Outdoor Moments: No judge or jury required for catching ‘lawyer fish’

Alan Charles
Friday, April 19, 2019
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MONTANA FWP PHOTO
This photo shows a freshwater ling cod, also known as a lawyer fish or burbot. They are common in some Montana rivers.

Star Outdoors Columnist

As soon as the ice slides out of the way, some anglers start hitting the banks of certain Montana rivers and reservoirs in search of ling. Ling are a rather unique fish, native to Montana, and the only freshwater member of the codfish family.

“If your wife took one horrified look, screamed, and threw rod and all in the drink — that, brother, was a ling — a gruesome-looking half brother to the sea-going cod but resembling more closely the slippery eel.” So says the “Montanan’s Fishing Guide.”

It is true. These fish are really ugly, truly the coots of duckdom. Even their formal name lacks beauty: Burbot. What kind of picture does a name like that conjure up?

Ling have other, informal names, like freshwater cusk, or lake lawyer. (Now, why do you suppose someone would name an ugly, slippery, half-eel, half-snake kind of creature “lake lawyer?” I have two brothers who are lawyers, so I guess I could ask them.)

Even though these fish may well be one of the ugliest of more than 725,000 species of fish, they are good to eat, or at least, so I thought. I mean, I have eaten ling over the years, and found the meat to be excellent when fried, or even boiled with a dash of sugar and served with melted butter as “poor man’s lobster.” But apparently, not everyone agrees with me. (Imagine that — remember, I’m the guy who likes to eat goose!)

A copy of the 1923 edition of American Food and Game Fishes evaluated the culinary qualities of ling and had this to report: “Properly smoked or salted, it is not inferior to other coarse species.” That, dear readers, may just be the ultimate in official understatement!

Ling spawn during January and February, eating very little during the actual spawn, but exhibiting ravenous appetites during the following weeks. During the spawn, male and female fish collect in whirling masses or “balls,” eggs and sperm being released as the fish move about.

Ling congregate in cool, deep water below irrigation dams and at the mouths of tributary streams. Although these fish are difficult to study using traditional methods, creel surveys indicate that most feeding takes place at night or during periods of low light. The primary food sources are invertebrates and bottom-dwelling fish such as young burbot, longnose dace, fathead chubs and others.

While most ling in the Yellowstone River average less than five pounds, a state fish and game agency biologist from Miles City once told me that he considers the lower Missouri River from below Fort Peck dam to near Wolf Point “the equivalent of a blue-ribbon burbot stream in terms of both numbers and size.” He attributed that to the cooler waters, an opinion borne out by the current state record burbot, a 17.08-pound monster caught near Wolf Point in 1989.

People fish for different reasons. Some like the challenge, others thrill to the battle, and some simply like to take something home for the table or pictures to preserve the memory.

Phillip Kingsland Crowe once wrote: “Fishing is a contemplative and leisurely sport.” That, perhaps, is the best reason to go ling fishing. It is simply a darned good excuse to spend a warm spring evening sitting on the riverbank. I’ve had my best success fishing at night, and there is just something special about sitting by a campfire listening for a rodtip bell to ring.

If an angler hopes to catch a “lake lawyer,” no judge or jury is required. A simple can of worms, bucket of minnows, or package of stinky old cut bait should suffice. Use a sharp hook, and set the drag. Tight. No matter whether a ling bites or not, the verdict should always be the same. Another excellent Montana outdoor moment, just waiting to be caught.

( Alan Charles lives and writes in the Pine Hills.)

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