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Fairbanks angler pulls 20-pound burbot up through Tanana River ice

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Posted: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 11:11 pm

FAIRBANKS — Catching a 20-pound burbot in the Tanana River is a big deal but it wasn’t momentous enough to convince Len Osimowicz to take the fish he caught a couple weeks ago into the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to get it certified as a trophy.

“I wanted to get it cleaned, actually,” Osimowicz told me a few days after catching the biggest burbot of his life. “I like the meat more than the certificate.

“Whenever I’ve taken them in to get certified, I’ve noticed that the fish didn’t taste as good,” he said. “You end up leaving it in the refrigerator overnight and then waiting a day or two to process it.”

Besides, Osimowicz has enough trophy burbot certificates to wallpaper a wall. He’s been fishing for burbot in the Tanana River for 28 years and has pulled some big fish up through the ice. The biggest prior to this one was 18 pounds, 10 ounces, he said.

Sport fish biologist Matt Evenson, the resident burbot guru at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said 20-pound burbot are definitely rare in the Tanana River, or anywhere in Alaska, for that matter.

The Alaska state record for burbot is a 24-pound, 12-ounce fish caught in Lake Louise back in 1976, one of the oldest records on the Alaska sport fishing record books.

Out of the 289 trophy burbot registered with the department since 1967, only 10 have been 20 pounds or bigger, Evenson said. Of those, three were from the Tanana River and the other seven were from lakes in the Glennallen area, he said.

“There are certainly large fish that get caught that aren’t registered as trophy fish, but I think it’s safe to say there are very few caught that exceed 20 pounds,” Evenson wrote in an email.

Osimowicz’s fish wasn’t weighed on an “official” scale — just a couple of hand-held scales he has at home. But if Osimowicz says it weighed 20 pounds, it probably weighed 20 pounds, said Evenson, who knows him well and saw a photo of the fish.

The biggest burbot Evenson has ever caught in the Tanana, whether it was sport fishing through the ice or trapping them with nets as part of his work, was a 17- or 18-pounder, he said.

“Twenty-pounders are pretty few and far between,” Evenson said. “I think if I caught a 20 pounder I might just bring it in (to get certified) to get my name on the books.”

Serious burboteer

Osimowicz, 48, started fishing for burbot in the Tanana River back in 1984. He recalls the days sitting at the mouth of the Chena River with old-timers jigging for burbot with chicken hearts and lamprey eels.

Like a lot of Fairbanks burbot anglers, Osimowicz used to do most of his fishing in the Tanana River at the Chena Pump Wayside off Chena Pump Road.

“I’ve caught a lot of big fish right at that campground,” said Osimowicz, facilities manager for the Fairbanks Community Behavorial Health Center.

But fewer people fish that spot now, including him, because the channel has changed, Osimowicz said. Now you have to walk farther out, which discourages folks who don’t have a snowmachine, he said.

Osimowicz now fishes downstream from the wayside, though he understandably declined to provide any GPS waypoints for his fishing spot.

Osimowicz takes his burbot fishing seriously, though he’s not quite as rabid as he was 10 or 15 years ago. He still keeps records of all the fish he catches, where he caught them and the dates.

Back then, Osimowicz used to fish for burbot several weeks each winter. Nowadays, he picks specific times to fish. Burbot typically spawn in late January or early February and they begin to congregate in the weeks leading up to spawning. Osimowicz focuses most of his effort in late November and December.

The advantage of fishing earlier in the season, in addition to the fact the fish haven’t spawned yet, is that the ice is thinner and it’s easier to keep a fishing hole open, he said. The bottoms of holes tend to freeze up and shrink after a few days, which makes it hard to get big fish out of the hole. The ice where Osimowicz caught his 20-pound fish was only 16 1/2 inches thick, which made it easy to keep the bottom chipped out, he said.

“I never would have caught that fish in late December,” he said. “I could see the fish and could turn its head into the hole and grab him with my hand before that hook pulled out.”

Burbot typically swallow the bait and hook and big fish are strong enough to rip the hook right out of their stomachs, Osimowicz said.

“I’ve lost a lot of big fish like that,” he said. “You can see the fish in the hole and the hook rips out.”

That’s one of the reasons Osimowicz takes his time when it comes to pulling a big fish out of a hole.

“If it starts tugging real hard, I let it go and start over,” he said.

Osimowicz could tell the 20-pounder was a big fish as soon as he felt it.

“I knew it was definitely over a 15-pound fish, just by weight of it,” he said. “Then you see that big lip. Those big fish have a really thick lip and they open up their mouth as they’re coming up the hole. When that mouth opens, it makes them look huge.”

Football bellies

The 20-pound burbot he caught was 40 inches long and had a belly resembling a football. The fish had three pounds of eggs inside it and it probably would have weighed more had he caught it in a few more weeks, when the eggs would have matured even more, Osimowicz said.

“A lot of my bigger fish have been in the 39- to 40-inch range,” he said. “These big, fat, honking females.”

The liver alone, which Osimowicz keeps to cook up in a chowder because it’s loaded with Vitamin D, weighed over a pound and a half.

“I never used to eat the organs, but I started researching cod liver and found out a burbot liver has six times more Vitamin A and 10 times more Vitamin D than other cod livers,” he said. “We need Vitamin D up here, so I figured maybe I’ll start eating some of these. I make a chowder out of it and it’s good.”

The burbot also had another big fish in its belly, though Osimowicz couldn’t tell what it was, only that it was big and had a vertebrae. The burbot also had a small rock and chunk of wood in its stomach, he said.

Osimowicz likes to eat burbot almost as much as he likes to catch them. He’s tried all sorts of recipes.

“My kids like the deep-fried burbot, so I do a little bit of that,” he said. “Sometimes I take the belly fillets and do a thing in corn meal and fry them. Sometimes I’ll bake it and have a parmesan thing going on with a red sauce on top of that.

“We do poorman’s lobster, where you boil a little bit of water and sugar, and dip in that,” he said. “I’ve substituted burbot for crab in crab cakes; that was good.”

Osimowicz generally won’t keep a fish that weighs under six pounds because the texture of the fish is “almost like mush.”

“Once they get up around six pounds, it feels like their flesh is more firm,” he said.

Prime time

Now is a good time to go burbot fishing, said Evenson, who demonstrates just how to do that, as well as how to fillet burbot, in a pair of videos recently released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (see sidebar on page C1). The ice isn’t too thick and burbot are feeding in preparation for spawning.

“They bite pretty well through the end of January,” Evenson said. “After the spawn, they seem to disperse a little more. You find them in different places than they are in December.”

For first-time burbot anglers, Evenson suggests experimenting when it comes to finding a fishing spot.

“If you’re going out for the first time and you’ve got an auger, I recommend spreading out and trying a few different places,” he said. “Take some time and spread out a few sets and fish them a couple days and see which ones are working.”

A word of caution to first-timers, though. Don’t be fooled by the liberal bag limit of 15 fish a day in the Tanana River, Evenson said.

“If you put out 10 lines and you get more than two or three fish total, you’re doing pretty good,” he said.

Also, be prepared to dull the blades on your ice auger. The ice in the Tanana River is impregnated with sand and gravel, which can dull an auger blade within a dozen holes, Evenson said.

For his part, Osimowicz is champing at the bit to get back out on the Tanana River. The cold weather of late has kept him, and most other burbot anglers, off the ice.

Based on his experience, Osimowicz said, burbot fishing typically spikes following a cold snap.

“When those chinooks come in, I don’t know what it is, the barometric pressure or what, but fishing usually picks up,” he said. “You’ll be catching them left and right. I’m sort of anxious to get back out there.”

Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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