Night Cusk Fishing
By Stu Bristol

Shed of their ugly skin and eel-like appearance, the burbot by any name is a fish-eaterís delight and plentiful in Maineís Sebago Lake, Little Ossippee Lake and surrounding waters.

Novice ice anglers, out for the first time at night may be surprised as I was when I moved to Maine. On Sebago Lake at night, just off the mouth of the Northwest River, a fish nearly jerked the rod out of my hand. What came up through the hole caused me to step on it to remove the hook and gingerly slid the strange-looking fish back into the water.

The second time I caught one of the same, my fishing buddy jumped with delight. The freshwater cod, also known as the cusk, burbot, ling, lawyer-fish (for itís bottom-dwelling existence), eelpout, gudgeon, mud blower and mud-sucker, comes as a surprise to many novice winter lake trout fishermen. Shed of their ugly skin and eel-like appearance, the burbot by any name is a fish-eaterís delight and plentiful in Maineís Sebago Lake, Little Ossippee Lake and surrounding waters.

The burbot, or cusk as they are best known in southern Maine, are voracious feeders, mostly at night and, during the late afternoon, on dark days, are commonly hooked while fishing for lake trout (called togue in Maine). Night fishing for cusk is allowed only in certain waters. Consult the lawbook. They are not difficult to hook and they seldom put up much of a fight. Ever heard the joke that itís best to cook a lake trout with an old boot, then toss away the fish and eat the boot? Many locals say it is the cusk that gave lake trout the reputation of not being good tablefare, not the togue.

Actually, cusk are very easy to prepare for chowders or fish soups and are quite flavorful. They certainly are more cooperative on a cold winterís night than most lake trout are during the daytime. In other parts of the country the cusk, called by any of its other names, has begun to rise toward attaining game fish status.

In Washington, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas and Minnesota, the cusk is called the burbot and fishermen have nighttime tournaments to honor these fish. One town even has a burbot queen and a 32-page newsletter.

Mainers, however, are very quiet about their love for cusk, and most prefer I donít even mention they exist. That, of course, is because they have precious little room for fishing competition. The best feeding grounds is on Sebago Lake over the shoals and shallow rock piles surrounded by a hundred feet of water.

The lake trout and cusk both occupy the humps all winter, feeding on the shiners, black-nose dace and crawfish. On the large lakes like Sebago, unless the big bay freezes solid, cusk fishing doesnít exist. On smaller lakes such as Little Ossippee in Waterboro there is generally plenty of ice right through March.

So, why tell you about a fishery that offers little in the way of time on the ice? One reason is because cusk are such a voracious feeder that they do compete with salmon and lake trout for the rebounding smelt and minnow population. While many fish anglers worry about lake trout crowding out the salmon, I have concerns about the cusk crowding out both.

Cusk in the 5-15-pound range are common and once youíve peeled the skin there is a large amount of the flesh that can be used in chowder, or fried as fish and chips. Remember that most lobster shacks in the summer offer cod as their ďFish íN Chip dinners. The cusk is the only freshwater cod and tastes as good.

If you would like to sample cusk before targeting them at night, Harbor Fish on the Portland waterfront offers fresh cusk and suggest the fillets substitute for lobster tails.

Most southern Maine waters are open year-round, but trout and salmon may not be allowed. Check the regulations for the waters you wish to fish. Each year the open water fishing regulations are printed in late December.

Stu Bristol is a Master Maine Hunting, Fishing and Tidewater Guide and Outdoor Writer. His features have been published nationwide for more than 45 years. Stu is a Master Game Call Maker and owner of Deadly Imposter Game Calls. Stu is also the cameraman for Bird Dogs Afield television and webcast. Visit www.stubristol.com or www.orionguideservice.com.


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