Eelpout: 1) a Holarctic freshwater fish (Lota lota) of the cod family with barbels on the nose and chin; also known as burbot, cusk, ling cod, lawyer fish; 2) synonym for homely; 3) an excuse for one heck of a party.
Minnesota in February. You can drive a Winnebago across the lake. At night, pipes freeze solid as granite. How can anything live here, let alone have a party? The answer to that question is given by the dauntless midwesterners who’ll take to windswept Leech Lake in Walker, Minn., this month for the 21st annual Eelpout Festival.
“What better gift can you give your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day than a frozen eelpout?” says festival founder Ken Bresley. If you live in the northern states, you know that he is referring to a primordial creature with a barbeled snout, long, paddle-shaped body and smooth, mottled brown skin that is a very tasty dish when properly fried and seasoned. But you may not want to hand your sweetheart a live one. Clutch it near the head to remove a hook and it will wrap itself around your arm and grip tight, like a wide, slimy fan belt. Drop an eelpout inside an icefishing shanty and it will twist wildly across the floor while everyone scatters.
Why would anyone wrap a celebration around a fish like this?
“Frankly, there isn’t much to do up here in winter,” says Bresley, who moved from Chicago in 1978. Bresley opened a sporting-goods store that did fine through the summer. When tourist season ended around Labor Day, so did the business. Bresley began to wonder what sort of event was going to attract people to the frozen town of Walker in winter. Then one cold day he caught an eelpout.
“People thought, ÃƒÂ¥Who’s this nut from Chicago who wants to do weird things with eelpout?'” Bresley recalls. His apparent madness led to a first-time festival that drew 500 people. (Bresley did call an outdoor writer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune who wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about the idea of a celebration organized around a creature slimy enough to be nicknamed “lawyer fish.”) The second year, the weekend-long festival grew to about 3,000 participants. This year it is expected to draw upward of 8,000. With a short supply of winter accommodations, festival- goers set up tents, trailers and motor homes on ice two-feet thick at the edge of the lake, within the Walker town park. Then they drive plowed roads far across the ice to eelpout fishing holes.
Eelpout angling is hardly a finesse job. In February the spawning fish congregate along the bottom at night, which is when most fishing takes place. (Party by day, fish by night — perfect.) Anything that glows is gobbled up by an eelpout, so fluorescent Swedish Pimples and similar lures are used along with live minnows. Most Minnesota eelpout are two to six pounds. A few 12- and 13-pounders have been caught during the festival. The state record is an 18 lb. 5 oz. whopper taken from Lake of the Woods.
Dave Harrington, a Minnesotan who’s been on a 10-year quest to better that state record, caught the record festival fish on Valentine’s Day, 1987. The 14 lb. 101/2 oz. eelpout succumbed to a glowing Swedish Pimple that Harrington illuminated with a camera flash. Eelpout fight as well as, if not better than, walleyes, he thinks, and says, “When can you catch 10 walleyes over five pounds? Well, in an evening you can catch 100 pounds of eelpout.”
St. Paul resident Tom Dickson, the rough-fish expert at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, says that like all members of the cod clan, eelpout “have firm, white meat with a mild flavor.” He notes that the festival’s annual big catch puts barely a dent in the Leech Lake population, which is unpursued the rest of the year.
Sometimes, though, it seems fishing is the last thing on people’s minds. There are ice-bowling contests, and some folks truck out their pool tables and play eight-ball in mittens and mukluks. For the compulsively athletic there’s a five-mile race called the Eelpout Peel Out. And there’s curling, that Swiss sport that’s a lot like sliding pony kegs across the ice.
Speaking of kegsÃ¤you might see a few. The main trouble with the beer is making sure it doesn’t freeze. One year, the temperature hit 31 below, turning a few kegs into beer boulders.
In this atmosphere, crazy antics are commonplace. Harrington recalls one time he and his buddies cut a live well in two feet of ice and put about a dozen eelpout in the frigid water. Someone stuck his head in the door of the shanty and offered $10 to the first person who would go “bobbing for ‘pout.” A fellow named Don won the money in about two minutes, Harrington says. “He got a nice one too, right between his teeth.”
The climax to the festival is a black-tie dinner in a huge tent on the ice. Formal attire is required, but you can wear a snowsuit over your tux or gown. The dinner is probably the only place where eelpout isn’t served (the entrÃ©e is often prime rib), and the musical entertainment rises above the usual boom-box blare. Except one year when the piano froze.
“This year we’re inviting Governor Jesse Ventura to the festival,” Bresley says. “It’s his kind of crowd.”
Contact: For Eelpout Festival information, call the Walker Visitor Center (800-833-1118).