Odd fish may establish addition to record book

Waukegan, Ill. — Tim Wojnicz thought he was fighting a sturgeon. Instead, the charter boat captain, fishing for perch on Lake Michigan, was tied up with an 8.85-pound burbot.

The burbot, also referred to as an eelpout, battled for a half-hour, and it was the biggest one he’d ever seen from the lake.

“It just sat on the bottom, and every time I nudged it off, it just went back down,” Wojnicz said. “We could see it all on the depthfinder.”

Typically, Wojnicz, who spends many days on the water on his FinQuest charter service, sees a couple of the peculiar-looking burbot landed on his boat each year. Shortly after, one of the clients on his boat landed another burbot, this one about 4 pounds.

But the bigger of the two prompted the question: Could this one set the mark for a state record in Illinois, which has never recognized a record category for burbot? And, if so, what other species might the state be willing to recognize?

“We were joking about it,” Wojnicz said. “I said, ‘That’s one of the biggest ones I’ve ever seen.’”

A series of phone calls reached DNR, and the answer was “yes.” While Illinois hadn’t previously recognized a burbot in its record book, Wisconsin had.

“At this point, we don’t consider it a gamefish,” said Steve Robillard, Lake Michigan Program fisheries biologist. “It’s still pretty rare for people to catch them.”

But more and more, as yellow perch are found in deeper water, perch fishermen are landing the tasty member of the cod family, which many liken to a lobster.

Wojnicz was fishing in 50 feet of water in front of Waukegan, jigging fathead minnows over the boat, a great way to incidentally hook up with a burbot. Salmon fishermen are usually moving too fast to connect with burbot, anglers contend.

Robillard said he’s seen burbot in the 10- to 15-pound range in his field work on Lake Michigan, and he wasn’t sure where to set the bar, if the state was now going to recognize burbot.

“Nonetheless, this is a big one,” Robillard said.

Not that Dan Stephenson, DNR assistant fisheries chief, feels the threshold should be set too high.

“At some point, it’ll get high enough where it won’t get broken,” he said.

Stephenson said he’d rather there be some buzz and excitement around the record books, than turn away fishermen.

The state hadn’t received the paperwork for Wojnicz’s burbot as this issue of Illinois Outdoor News went to press. And, for that matter, it was waiting on paperwork for a state record lake whitefish, another species the state hadn’t previously recognized. Increasingly, the number of lake whitefish catches in the southern end of Lake Michigan has been on the rise.

“There’s a chance these fish are expanding their range in search of food,” Robillard said.

Wojnicz landed a 2-pound lake whitefish – not to be confused with the round whitefish – a week after catching his burbot. He figured Illinois might be willing to accept that fish as a new state record, too.

But another fisherman had already beat him to it, and his fish was a few ounces bigger, though the DNR has yet to receive the paperwork on that fish.

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