RIVERDALE, S.D. — One may not be the most glamorous of fish. The other has a more storied reputation but remains a rarity in North Dakota waters.
Following the completion of a record year of walleye production and thousands of northern pike, attention has turned to carefully raising burbot and muskellunge at the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery.
Burbot, sometimes called ling, is an unusual fish generally shunned by anglers. Although they are present on a limited basis in some locales, it is almost unheard of for North Dakota fishermen to specifically target burbot. The unique fish can be described as a cross between a conventional appearing fish and a snake. Burbot are an excellent eating fish too, but they have been suffering a decline across nearly all of their traditional range throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
"In a lot of places they are endangered or threatened, so there are some recovery efforts going on," said Rob Holm, project manager, Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. "We learned how to raise them here and are just getting started on the stocking part of it."
When the first indications surfaced that burbot were in danger of being extirpated in certain waters, the Garrison Hatchery was called upon to help solve the pending problem. The hatchery is in the business of raising fish, but there was no established method on how to raise burbot. Very little was known or understood about them.
"There was nothing out there, no culture manual for burbot when we started," said Holm. "We had to learn how to get this fish to spawn and how to get the larvae to survive. It was a learning curve for sure."
It took a few years, and many attempts, to find a process that would work to successfully raise burbot. Now the Garrison Hatchery has perfected reliable methods of doing so and is the "go to" facility when burbot populations need to be restored or introduced.
Some of the young burbot currently being reared at the hatchery are destined for Lake Oahe. Others are headed for Montana.
"We got a request for Duck Lake north of Browning, Mont.," said Holm. "They have a big population of suckers and need some predators. Our burbot will ship out in the next month or so."
In an isolation room at the hatchery, a few feet from where the small burbot are being cared for, pure muskellunge are being prepared for their release into the wild. They are a game fish that can grow to 30 pounds or more, making them a coveted trophy for anglers.
"These muskies were brought up here from Spirit Lake, Iowa as fingerlings on pelleted food. We'll get them up to about a foot long and on a fish diet," remarked Holm. "There's not a lot of muskie fisheries in North Dakota but Game and Fish wants to keep the ones we have going."
As project manager Holm is also responsible for operations at the Valley City National Fish Hatchery. It was recently discovered that the water source for that facility, the Sheyenne River, contained high numbers of zebra mussels. Zebra mussels are an invasive species that had previously only been identified in the Red River. The appearance of zebra mussels in the hatchery water supply was serious cause for alarm.
"How we deal with that in the future is going to change how we do things at Valley City," stated Holm. "All the walleyes we had in the ponds there went back into Lake Ashtabula or the Sheyenne River where mussels were already present. It's one of those things you hope you'd never get but it may just be a matter of time the way those things move."
As a precaution against the introduction of zebra mussels into hatchery water, specialized filters are being installed in the water intake lines at the Valley City Hatchery. An ultra-violet disinfection process is also being used to help eliminate the potential for transferring zebra mussels into the hatchery. Thus far extensive testing of water in the hatchery has not discovered any presence of the invasive species.