan Mosley) And it kind of goes with what Ashley is seeing out here with his catch rate.

(Ryan Mosley) yeah we are pretty concerned about that and we don't really know why, the inflow area of the reservoir has exploded in abundance like it has in the last year.

And that's not the only disturbing news out of the gorge this year. Biologists also found elevated levels of mercury in some of the larger predatory fish in the reservoir.

(Craig Amadio, Wyo Game and Fish, Fisheries Biologist) Well locally here in Southwest Wyoming and Northeast Utah we found that that.

(Craig) larger smallmouth bass.

(Craig) the large lake trout, and the large burbot in Flaming Gorge have elevated levels of mercury that will warrant advisories.

(Craig) The advisory is specifically for mercury and urges people to balance the health of eating fish versus some of the issues with mercury in larger size fish that we've recently found out about.

Nearly all fish contain trace amounts of mercury. Mercury occurs both naturally and from man-made sources. Some of it can be traced to coal-burning power plants. Smokestacks release toxic mercury emissions, which then rain down into rivers and lakes. Mercury is absorbed by insects and other small organisms. Mercury then moves up the food chain as small fish eat the organisms and big fish eat the smaller fish. The highest concentrations of mercury accumulate in large predators like burbot, lake trout and the smallmouth bass.

(Craig) The recommendation when those advisories come out will be that pregnant women, nursing mothers, women of child bearing age and kids under 15 limit their consumption of burbot that are under twenty five inches to four meals per month.

(Craig) People need to understand that mercury levels are highest in fish that are the biggest. Meaning that your older, longer fish carry your higher levels of mercury.

Biologists have checked mercury levels in Flaming Gorge before but this was the first year they detected such elevated levels. In fact, burbot over thirty inches had the highest levels of mercury of any of the other fish in the reservoir.

(Craig) For burbot that are larger than 30 inches, women and children should avoid eating those altogether and other adults can safely eat one meal of those really large fish.

(Ryan) He's got it.

Biologists still believe anglers are an important tool in the management of these illegally introduced species. Along with the advisory, that should be available in the coming weeks. Wyoming is also looking at regulation changes that will aid anglers in their ability to target the burbot in the future.

(Adam) doubles!

It was non-stop action with Ash. He's a licensed captain that specializes in trophy Lake Trout, Kokanee and burbot. If it swims at the Gorge, Ash can help you catch it.

(Fish splash) (Tonya) yeah that's pretty. (Ash) nice job.

(Ashley Bonzer, flaminggorgefishin.com) A guy needs a little bit of sucker meat. A glow in the dark jig head will work just as good as anything else. A guy can come out here have fun with his family and friends and help a heck of a good fishery out by taking as many of these as they can.

(Tonya) oh, that's number three.

(Ash) It's all fun and games until the filleting starts. (Laughs)

(Tag, toss to quiz) Coming up on KSL Outdoors we are going to tell you the troubles this little fish has had on the fishery, but first let's dive into tonight's quiz question.

(Tonya Kieffer, DWR Community Fisheries Biologist/KSL Contributor) Welcome back to KSL Outdoors, I'm Tonya Kieffer. You know burbot fishing was spectacular today, Ashley knows what he is doing when it comes to being out here. Ladies if you come out, make sure you wear lots of layers because it is freezing, especially when the sun goes down. As much fun as we are having, with the numbers of fish that we caught tonight, it just shows us how much this invasive species has moved into this fishery.

(Ashley Bonzer) All right, you ready for some of these burbot? (Tonya) I am. Never done this. (Ash) ok.

Ashley's favorite lure to use is a 3/8-ounce glowing Yamamoto grub and he tips his lure with sucker meat.

(Ashley) then something that's really important is use a UV light, these UV lights will really help it glow.

(Ash) getting a bite right here, see him? see that weight? Just a real light…(hit fish) Nice.

(Ashley) lot of these little guys. Ryan how old is a fish this size? (Ryan) I'd say 4, 4 and a half. (Tonya) that's a mature adult. (Ryan) yeah we've even seen 13-14 inch fish that were sexually mature. Which is pretty young.

Historically, burbot have been more abundant on the Wyoming side of the reservoir. The last couple of years, Wyoming biologists have noticed a decline in the smallmouth bass recruitment because of burbot predation. But that's not all burbot are eating.

(Ryan Mosley) They are really concerned about that but also concerned about other sport fish species like kokanee salmon, lake trout, and rainbow trout. We've seen a lot of kokanee in burbot stomachs throughout the winter ice period and that has us really concerned, especially on this upper end of the reservoir.

(Ryan Mosley) Yeah they are definitely glutinous pigs, they are opportunistic, and they eat just about everything. There isn't a sport fish species in here that we haven't seen in their stomachs to date.

So how can you as an angler help this fishery? You can join the local communities and participate in the annual Burbot Bash. This year they are doing it again and KSL Outdoors is proud to be a sponsor.

(Ryan Mosley) looks like we are going to have the Burbot Bash in Feb this year. I think it's scheduled for Feb 1st-3rd. We may be changing it up a little bit.

For this year's burbot bash, biologists will be tagging twenty-five fish and three of those fish will be worth some thirteen thousand dollars in cash prizes. They will also still have cash prizes for the biggest, smallest, and the most fish caught. You can register for the event at flaminggorgecountry.com.

(Adam) Uh oh, Matt, She's on a roll. (Matt) Dang it.

(Ash) Yeah that one is a better one.

(Ashley) we've got them in the reservoir, we might as well utilize what we have here and try to take advantage and help the reservoir out as a whole. We don't just fish for burbot; we fish for the kokanee, the smallmouth, and the lake trout.

(Ashley) and to see an invasive species come in and take over like these guys are, you know it's really important to get as many anglers out here involved

(Ashley) just come out and catch a lot of fish and have a good time with folks.

Coming up on KSL Outdoors, Ashley shows us how to clean the burbot and Matt shows us some easy recipes that can be done on shore or on the ice for this year's Burbot Bash. We'll have that story in a moment, but first let's head back to the guys at Fish Tech for tonight's Fishing Report.

(Fish coming out of bag) (Tonya) Oh it's so nasty, oh my gosh.

(Adam) Welcome back to KSL Outdoors, I'm Adam Eakle along with Ashley Bonzer, well Ash you can catch as many fish as you want. They are good eating, they are not protected in Utah, they are considered a game fish in Wyoming. So let's figure out how to cut these open fillet them up. It's a little different isn't it? (Ashley Bonzer) it is.

Filleting burbot is very similar to filleting catfish, Ashley makes it look easy.

(Ashley Bonzer, www.flaminggorgefishin.com) make a nice little slice all the way around, you can get these at Sportsman's Warehouse, it's just a set of catfish cleaning pliers. Go ahead and grab that hide, give it a little tug and it will come off like your sock when you get home.

(Ashley Bonzer) and now you can see that I've got that backbone exposed and I can follow that down and once I get behind this rib right here I can take my knife all the way through and take off that entire tail piece right there and then I want to work this loin piece out.

(Ashley Bonzer) these ones right here are about perfect to eat, and they still give you a good chunk of meat. Seems like the meat almost grows when you cook it. It will get real fluffy and light.

(Adam) All right Matt, Ash just showed us how to fillet these so how are we going to cook them now? (Matt Anderson) we are going to cook them three different ways, two ways you could cook them on the ice. So we are going to boil poor man's lobster, we are going to actually beer batter them and fry them and then we are going to show you how to bake them when you get home.

So now that we know burbot have an elevated content of mercury, should we eat them at all? Well, we want to make it clear that only the larger burbot, that is fish over 25 inches, the larger lake trout, and large smallmouth bass in Flaming Gorge are the fish that have been found to have higher levels of mercury. So, unless you are pregnant, of childbearing age, a nursing mother or a child under 15, these fish for other adults is safe in moderate consumption levels. We don't want to discourage you from trying burbot, because like all fish, they are high in protein and other nutritional properties. But, If you have any concerns about your catch from the gorge, you can check the Wyoming Department of Health website.

(Matt Anderson, Camp Chef) All right so with Poor Man's Lobster, we've taken about two quarts of water, added about a half a cup of sugar and brought it to a boil.

(Matt) Now you are going to go ahead and drop these pieces in, you'll notice they sink, when they float, about four minutes is the longest you want to cook those. So when they come to the surface, pull them off, dip them in melted garlic butter, they are ready to go.

(Tonya) this is awesome, it's hot but it's good.

(Matt) aright so actually you are going to make fish tacos with the beer battered version. So you take beer batter mix, you are going to add about 2/3rds of a beer. Wisk that up all together.

(Matt) you just cube up that fish into about an inch to about inch by inch diameter pieces.

(Matt) What you are going to want to do is make sure your oil is about 340 degrees. Go ahead and take your battered pieces and drop those in.

(Matt) so we've gone ahead and used the griddle to fry up some tortillas, we'll get those out and let people make up some fish tacos.

(Ryan) my favorite way to eat burbot is any way that somebody else prepares it for me. (Laughs)

(Matt) Alright so the last version is something once you get home or if you want to bring along a Camp Chef camp oven is I've gone ahead and taken strips of the fish, dipped it in egg and then dropped it into bread crumbs and seasoned it with lemon pepper. We are going to put that into the oven, bake it for about 20 minutes at 300 degrees and serve it up.

(Adam) that's why we bring Matt, good food Matt.

While we feast on our freshly caught burbot, let's dive into tonight's Utah Field Guide as we take a look at an animal found just below Flaming Gorge Dam.

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