They lay in the net a seething, writhing mass of slimy, mottled olive-colored bodies steaming in the 30 degree below weather. They gasped and barked out of mouths big enough to stick your fist into. Burbot! Tons and tons of big livered, voracious predatory monsters, their bellies full of suckers, crab and game fish…saviors of a unique industry destined to mean much to the future of the Lake of the Woods area.
The story began years ago in the northern reaches of the Lake of Fourteen Thousand Islands. Commercial fishing had long been a livelihood among the islands. Fishermen plied their nets in waters filled with walleye and bass. They bought good nets and drove good boats pulling barge loads of fish to market. Sea gulls swarmed over them as they worked in the sparkling sunlight. Sportsmen spent idyllic days trolling and casting along the rocky shorelines until the picture begin to change!
The Burbots moved in! Nets started to fill with the repulsive creatures. Fishermen hired men to bail them out and left them rotting on the shores. They thinned their ranks and fishing was well worth the effort it called for.
Then one year commercial fishermen were told they could no longer fish in that area. They moved on and the Burbot took over… eating their way past shorelines dotted with rotting barges and nets that had once kept them down. The gulls moved on, game fishing declined, and hook and line fishermen cursed when more and more frequently they
had to take the “lawyers” off their hooks. It looked as though the Burbot had won.
It was years later that a short pipe-smoking mink rancher began to turn the tables when quite by accident he discovered something that revolutionized his infant industry. The Burbot were without peer as mink feed!
Shorty Joyce had come to Lake of the Woods years before and began “fooling around a little” with mink. He had a barbershop and a tame bear, but his main interest lay with the mink. He and George Heinen, who came a few years later to establish a mink ranch, used to talk about their problems with feeding. Shorty and George who had worked for Dr. Whorta (an advocate of fish for mink) had concentrated mostly on rabbit and mullet ground-up and fed to the mink in their jack pine and wire pens.
Shorty moved his pens to Hay Island, and it was there he made his discovery. It was an especially rough winter on the lake and his ranch was quite isolated from civilization. One day his grinder broke down. “I considered killing all my mink,” he said, “but chance took a hand in the matter.” He tossed in a few Burbot as a last gesture and watched his mink. They attacked the intestines first, then the liver, then the rest of the fish. They thrived! “When spring came, I sold my mink for $3.00 a head more than the rest of the fellows, and they had a fine sheen the others lacked,” he said. “We were sitting right on top of the best mink feed in the world and didn’t know it.”
Ranchers began to experiment more and more with Burbot. At first they dressed the fish and threw away the intestines and heads. Later they found they had been destroying the best part of the fish by neglecting the liver, which is unbelievable rich in oil, and began grinding up the whole fish. That was it! Results proved beyond a doubt they had the answer.
Now, for three years ranchers have been fishing Burbot through the ice in fyke nets and having phenomenal success. Their very industry now depends on the abundant and cheap food….the difference between success and failure. Their mink are healthier, lustier and mature with a beautiful sheen that literally sparkles.
Winter Burbot fishing is an adventure in itself! The hardy fishermen brave chilling sub-zero temperatures to sink fyke nets beneath the ice. They trail the “leads” to smaller holes forty feet away and cover the big opening with corrugated roofing and snow to keep the ice from freezing to deeply over the holes.
By Galloping Goose
The nets are lifted daily if possible, the catch loaded on the “Galloping Goose” and hauled to the ranches where it is stored in freezers for daily use. Each year the catch has been growing. This, the third year, has been the biggest of all. As high as twenty-two boxes of Burbot have been lifted in a single net. A box averages about 130 pounds or 36 big Burbot, and with 18 nets being fished, this soon amounts to a staggering figure. A unique thing about the daily lifts is the fact that nothing but Burbot are caught in the nets.
Game Wardens accompany the fishermen frequently to check on the catches, and their observations, as well as all who have watched the lifts is the same …. “My gosh, nothing but Burbot …. not a game fish …. nothing but Burbot and an occasional sucker.” This strange fact can be laid to but one thing …. the Burbot are eating everything else in the area. Pike ranging up to eighteen inches have been found in their big stomachs. One held six walleyes. Fishermen are emphatic that Burbot are a greater danger to game fish than all the commercial fishermen and hook and line sportsmen combined.
“If you catch 1,000 Burbot, it is safe to say you take at least 2,000 other fish out of them,” said one mink rancher. This writer watched them lift one net, pick out several Burbot at random and cut them open. One held half dissolved parts of walleyes and the other had a sucker at least 15 inches long. And Burbot eat every day!
A little mental arithmetic will bring to light a very definite fact. If more fyke nets are not put in the lake to catch these creatures, it may not be too long before sportsmen are referring to Lake of the Woods walleye fishing as “the good old days.” Considering that mink ranchers fish Burbot four months of the year and average over 1,000 boxes a week (a conservative estimate), each box averaging 30 fish. It isn’t hard to see that their limited operation alone nets nearly a half million Burbot no longer able to eat their weight in game fish every other day.
The fishing area is small. Multiply that catch by the shoreline of the lake with allowances for naturally uninhabitable areas and one quickly gets a startling picture what can happen if Burbot aren’t kept under control. Ranchers believe there are many areas where the catch would be even heavier.
This writer went along on a lift. The single net lifted at this time netted a total of eighteen boxes of Burbot. In the squirming mass of two-foot-long predators, there wasn’t one game fish! The sight was almost unbelievable! I looked at the huge expanse of lake, the few scattered nets and wondered what the fishing future holds for local sportsmen and tourists.
A workable solution is at hand, however, at least for the southern part of the lake. Mink ranchers are providing the answer. Since the advent of the Burbot, ranches in the area have increased to a total of fourteen. All are laying plans for the future based on the excellent Burbot food. All admit that the area provides excellent opportunity for even more ranches.
Other mink ranchers have already began to seek Burbot for mink food. “I could never fill the demand for them,” one rancher said. “The demand this year is too large to even begin considering,” he confided. This same man had an order for 50 tons from a single rancher in another state last year! “We could send them out by the trainload.”
Burbot are both a blessing and a threat to the lake. They have enabled ranchers to concentrate more on breeding than on scratching for economical methods of feeding their pens of potentially valuable mink. One rancher, George Heinen, has already perfected the famous “Pastel Mink” and one destined to even more popularity, “Amber Gold.” He hasn’t stopped yet. “I have another new mink I haven’t even named yet,” he reported, and in the same breath revealed plans to build a huge new ranch this summer in preparation for the coming season.
“We have everything here,” the ranchers agreed. “We believe the future of new breeds lies here. Our climate of cold and long winters makes deep, luscious furs and combined with Burbot, makes a combination that can’t be equaled.”
Although the commercial value of Burbot lies mainly with the mink ranchers today, they have created an industry on the eastern end of the lake, too …. Rowell Laboratories in Baudette. Here their livers are valued for the tremendous vitamin rich reserves which go into the manufacturing of health products sold at an increasingly great rate in all parts of the country. Burbot have created an industry and a payroll.
For the Future
They can create not just one industry but an area enterprise that will identify this entire section nationally and internationally. Lake of the Woods mink can undoubtedly, and will with positive promotion and industry, evolve into a major factor in the fur markets of our nation.
Burbot … A curse and a blessing. Burbot … A threat and a promise. Where will they lead us?
Stories like this and more about Roseau County’s history can be found in our newsletters. Become a member today to receive a copy of the newsletter (printed six times per year).
Article retyped from the Roseau Times-Region, Mar. 25, 1954
W.S. Adams, Editor