Robb Keith holds a 35-inch burbot recently caught on Fontenelle Reservoir. Anglers who catch burbot marked with a yellow tag could win $1,000. The contest is just one of several efforts to rid the area of the non-native species. (Robb Keith/Wyoming Game and Fish)

Anglers on Fontenelle Reservoir in western Wyoming have a chance to catch more than just dinner in the coming weeks. Catch a burbot and it might be worth $1,000. Wyoming Game and Fish tagged 25 burbot in the reservoir. The angler who caught each tagged fish before Jan. 8 will be entered in a drawing for $1,000 prize. It is the latest effort to remove the invasive burbot from the area.

Fontenelle Reservoir is remote and not a popular angling spot, but seems to be functioning as a source of burbot on the Green River system. The $1,000 raffle, provided by the Upper Bear River chapter of Trout Unlimited, is meant to add angling pressure on the reservoir.

Burbot are native to eastern Wyoming, but not western Wyoming — where they’re not welcome because of the native fish they eat.

Someone, likely in the late 1980s or early 1990s, illegally stocked the fish in western Wyoming in the Big Sandy and Fontenelle Reservoirs, said Robb Keith, a regional fisheries supervisor with Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Biologists first confirmed burbot in Fontenelle Reservoir in 2005.

“Their numbers just kind of exploded from when we first detected them and we knew we would have a big problem,” Keith said.

In 2006 Game and Fish confirmed burbot in Flaming Gorge Reservoir. It isn’t known how they arrived in that popular fishing area — whether they were illegally stocked or came from Fontenelle or elsewhere, but they are now found throughout the drainages below and above Fontenelle.

The fish, which is sometimes described as a cross between an eel and a catfish, feeds almost exclusively on other fish.

“They just literally will eat anything that gets in their way,” Keith said.

Troy Laughlin measures the burbot he caught on Fontenelle Reservoir. There are 25 burbot tagged in the reservoir. Those who catch one of the tagged fish can enter a raffle sponsored by the Upper Bear River chapter of Trout Unlimited to win $1,000. ( Robb Keith/Wyoming Game and Fish)

Smallmouth bass populations have been hit particularly hard by burbot. Bass used to be plentiful, but numbers have dwindled so significantly that Wyoming Game and Fish is changing the five-fish limit in Flaming Gorge on the Wyoming side to catch-and-release, starting in January.

Burbot also eat a lot of rainbow trout and kokanee salmon, Keith said. A burbot can eat a fish that is half its size. Biologists found a 15-inch kokanee salmon and a 12-inch smallmouth bass inside the stomach of a recently caught 30-inch burbot, he said.

Burbot also impact brown and rainbow trout which also feed on smaller prey fish. The voracious appetite of burbot means little is left for browns and rainbows.

Burbot are edible and taste a little like saltwater cod, Keith said. On the eastern side of the Continental Divide the fish is a species of concern and Wyoming Game and Fish limit anglers to harvesting only three.

But not on the Green River and its key reservoirs.

As of Dec. 13 the north end of Fontenelle Reservoir was covered in ice and people had been on it to fish. The south end had only a few inches of ice, although Keith expected it to thicken up soon. No one had yet reported catching a tagged fish.

The raffle prize is also a way to promote the LaBarge “Ding the Ling Derby” at Fontenelle Jan.7-8, although anglers don’t have to participate in the derby to enter the raffle. (Burbot are also called Ling).

It’s the second year for the derby at Fontenelle. Derbies on Flaming Gorge, held since 2010, have removed about 30,000 burbot.

Keith said he knows it’s impossible to eradicate the species from the drainages, but he hopes enough are removed to stabilize the burbot population, or even make it decline to a point where smallmouth bass can recover.

While Game and Fish is encouraging anglers to remove burbot, biologists are also trying to understand the species better.

Scientists recently placed transponder tags in 285 burbot in the Fontenelle Reservoir to understand where and when the fish move between the reservoir and the Green River, said Darren Rhea, a fisheries biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish.

The transponders are inside the fish, so people have no way of knowing if they catch a fish that is part of the study, which is being done as a cooperative effort between Wyoming Game and Fish and the Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Idaho. Game and Fish will have staff at the derby, hoping to scan the tags of those caught to estimate how many fish with transponders are caught during the event.

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For those transponder fish not caught, researchers will follow them electronically to see where and when they move.

If they find that a mass of fish move to the river at the same time, they might be able to kill large numbers at once, Rhea said.

Rhea said his primary concern is for the trout fisheries above the reservoir, in particular blue ribbon trout fisheries in the Green and New Fork Rivers where burbot have already been found.. Burbot populations are increasing quickly and impacting sport fishing populations that are already stressed from land use and hybridization in the area. Rhea said he hopes to learn when the fish enter the river and move upstream and what habitats they use while spawning and foraging.

“Our ultimate goal is to determine if, and when, we can target them to control their numbers and limit their upstream expansion,” he said.

How the raffle works

Catch a burbot with a yellow tag between now and Jan.8 on Fontenelle Reservoir. Call the number on the tag to report the catch, provide your contact information and turn in the tag. The winner will be drawn at the LaBarge Ding the Ling Derby Jan.8. You don’t have to be present to win.

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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