To many, the fat, slimy eelpout is one of the ugliest fish swimming in Minnesota’s waters.
But to Brent Getzler, the one he caught is a beauty because it is likely to put him in the record books and gives him a trophy to mount on his wall.
Getzler, 33, of Isabella, Minn., was fishing with two friends Monday afternoon in an icehouse on Lake of the Woods, hoping to reel in some walleyes. He jigged one line and kept an eye on the bobber tied to another.
Over a couple of hours that afternoon, the men pulled up a few small walleyes, releasing them back to the lake, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border near Minnesota’s Northwest Angle.
Then Getzler’s bobber flopped on its side. “I knew something big hit it,” he said. “I was hoping it was a walleye. A big walleye. I’ve never gotten a big one to put on the wall.”
The fish seemed to hang at the end of his line for a moment or two, then it pulled. “He would take out some line, I’d pull some back. Then he pulled some more,” Getzler said.
That’s how it went for three minutes or so before he reeled his catch through the ice.
“I was actually kind of upset when he came through the hole,” Getzler said. His hopes of a trophy-sized walleye were dashed when he saw what some call the “ish” of fish came up from the lake’s depths.
In scientific terms, the fish is called Lota lota, which is French for codfish, according the Minnesota Sea Grant website. But it goes by many common names besides eelpout — burbot, lingcod, lawyer, lush, mud shark.
It’s not exactly a beautiful fish. Some say it’s downright ugly.
But not Dennis Topp, assistant area fisheries supervisor in Baudette for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Topp said. “I appreciate their looks.”
It’s true their smooth flesh is slimy, and the single, whisker-like barbel that grows from the lower jaw isn’t all that attractive.
“Look closer at it,” Topp said. “Their looks kind of grow on you. I see a fish that fights really well, that tastes very good and grows to a very large size. They bite readily on hook and line. What more can you ask for?”
Sure, some anglers aren’t fond of how the eel-like fish will sometimes wrap its body around your arm when it’s handled. And it requires a good scrub rather than just a swish in the water to remove its slime from your hands.
But Topp and Mike Kurre, the DNR’s records coordinator, have a special fondness for the fish, which is “an excellent indicator of water quality.”
“It’s the canary in the coal mine,” Kurre said. “If the water quality is poor, the eelpout don’t do well.”
‘Poor man’s lobster’
Pull an eelpout out of the lake and you’ve got a good meal, Kurre said. “Boil them up in 7-Up, dip them in butter, and you have poor man’s lobster.”
Getzler has caught a few eelpout in his life and is happy to make a dinner out of them. But not the one he pulled from Lake of the Woods on Monday.
He and his buddies knew it was a trophy. Getzler posed for a photo or two, then headed to the Lake of Woods Foods in Baudette, where they planned to weigh the fish.
“I saw these three guys back behind the meat counter,” Topp said. “Seeing that they might have a fish that was a state record,” Topp weighed the fish, which tipped the scale at 19 pounds, 11 ounces, unofficially breaking the 2012 record set by an eelpout from Lake of the Woods that weighed 19 pounds, 8 ounces.
“These three [guys] were pretty excited,” Topp said. “It’s quite an honor to catch a state-record fish. It’s a big deal.”
Once the paperwork clears and the fish is indeed declared a record, Getzler will earn a certificate and bragging rights.
At least until someone catches a bigger burbot, he said.
But he’ll always have his, mounted on a wall in his home. “I’d like to put it in the living room,” he said.
His fiancée, he said, might have something to say about that.