Fishing for burbot can be quite excellent in Washington, if you know where and when to look.
The nine big lakes and reservoirs in this article are where you stand the best odds of catching these unusual fish, which are well off the radar for most trout- and salmon-fishing Washingtonians.
We’ll also tell you about a handful of additional spots where you might catch burbot.
First of all, though, you might be asking what in the heck is a burbot?
Let’s be honest: These fish look like the love child of a catfish and an eel.
If they resemble something you’d more likely catch in saltwater, well, there’s a reason for that. Burbot are the only freshwater species in a wider family of fish that includes cod, and you can definitely see the family resemblance.
In fact, burbot are very often called freshwater lings because they look like those salty game fish.
Another thing you really should know is that aside from their slimy outer appearance, burbot are excellent eating. Beauty truly is skin deep.
Like other members of the cod family, burbot have a mild white meat that cooks up beautifully for fish and chips or other recipes. Some people call them “poor man’s lobster” in describing their mild and slightly sweet flavor.
Burbot are widely distributed across the very top of the United States (including Alaska and the Great Lakes) and across Canada, as well as in northern Europe and Asia.
In Washington, good numbers of burbot are found in a limited bigger lakes, reservoirs and tributaries of the Columbia River system, where they need deep and cold water with good supplies of smaller fish, crayfish and other forage.
Most of the burbot you’ll catch in Washington range from a couple pounds up to perhaps 6 or even 8 pounds for the really nice ones. The state record is a bit over 17 pounds.
Washington has a statewide harvest limit of five burbot per day, and they may be any size.
How and When to Catch Burbot
Burbot aren’t a complicated fish to catch when you find them, but finding them is the trickier part.
Burbot tend to stick to extremely deep water for much of the year, often found at depths of 100 feet or more.
In the mid- to late winter they will move into somewhat shallower water to spawn, and that’s when you can catch them through the ice or on open water, depending on the water you’re fishing.
Once located, most anglers will fish for burbot with soft plastic lures on a weighted jig head or with bait.
Use a medium sized jig head with a twisty-tail body, preferably in a bright color such as chartreuse or white, which will be more visible in the depths.
Add a piece of nightcrawler or a little chunk of fish to your jig hook and you’ll catch more burbot.
Also, simply bait fishing for burbot will get the job done.
Good baits include nightcrawlers and strips or chunks of any other fish you caught, including sucker, northern pikeminnow, whitefish, or the guts from trout or yellow perch you’ve cleaned. Crayfish should work well also, as they are a staple in the burbot diet.
No matter what you use to catch burbot, fish them right next to the bottom, where they spend their lives.
Drop your offering down (with just enough weight) until it hits the bottom. Reel up a couple turns and use a fairly light action for jigs, and you can give your bait a few twitches as well if the bites aren’t coming fast enough.
If you’re not catching them, move around a bit because the bites should come relatively easily once you locate a concentration of burbot.
They can be light biters but if you’re jigging now and then you should feel the weight and set the hook.
A medium-weight rod and reel should work great. Braided line is ideal.
Best Burbot Fishing Spots in Washington
The following nine lakes and reservoirs are generally the best spots to hook burbot. We’ll group them alphabetically by county so you can more easily locate a lake that fits your needs.
Lake Chelan (Chelan County)
This massive and extraordinarily deep lake may be much better known for its incredible kokanee and lake trout fishing, but make no mistake: The burbot are down there in the depths (and not so deep in the winter).
More: Lake Chelan Fishing
Banks Lake (Grant County)
This big and deep reservoir has a very good burbot population that is ignored by many anglers chasing the many walleye, bass, kokanee and trout also found here.
You’ll have to ply the deep water for much of the year, but move into more like 40 or so feet of water in the northern end during the winter for better action during the spawn.
More: Banks Lake Fishing
Cle Elum Lake (Kittitas County)
These days this reservoir is mostly known for the occasional special season on returning sockeye salmon, at least when those runs are good. There are some big lake trout here as well.
But burbot also roam this reservoir and can be caught in its deeper waters, although fluctuating water levels can be an issue here.
Kachess Lake (Kittitas County)
Most often fished for trout and kokanee, burbot fans know that this reservoir north of Easton can produce fair catches of freshwater lings, especially in the colder seasons.
Keechelus Lake (Kittitas County)
This is the most visible of the county’s big reservoirs on the upper Yakima River system, as it sits along Interstate 90 near Snoqualmie Pass.
It gets modest fishing pressure in the spring and early summer for kokanee but also has a reasonable population of burbot.
Boat launching can be tough starting in late summer.
Palmer Lake (Okanogan County)
This big northern lake has a nice mixture of fishing opportunities, from kokanee to warmwater angling.
In the winter, Palmer is a go-to spot for serious ice anglers, and burbot are one of the fish you can yank up through the hole in the hard deck.
Bead Lake (Pend Oreille County)
This is a good-sized lake north of Newport with good fishing for several of Washington’s cold-loving fish, including lake trout, kokanee and of course, burbot.
In fact, this is where Washington’s current burbot records of 17.37 pounds was caught in 2004.
This is a very good ice fishing lake for big fish, both the burbot and they Mackinaw.
Sullivan Lake (Pend Oreille County)
Known as a trophy trout lake, wintertime anglers also look for windows in the weather to hit the hard surface for good numbers of burbot in the big lake, located southeast of Metaline Falls.
Lake Roosevelt (Stevens and multiple counties)
This 150-mile-long Columbia River reservoir is big enough to have a ton of great fisheries, from trout to walleye to smallmouth bass to kokanee to sturgeon.
Sometimes lost in all that bounty are the homely burbot, but this would be a mistake, especially in the winter when these fish move into more accessible shallower water.
Look for burbot in the Spokane River arm as well as other tributary arms and coves.
Note: State officials have issues a fish consumption advisory suggesting women and children eat burbot no more than four times per month.
More: Lake Roosevelt Fishing
More Places to Catch Burbot
Here are some more spots where anglers report catching occasional burbot or where they show up in fish surveys at times.
Billy Clapp Lake – This Grant County fishery can resemble a smaller and quieter version of Banks Lake in some ways and has many of the same types of fishing opportunities, including the occasional burbot.
More: Billy Clapp Lake Fishing
Potholes Reservoir – Justifiably famous for walleye, bass and more, anglers report that the occasional burbot ends up on their hook, often while dragging nightcrawlers deep for walleye.
For much of the year, burbot are likely to be found in the deeper and cooler water, especially in the southern end of the reservoir near the dam.
Burbot may also show up on your hook when it’s ice fishing time, particularly in the Lind Coulee Arm of this big Grant County hot spot.
Osoyoos Lake – This big lake sitting partly in Washington and partly in British Columbia isn’t the world’s best fishing destination (especially in the Okanogan County end), but it does have a variety of fishing opportunities, with some decent smallmouth bass catches.
Among the species sometimes caught here are burbot, though it appears they aren’t often targeted.
Rufus Woods Lake – This big Columbia River reservoir above Chief Joseph Dam, bordering Okanogan and other counties, is much better known for its habit of producing big rainbow trout as well as walleye, smallmouth bass and other game fish.
But anglers do report catching the occasional burbot in Rufus Woods, which makes sense as it’s located just downriver from Lake Roosevelt, one of Washington’s best burbot fisheries.
This part of the Columbia has a fish consumption advisory like Lake Roosevelt (see above).
Check out this cool Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife video about burbot fishing.