The 32nd Annual International Eelpout Festival on Leech Lake in Walker, MN, is this weekend, February 18-20. The recent thaw has improved travel conditions on the lake, and temperatures expected in the mid-twenties are perfect for this annual tradition.
Greg Breining and Layne Kennedy, author and photographer, respectively, of A Hard-Water World: Ice Fishing and Why We Do It, capture the festival in all its comic and ironic glory. Check out Layne and Greg’s images and words, below.
Really, what makes the festival so promising from the get-go is the subject—not simply a fish, or a game fish, or a prized fish, or any fish that under other circumstances someone might actually try to catch. No, this festival celebrates the eelpout, or burbot, a fresh-water cousin of cod whose most notable trait is its appearance. Potbellied and barbeled, the eelpout looks like Jesse Ventura with fins. Its second-most notable trait: it’s covered with slime, a quality that perhaps gave rise to one of its many other names, “lawyer.” Which brings up its third-most notable trait, its spawning habits, as described by a fisheries biologist in 1936: “A dark shadow was noted at the edge of the ice, something which appeared to be a large ball. Eventually this moved out into view and it was seen to be indeed a ball—a tangled, nearly globular mass of moving, writhing lawyers.”
The festival—that is, the international festival—is timed for mid-February, when the burbot bacchanalia is just beginning. The fish are staging and heading for shallower water. When the event started in 1980, the festival was doing well to attract 500 people. Now 10,000 show up.
There are distractions, to be sure: a snowmobile race, a car race (it would mean something if the cars towed ice houses), a polar plunge, and a rugby match. Still, the festival remains true to its original intent—catching eelpout. In fact, the tournament awards prizes for the ten largest eelpout. In 2007, the prize for biggest went to a young woman for a fish that weighed 14.62 pounds. (Note that the seriousness of this endeavor is carried to two decimal places.) But it doesn’t stop there. Awards are given for Puniest Pout (0.36 pounds), Individual Tonnage (114.52 pounds), and Team Tonnage (431.98 pounds by Floyd’s Barber Shop). Total tonnage classes are enhanced by the fact that the only limit on eelpout, in the words of one competitor, is “all you can stand.” Finally, awards are given on style points, the élan, if you will, with which individuals and teams pursue their sport: Most Lavish Burbot Bivouac, and the Greatest Distance Traveled (from Anchorage in 2007).
There may not be limits. But there are rules. The most important is that eligible fish must not be frozen through and through—to prevent anglers from stockpiling eelpout throughout the winter. And if there is any doubt, according to the organizers, “a lie-detector test will . . . be used and if the eelpout fails, one will be administered to the angler.”
The festival acknowledges that someone who takes ice fishing seriously is someone who can’t quite be trusted. Perhaps his morals are questionable. Perhaps, by the nature of what she does, she can’t be entirely sane. At the very least, he or she is a kidder and can’t be assumed to be on the square. For all these shortcomings, the ice fisherman/woman isn’t quite fit for polite society. Not that this is anything to be ashamed of. It may even be cause for celebration.
It’s noteworthy that not least among the Eelpout Festival awards is the prize given for Hairiest Back. The winner of said award shall remain nameless, though notably it is a man. And he won for the second time running.