Burbot Through The Ice on Lake Manitoba

HuntFishMB Contributor – Chris Chorney

Lake Manitoba’s South Basin is no stranger when it comes to big water. With a span of 28 miles wide, the massive freshwater sea separates the Interlake and central regions, while supplying a flourishing habitat for an abundant population of burbot during the winter months. As the ice starts to form, these eel-like specimens begin their journey south. Like patrols they scour along the lake’s bottom gorging on small fish and other aquatic life as they pack on the pounds preparing for the upcoming spawning season. During the months of January, February, and March the basin provides an incredible opportunity for those wanting to engage with these one-of-a-kind fish at a sport angling level. Providing miles upon miles of virtually unexplored fishing grounds it’s not uncommon to go days without witnessing the presence of another angler.

Stationed perfectly, the city of Portage la Prairie serves as an excellent home-base for those wishing to explore Canada’s 13th largest freshwater lake in the country, providing a short drive on well-maintained roads leading to multiple public access points along the shores of the south basin. Portage is located 45 minutes west of Winnipeg on the Trans-Canada Highway. Businesses here, along with the community have been welcoming anglers of all ages and skill level for decades. The big-brand box stores offer the convenience of a city while the people inside offer small friendly hometown service. Commonly referred to as “The Town of Portage” by many of the residents, the term ‘town’ explains itself when you arrive. Don’t forget to stop in and see the crew at McDonald’s Sporting Goods for up-to-date lake access conditions and the latest information on the bite. The locally run tackle shop, located at 246 Saskatchewan Avenue East offers fishing licenses, fresh bait, and tackle that produces on the big lake as well as any last-minute items you may have forgotten.

Terms such as gross and slimy have been linked to the burbot’s unsightly appearance and texture, which has contributed to them remaining off the radar of many anglers for decades as their presence remained an unwelcome one. Shortly after the 21st century began, the number of sport anglers targeting these fish has increased substantially, catapulting the industry into what it is today. Finally getting the recognition it deserves, the burbot is making a comeback. Aside from being pound for pound one of the most aggressive, hard-fighting freshwater sport fish in North America they also make excellent table fare. Once the fish has been filleted, firm, flaky white fillets dipped in melted butter are very delicious and easy to prepare.

The burbot commonly referred to as lota-lota, eelpout, mariah or lingcod remains the only gadiform (cod-like) freshwater fish of its kind. They are easily identifiable by their unique leopard-like appearance which consists of deeply embedded micro-sized scales lining their exteriors. Burbot are capable of adjusting the varying colours of their outer shells, which allows them to quickly adapt to any environment. As if that’s not impressive enough, these carnivores spend their entire lives 85% visually impaired relying almost entirely on their senses of touch, taste, and smell. Guided by a single spike-like barbel below their lower jaw they use this sensitive whisker to detect and capture nearby prey.

Considered a workman’s fish, the Burbot prefers to hunt under the cover of darkness which makes them an excellent choice for those who work long days. Burbots will source out heavily structured areas that grant them quick access to deep water. Using these areas as daytime hideouts they remain in a lethargic state throughout the brightest periods of the day hiding under debris or burrowing themselves into the sand or mud bottom. When the sun begins to dip below the treetops, Burbot become active. They slowly make their way back into the nearby shallows where they aggressively hunt down prey such as small game fish and minnows that use the shallows as a refuge during the hours of darkness. An exciting daytime Burbot ice bite does exist during the first weeks of ice cover along with later in the season from February to March. During this time, Burbot can be located in as little as 3 to 5 feet of water, where large females are preparing to lay their eggs. Spawning occurs on shallow granular flats in mid-March when water temperatures reach 32 to 34-degree range. The pre-spawn period remains hands-down the most favoured time period when anglers can dial in on these ferocious feeders, who are practically eating the doors off the cupboards below their feet.

I have encountered a variety of baits which produce well on Lake Manitoba. During the day I switch back and forth between different sizes of Williams ice jigs. In the morning and evening, I prefer a 3-inch ice jig downsizing to a 2-inch ice jig in the afternoon, while keeping the colour pattern the same. The larger ice jig reflects more light in low light conditions while the smaller ice jig produces a quality flash with a smaller body during the afternoon when fish tend to be less aggressive. This ice jig is available in a smooth or hammered texture and in a variety of colours. Using the ice jig, short vertical rips anywhere between 1.5 and 2 feet works well. When reaching the highest point of the rip let the ice jig freefall, allowing it to flutter back to the desired stopping point, which should be bottom when no fish are present. Do not try and control the freefall or slow it down. After the twilight period and into the late evening I switch my lure to either a buckshot glow spoon or often a 1.5oz glow jig equipped with a stinger hook. Personally, I have had the best results banging the heaviest glow jig in my tackle box on the bottom in complete darkness.  Banging the lure on bottom 3-4 times from around 2 feet up, then pausing the bait for a minute or two has worked best in the dark.

Salted minnows have always been my preferred choice of bait for burbot on Lake Manitoba. Since these fish are so visually impaired I prefer to tie my bait to the lure. This allows the fish to hit the bait multiple times without knocking it free or stripping it from the hook. When tying on the bait I prefer to tie it to the actual spoon and leave the treble hook bare. Nine times out of ten, having the bait presented in this fashion will force the fish to fully commit in order to get at the salted minnow, engulfing the entire lure in their mouths furthering your chances of a solid hook up. This trick has rewarded me with handfuls of trophy fish I may have not caught otherwise.

Normally tracked machine is the recommended method of travel on Lake Manitoba. Although during the early and late season and periodically throughout the year depending on snowfall, it is possible to access the lake by a 4×4 truck. Weather conditions can fluctuate quickly on the lake, easily turning a good day into bad in a matter of minutes. Therefore, remembering to bring a GPS and saving your tracks will help to ensure a safe return given the lake’s sheer size. Finally, keeping in mind the tranquility the lake offers and limited cell phone service once on the ice, it is always best practice to head out properly prepared.  I personally bring along everything I would need to stay alive on the ice for at least 24-48 hours.

Lake Manitoba has three main public access points in the south basin. Delta Beach Campground is located at the north end of Highway #240. St. Ambrose Beach is located near the North end of Provincial Road 430. Another popular one is at Twin beach which is located just south of the town of St. Laurent off of Highway #6.

For more information about fishing for burbot in Manitoba, visit our Burbot page.