Jake Kremer is the type of angler who embraces the diversity of fish in Idaho’s waters and isn’t content to only angle for popular species like bass, trout, salmon and steelhead.
If there is a catchable fish out there, Kremer wants to hook and land it, examine the fish and, if rules allow, take it home for a meal.
So when the former Lewiston resident and now Kootenai County sheriff’s deputy who recently graduated from the University of Idaho with a major in fisheries resources learned the Idaho Department of Fish and Game was about to open a burbot season in the Kootenai River, he was all in. Kremer jumped on the internet and studied the various methods anglers use to catch the fish described as a freshwater ling cod.
The season opened on Jan. 1, a day he was scheduled to work. But Kremer was free the next day and made plans to try his luck for the species that had not been legal to catch and keep in Idaho since 1992.
“I’ve always been kind of a fish connoisseur. The burbot has always been one of those interesting fish. It’s the only freshwater cod in North America,” he said. “It was just one of those ones I’ve known about just through my studies and a lifetime of fishing and seeking to catch new and interesting things.”
The elongated fish with fat bellies, flat heads and dappled skin pattern are native to the Kootenai. The river has its origins in British Columbia, Canada, then dips into Montana before cutting northwest across the corner of Idaho’s Panhandle and back into Canada where it enters Kootenay Lake and eventually joins the Columbia River.
Burbot populations dipped perilously low toward the end of the last century. According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the population was estimated at only about 50 individuals in 2004. That prompted a joint recovery effort by the department, the University of Idaho, Kootenai Tribe and Montana and British Columbia fisheries agencies that centered on a hatchery program and habitat restoration.
It worked. Now the population is estimated to number between 40,000 and 50,000 fish, enough to support sport angling. The season was once quite popular and even supported a commercial fishery, according to T.J. Ross, a senior fisheries biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Coeur d’Alene.
“It was a very valued resource, so when it went away it was probably a big deal in Bonners Ferry and B.C. To bring it back now is pretty exciting for us and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and all of the project coordinators that have been a part of this,” said Ross.
Although there are quite a few people old enough to remember fishing for burbot in the old days, Ross said it could take many anglers some time to figure out the best way to fish for them and for the fishery to regain its popularity.
“I think people are starting to figure it out,” he said. “I think it’s going to be one of those things that is going to take a couple of years. We didn’t know what to anticipate. We didn’t know if people were going to be interested.”
The newly approved season is open year-round, though the fish are most active at night during winter months when they spawn and feed aggressively. Ross said the bulk of fishing effort is likely to be in January, February and March.
Kremer said he didn’t expect the fish to recover in his lifetime. Nor did he expect to have any luck as he headed for the river on the second night of the new year.
“I went up there thinking there is no way I’m going to catch one of these fish, but I’ve got to try,” he said.
The articles and videos he pulled up on the internet were mostly geared toward fishing for burbot in lakes or big river systems. But Kremer found a few that suggested a simple technique might work on a smaller river like the Kootenai.
He was impressed at the strength of the first one he hooked.
“It fought so hard I thought I might have caught one of the smaller sturgeon in the river,” he said. “When it came up, I couldn’t believe it. It was the first wild burbot I had ever seen.”
He went on to catch four that night, the biggest one measuring 28.5 inches and weighing just over 5 pounds.
The taste of the fish with firm and savory meat was equally impressive to the 27-year-old angler.
“I ate some last night. They were super good — extremely good white meat, very similar to ling cod. I would have a hard time picking the two out from one another. They would make really good fish tacos,” he said.
Ross said Kremer is not alone in his appreciation for burbot nor in his initial success. The department is conducting random angler surveys, and of 10 angling groups interviewed by creel surveyors after they were finished fishing, four had been successful and six had not. The lucky anglers harvested nine burbot.
“It’s been really cool to talk with people in the Panhandle counties that used to enjoy this resource or had family members that used to enjoy it,” Ross said. “To be able to return that back to them has been, hands down, the most rewarding aspect of my career to date.”