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
The festival, which opened Thursday night and ends midday Sunday, has shone a spotlight on eelpout — more properly called burbot — which are freshwater cod. They have a barbel on their chin, just like their Atlantic and Pacific cod cousins.
Some anglers now realize looks aren’t everything.
“I like to fillet them and boil them in 7UP, then dip them in butter,’’ said Henry Drewes, an avid angler and regional fisheries manager for the Department of Natural Resources. “They call it poor man’s lobster. It’s outstanding.’’
Said Drewes: “It used to be you’d see people discard them on the ice [which is illegal], but you don’t see that much anymore.’’
The fish is unique, he said.
“You rarely hear of them being caught in the summer. They are a cold-water fish, so in the summer they are in the deepest waters where anglers usually don’t fish.’’
But in late winter they come into shallower waters to spawn, and winter anglers in Leech, Lake of the Woods and other deep waters sometimes battle burbot, accidentally or intentionally. Eelpout festival anglers this weekend likely will fish reefs.
Predators, eelpout eat small fish and crayfish. “Some people will use shrimp for bait,’’ Drewes said.
Legally, they are not a game fish, so there are no bag limits. And because the DNR doesn’t survey them, no one really knows how their populations are faring. The Minnesota record is a 19.3-pounder caught in Lake of the Woods in 2001. Last year, a 14-pounder won the International Eelpout Festival.
This weekend the contortionists will be celebrated.
“You can catch a 26- to 30-inch eelpout and it can turn itself around in an 8-inch hole,’’ Drewes said. “It’s the darndest thing you’ve ever seen. And they’ll wrap themselves around anything. But that’s the allure of the eelpout festival.’’
And though their reputation has improved, they are no threat to Minnesota’s state fish.
Said Olson: “Personally, I’d rather eat walleye.’’