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A North Dakota angler caught a state-record burbot on January 3 while jigging for walleye in the Garrison Tailrace at Lake Sakakawea. Shane Johnson, of Minot, hooked the 19-pounder on a quarter-ounce jig rigged with a 3-inch plastic lure while fishing off a wing wall that juts into the spillway below the 2-mile-long Garrison Dam.

Johnson, who describes himself as “an average Joe” when it comes to fishing, wasn’t certain at first exactly what he had on his line. “I was jigging slow, not really super-aggressive, when all of a sudden I felt a big hit,” he tells Field & Stream. “Then it was just dead weight. The fish didn’t really move at first, but then it finally started swimming slowly upstream, which is pretty typical of what paddlefish do. But the hit was so hard I knew it couldn’t be a paddlefish, and I started to think maybe it was a big walleye.”

During a 10-minute fight, the fish employed a variety of evasive maneuvers—big runs, head shakes, rolls—that kept Johnson and his fishing partner, Brandon Gullickson, unsure about its species. “By the time I got it up near the surface, with the headlamp shining down and the fish 10 inches below the surface, it looked like I had a 6-foot fish on,” Johnson says. “It was at that point that we realized it was a burbot, and then we got pretty excited.”

Garrison Dam is on the Missouri River about halfway between Bismarck and Minot. Its spillway is a popular destination for North Dakota anglers—for good reason. The Garrison Tailrace has produced six state records, including a 31-pound brown trout, a 31-pound chinook salmon, a 10-pound cutthroat trout, a 16-pound lake trout, a 21-pound rainbow trout, and an 8-pound whitefish.

The wing wall where Johnson fished is bordered by a chain link fence and stands about 25 to 30 feet above the water’s surface. Anglers typically use a pier net—a drop basket developed for pier fishing—to hoist fish through the air. With a fish on the line, this can prove challenging, especially on a cold night with only headlamps for light. “It took probably 10 tries, dragging the fish back and forth, for another 10 minutes to get it into the basket,” Johnson recalls. “Luckily I had my good buddy Brandon running the net while I tried to maneuver the fish.”

Johnson’s Catch Topped a 38-Year-Old State Record

large burbot
The burbot was 41 3/4 inches long. Shane Johnson

By around 11:30 p.m., the duo had the burbot in hand. It was just the beginning of an 11-hour odyssey to get the fish certified for state-record consideration. North Dakota regulations require contenders for state-record status to be weighed on a certified scale and verified in person by an employee of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDGF). The fish weighed 20 pounds, 6 ounces on Johnson’s hand-held scale, but with no way to get it weighed and verified until morning, he and Gullickson decided to fish through the night. He wrapped the burbot in a plastic trash bag and stowed it in the backseat of his car. By the time he got to an official scale the next morning, the fish’s weight had dropped below 20 pounds: The official weight to be entered in the record book—after the state’s mandatory four-week waiting period—is 19 pounds, 5 ounces. The fish was also 41 3/4 inches long.

“Game and Fish told me if I had wrapped the fish in a wet burlap sack or beach towel, it likely wouldn’t have lost so much weight due to dehydration,” Johnson says. “So from now on, I’ll always have a garbage bag and a beach towel with me, just in case I get a big fish.”

Johnson’s catch broke a state record that had stood since 1984 when Orland Kruckenberg hauled an 18-pound, 4-ounce burbot from the Knife River. NDGF classifies burbot as uncommon in the state, noting that their populations show cause for concern and could benefit from further study. The only freshwater member of the cod species, burbot look like a cross between a catfish and an eel, with a single barbel growing out of their lower jaw and a sleek, tube-shaped body.  

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“I’m just kind of an average Joe, not a super-avid fisherman. I’ve only been fishing out of my own boat probably two times in the last three or four years, and the only time I really do any fishing is at the Garrison Tailrace, usually at night and in the winter,” Johnson says. “So I got lucky. I was in the right spot at the right time and slammed the fish of a lifetime. It feels pretty good.” 

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