Thousands of Minnesota anglers will be pouting over the news that their favorite wintertime fishing get-together is off.
Organizers of the International Eelpout Festival announced Thursday that they are canceling this year’s event, which was scheduled for Feb. 20-23 on Leech Lake’s Walker Bay.
The festival, begun in 1979 as a way to draw tourists during the slow season in northern Minnesota’s lake country, attracted more than 10,000 people each year to the lake near Walker, Minn.
On the frozen bay, festivalgoers caught the catfish-like critters by the thousands and enjoyed fish fries, eelpout rugby and eelpout curling. Adult beverages were as much a part of the scene as fishing jigs, the preferred lure for catching the hard-fighting fish.
“It’s with a heavy heart we announce the [cancellation] of the International Eelpout Festival for this season,” said a post on the organization’s Facebook page. “We have had a great ride and appreciate all of you loyal ‘pouters’ over the years and thank you for your support.”
Organizers did not respond Thursday afternoon to messages seeking comment, referring questions to their Facebook page. There, they explained that they had reached an “impasse” with Cass County over lake enforcement.
“The economics no longer work,” the post said. “In the past years we committed tens of thousands of dollars on lake clean up annually plus supplied services such as porta-potties, ice road maintenance and trash pickup.
“Unfortunately, the costs of all these items are rising and [with] the inability to enforce clean up and participation for all festival goers, attendees and vendors it is no longer feasible to operate the festival under the County requirements that change and increase every year.”
The news came as a surprise to Cass County Administrator Josh Stevenson, who said he wasn’t aware of the issues raised by festival organizers.
“We are unaware of what the impasse is,” Stevenson said. “As regards cleanup, I’m surprised. In the last four to five years, they’ve been hiring private vendors for trash and sanitation. We thought it was going good.”
The county’s role in the festival was pretty much limited to law enforcement, Stevenson said — supplying sheriff’s deputies to patrol the area. And although concerns had been raised about rowdy festival crowds, the event really wasn’t any more trouble than any of the many summertime festivals held in the area, he added.
“When you have an influx of people, some people are going to get in trouble,” Stevenson said. “But I wouldn’t say it was out of line, higher or lower [than other events].”
Stevenson wondered whether organizers might have been glossing over other issues.
“In reading through what’s on their website, there’s been no mention of the unpredictability of the weather the festival has been dealing with, or the eelpout change in species designation,” he said.
In some recent years, concerns about ice thickness have led authorities to limit vehicle traffic on the lake for public-safety reasons. In some years, only snowmobiles and ATVs have been allowed on the ice, and many anglers need trucks to get their fish houses in place.
Also, the state Legislature last year changed the status of eelpout from rough fish to game fish. When the eelpout was a rough fish, there was no catch limit for anglers. But the state Department of Natural Resources is developing new regulations that would limit the number of eelpouts anglers could take.
More than 900 people had commented on the festival’s Facebook page by Thursday afternoon, and many blamed irresponsible festival participants for the situation.
“We can thank all the people who just come to get trashed and leave an absolute mess for all of this!” wrote Jeremiah Scovel.
“Even by Eelpout standards the mess left behind [last year] was an absolute embarrassment,” wrote Jeffrey Tvrdik. “As a veteran attendee of the festival this is a bummer to hear.”