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Catch-M-All: First Up the Burbot Two local fishermen embark on yearlong quest to catch and eat every species of freshwater fish in N.H.

Clay Groves (left) and Dave Kellam are two local fishermen who are on yearlong quest to catch and eat every species of freshwater fish in N.H. Courtesy Photo (click for larger version)
March 24, 2011
It was an epic start to an epic quest that was cooked up two weeks earlier. A quest that spoke clearly to our senses of adventure and lunacy: to catch and eat every kind of freshwater fish in New Hampshire in a single year. It was ambitious for sure, given that there are about 50 kinds to pursue, but it was a challenge that we knew we must take once it was said out loud.

Like Lewis and Clark, Lennon and McCartney, or Tango and Cash, we will answer this challenge with a team approach. When possible we will fish together, but solo trips count, too. We agree to always meet up and eat the fish together. Fish caught with a net or trap will not count and we must eat the first legal specimen of each species we catch. The quest will be documented through a blog, on Facebook, in The Mountain Ear, and hopefully a book. We will also happily meet with the Discovery Channel to negotiate a series, too (The Silliest Catch).

As we stepped onto the frozen lake, we could not help but swagger a bit. It might have been the chafing long underwear, but it seemed to stem from our hunter-gatherer machismo. We felt a kinship with our Inuit brothers as we trudged across the frozen landscape because like them, we weren't afraid of the cold and we were there to yank on the food chain.

Our quarry was the burbot or Lota lota by its scientific name - a fish so nice a biologist named it twice. New Hampshire fishermen call it a cusk. The fish lives in all northern parts of the world and commonly grows to about two feet long. They look like the love child of an eel and a catfish. Their long slippery body, smooth skin, and single whisker under the chin make them look like an inhabitant of the swamp planet Dagobah. Since they only enter shallow water in the winter to spawn, ice fishing was our only option.

The night before we set out six cusk fishing devices, which are heavy baited lines tethered to a stick and left unattended all night. This is the only fish in New Hampshire that can be legally caught this way. A white sucker or golden shiner is the preferred bait and we had a large coffee can full of them. It was on these overnight lines that we pinned our hopes. The plan was to set up a portable shanty over the hole that produced a fish. Then from inside the heated shelter, we would use jigging rods to catch them throughout the night. We even brought our camp stove to cook them.

When we arrived at the first cusk line, our faces were numb from smiling into arctic winds. After chipping away the ice, we pulled the line and found no fish. We were truly surprised, but brightened with the prospect of five more chances. After the fifth limp line, worry set it. If line six was empty we would be fishless and clueless. Our sixth line came up empty. As if cued, a strong frigid gust blew us back on our heels as if to say, "boys, this ain't going to be easy."

Facing hypothermia, we agreed that the first order of business was setting up the shanty. We drilled five holes in the ice with our hand augers and then pulled the tent-like shanty from its stuff sack. Instantly the shanty transformed into an elaborate box kite. Wrestling it to the ice, we pinned the corners down with steel anchors and began chucking chairs, tackle boxes, gear, poles and the coffee can into it. After we zipped the shanty door closed behind us, we panted and cussed. When the heater snapped on, we collapsed into the collapsible chairs.

We first unpacked our secret weapon, a state of the art sonar fish finder. As the LCD screen awoke, it revealed fish swimming 20 feet beneath us. Renewed hope warmed our veins as we scrambled for bait and line. We lowered our lures to the precise depth but instead of a strike we were snubbed. For a maddening three hours, fish after fish saw our offerings and thought better of them. Searching for answers, we changed lures, altered presentations, freshened bait, and even checked to see if there was residual coffee in the can. Maybe the burbot were trying to cut back on caffeinated suckers.

With no promise of fish and temps dropping, we agreed to cut and run. When we exited, a -9 degree wind chill took our breath away. At a panicked pace, we chucked chairs, tackle boxes, poles, gear and the coffee can out of the shanty and collapsed it. We lashed everything onto our sleds and hoofed it to the cars. Upon arrival we threw the sleds in and drove away as fast as we could.

As we sat in the Alton McDonald's booth, embracing our hot coffees like they were lost children, we contemplated the night. The bitter sting of defeat and frostbite darkened our moods. Clearly, we could not hang with Eskimos. But as warmth came back, so did our perspective. Quests are all about overcoming adversity and learning from the journey. We learned that fish are in no hurry to lose their lives and that sometimes they are smarter than we are. We learned that most equipment should be left in the car. And finally, we learned that we are in for quite a year.

Epilogue: Concerned readers will be happy to know that shortly after the completion of this article, we caught three burbot! We kept two and used them in a recipe called "Poor Man's Lobster."

Follow the quest at www.catch-m-all.com, or check back with The Mountain Ear every two weeks for an update.

Poor Man's Lobster (cusk)


fresh cusk (burbot, ling, lawyers, eel, pout etc.)



red wine vinegar



This is probably the easiest thing we've ever cooked, in fact it's so easy we feel silly even writing the recipe. But here goes, boil some water, add some salt and red wine vinegar (just a little) and let it boil for a minute. Add the cusk, it's recommended that you cut the cusk into 1inch pieces, but ours were so small that we just threw in the filets. Let that boil for two minutes.

While the cusk is boiling, in a separate pan melt some butter with the garlic.

You'll know the cusk is done when it's tender and looks terrible. But don't be deceived; this is going to be great! Serve hot, and eat it by dipping it in hot melted butter and garlic.

If you've done it right it will taste somewhat like lobster, if you've done it wrong, it will still taste somewhat like lobster. If you can boil water you can't mess this up!

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Alton School
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