Home of the eelpout
In February, a Minnesota fishing town lets loose at a goofy festival.
© Beth Gauper
A rack of bulging eelpout await the griddle at Eelpout Fest.
On lazy summer days, Walker is a classic northwoods Minnesota town.
I've been going to a lake resort near there with my family for years. We ride our bikes into town on the Heartland State Trail, eat ice cream at the Village Square and buy muskmelons and corn on the cob from the stand near the gas station.
The pace is slow, serene — unless a Crazy Day Sale falls on a cloudy day, in which case the resorts empty and shoppers crowd into the town of 1,100 like sheep to salt.
I thought I knew Walker. But when I turned up there during the winter, I found a different town. Walker had gone wild.
At the center of this turnabout is the eelpout, a roughfish that pops out of the depths mostly in winter, when it spawns. It's famous for its revolting looks and behavior to match: When a fisherman pulls one out of a hole in the ice, the pout is likely to wrap its mottled, eel-like tail around his arm.
Often, the pout announces its slimy self even before that.
"The thing is, half the time they crawl up backward,'' said founder Ken Bresley. "You've had a few drinks, and you've never seen that before. It causes you to take a lot more drinks.''
Bresley is the one who first hit on something important: Eelpout were created to be the butt of jokes. Jokes flow best on a tide of beer. Beer is what you drink when you're ice-fishing, and ice-fishing is what Walker's economy needed more of in the winter.
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Today, the International Eelpout Festival, which Bresley started in 1979, brings more than 10,000 people to Walker every year for a rousing good time.
When I arrived in Walker on a sunny, warm Eelpout Saturday, I was amazed by the number of cars crawling through the streets, but that was nothing compared to the traffic on and around Leech Lake.
As I walked through the grounds of Chase on the Lake, a Tudor-style hotel, a trio of snowmobilers roared up and circled me, looking as if they'd like to toss out a lasso.
© Beth Gauper
A batter whacks a piece of ice over the Leech Lake ice road.
It put me on notice: The wide-open spaces of Leech Lake, Minnesota's third-largest, turn snowmobilers into ice cowboys, and unwary pedestrians into little dogies on a cattle drive.
I thought everyone not moving at 40 mph would be fishing, but that wasn't exactly true. Out on the ice, around an encampment dubbed Jurassic Pout, two women with deep tans were sitting on a sofa, playing cribbage.
A string of pout lay abandoned on the ice, apparently the limit of the team's aspirations, and a man walked up with careful steps and urged me to take one home. A steadier Jurassic Pouter named Sherrie followed him. "We're just drinking today,'' she said.
Nearby, members of Club Oasis danced under plastic palm trees to an overamplified reggae tune with the refrain "We're Going on a Beer Run.''
Across a snowbank studded with pink flamingos, a pitcher was tossing iceballs, each of which coated the batter in a hail of slivers.
I looked inside the tent of Team Iowa, thinking I might find some fish being caught, but Team Iowa was sitting placidly around some Diet Cokes and Cheez Balls.
"We hit it pretty hard yesterday,'' explained Steve Kannegieter, who had driven up with his buddies from the northwest Iowa town of Sibley.
"We've been here two years now, and we haven't caught an eelpout yet,'' he said. "We can't keep those pesky walleye off our hook.'' He demonstrated an orange-and-white gadget called a Polar Tip-Up placed over the ice hole.
"Actually, I've never caught anything with it,'' he added with a shrug. "We just like to drink and talk smart.''At the weigh-in station, I eyeballed an eelpout up close. The winner, an apparently gluttonous pout of nearly 13 pounds, was lying under the weighing table, its squashed face and bulging white belly turned toward me.
"That's a pig, not an eelpout,'' sneered the woman handing out souvenir copies of the Pout-Independent, a local newspaper known as the Pilot-Independent on other days.
© Beth Gauper
During Eelpout Festival, ice houses serve as party centers.
A man in a white chef's toque bustled up and snatched a 7½-pound pout on the scale, the previous occupant of the display tub in the food tent having passed away. I followed him and joined the long line waiting for a plate of fries and hot nuggets of fresh pout, which were delicious.
As it turns out, no one badmouths the taste of the ugly pout, which is the only freshwater member of the cod family.
Then Ken Bresley walked by and urged me to go see the two-story ice house at the far end of the lake, which had, he said, an aquarium and a sauna. I wondered at the wisdom of the latter.
"This is the Eelpout Festival, it's not supposed to make sense,'' he said, then threw out his arms. "Look around you.''
With that in mind, I got into my big, heavy car and drove onto the lake, the slush making slurping noises around my tires. I felt ridiculous using my turn signal in the middle of a lake, but I hadn't been in traffic that heavy since the State Fair.
The Pout Palace did have a sauna, standing in a half-foot of water, and it had a pout pen sunk into the ice under the snack table. There was a working fireplace built into one wall, and in another, two beer taps.
Lots of ice holes had been drilled through the carpet, but no one was fishing. There wasn't enough room; people were packed together like strings of freshly caught pout, and filling themselves to the gills.
I'll see Walker differently when I visit next. For now I know that under that staid facade beats a very merry heart.
Trip Tips: Walker in winter
International Eelpout Festival: It's Feb. 18-21 in 2016.
Information: Leech Lake Area tourism, 800-833-1118.
For more about Walker in summer, see Fishing for finds in Walker.
Last updated on February 17, 2016