Ugliest catch: Walker's International Eelpout Festival

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 23, 2014 - 7:06 PM

Ice anglers and revelers celebrate an unattractive but tasty fish at Walker’s eelpout festival.


Eelpout, long reviled by many anglers, are celebrated at the International Eelpout Festival in Walker, Minn. The 35th annual festival is this weekend.

Photo: Photos courtesy International Eelpout Festival,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

Some call it the ish fish.

For decades winter anglers who accidentally hooked eelpout discarded them on the ice or even cut their lines rather than handle the slimy, snakelike fish, known to wrap themselves around hands or arms.

But the long-reviled eelpout ­— also called burbot — are a cash cow in Walker, Minn.

This weekend up to 12,000 people will jam into the little town on the shores of Leech Lake for the 35th annual International Eelpout Festival to celebrate a fish promoters say just has an image problem.

“They are bizarre-looking things,’’ said Ken Bresley, 73, of Walker, who founded the festival in 1979 as a whimsical way to boost tourism in the dead of winter.

The event has evolved into a sort of Mardi Gras on Ice. There’s the requisite ice fishing contest, with prizes for the biggest ’pout and most pounds caught by angling teams. But there’s also an eelpout fish fry, eelpout rugby, eelpout curling and the “Polar Pout Plunge’’ where more than 200 people will jump into a hole cut in frozen Leech Lake to raise money for the local community center.

“It’s a spectacle,’’ said Jared Olson, 30, event organizer.

Local motels and resorts are booked months in advance, so latecomers likely will have to stay at Bemidji or Park Rapids about 30 miles away. Many anglers set up elaborate “encampments’’ with RVs, fish houses or structures built from scratch that might include end tables, lamps and pillows.

The festival gives businesses a midwinter shot-in-the-arm and the community a shot of publicity. The event has garnered national attention, including from the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Animal Planet.

“It’s very big for the town,’’ Olson said. “And it’s just so much fun.’’

A burbot bonanza

Not bad for an idea that was scorned when Bresley first proposed it. He had recently moved to Walker from Chicago and opened a small business, only to see customers dwindle as winter lingered. He caught his first eelpout while ice fishing with friends.

“A few people ate them, but most kicked them back into the holes or left them on the ice,’’ he said.

But the squirming, eel-like fish gave him an idea: Instead of holding a regular ice fishing contest, like many other towns do, why not celebrate Leech Lake’s ugly, unwanted eelpout?

“Everyone, including the chamber of commerce, said I was crazy,’’ Bresley said. “They were afraid it would be bad publicity telling people there were eelpout in the lake. Well, people already knew that.’’

So he launched the eelpout festival anyway, selling buttons to raise money for prizes. A few hundred anglers showed up the first year. But word about the burbot buffoonery spread, and by year two, 1,000 showed up. A few years later, around 8,000 came.

“It was so bizarre and weird that people had to come and see it themselves,’’ Bresley said. “We tried to make it a fun event for the whole family. It just grew and grew.’’

Ugly but tasty

  • related content

  • Great Lakes ice show provides a silver lining to winter

    Monday February 24, 2014

    Looking for the upside of this brutal winter? Go see spectacular formations along the Great Lakes.

  • Where to go see the Great Lake ice show

    Thursday February 20, 2014

    Robinson’s Quarry, Sandstone, Minn.Gooseberry Falls, Two Harbors, Minn.Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Two HarborsTettegouche State Park, Silver Bay, Minn.Temperance River...

  • Cabin Country: Building our own Finnish sauna

    Thursday February 20, 2014

    We used to draw names at Christmas for an adult gift exchange. Two years ago, I drew my brother-in-law’s name....

  • Anglers and onlookers at the International Eelpout Festival on Leech Lake assemble to watch the popular Polar Pout Plunge event.

  • Kelly Plummer of Forest Lake planting a kiss on an eelpout.

  • burbot bash

    The 35th Annual International Eelpout Festival is this weekend in Walker, Minn. Participants need a $15 festival button. For more information, see

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.


Cleveland 6:00 PM
Washington 6:00 PM
Golden State 6:30 PM
New York 6:30 PM
Orlando 6:30 PM
Charlotte 6:30 PM
LA Clippers 7:00 PM
Brooklyn 7:00 PM
Miami 7:00 PM
New Orleans
Minnesota 7:00 PM
Utah 8:00 PM
San Antonio 9:00 PM
Milwaukee 9:30 PM
LA Lakers
Oklahoma City 9:30 PM
Boston 6:00 PM
New Jersey
Calgary 6:00 PM
NY Islanders
Washington 6:00 PM
Chicago 6:30 PM
Tampa Bay
Colorado 7:30 PM
Los Angeles 9:00 PM
Siena 5:00 PM
Harvard 5:30 PM
Penn 6:00 PM
Fairfield 6:00 PM
Manhattan 6:00 PM
Saint Peters 6:00 PM
Princeton 6:00 PM
Ohio 7:00 PM
Dartmouth 7:00 PM
Valparaiso 9:00 PM
Cleveland State
Louisiana Tech 1:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Seton Hall 6:00 PM
Cornell 6:00 PM
Yale 6:00 PM
(14) Princeton
Elon 6:00 PM
Northeastern 6:00 PM
James Madison
St Johns 6:00 PM
Creighton 6:00 PM
Brown 6:00 PM
Columbia 6:00 PM
Canisius 6:00 PM
St Josephs Brooklyn 6:00 PM
Western Carolina 6:00 PM
UNC Greensboro
Colorado 7:00 PM
Southern Ill 7:00 PM
Drake 7:00 PM
Wichita State
Indiana State 7:00 PM
Illinois State 7:05 PM
Northern Iowa 7:05 PM
Missouri State
Utah 7:30 PM
(10) Arizona State
Providence 7:30 PM
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question