January 31, 2023
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In 1979, Don and Debbie Overcash, owners of the Walker Drug Company, and Ken Breasley of Tackle Box, came up with the idea of ​​holding an International Eelpout Festival to encourage winter tourism in Walker, Minnesota. When the idea was rejected by the Chamber of Commerce, each put in $1 and started planning the first festival.

eelpout (lota lota), or burbot, is a type of cod. It is a slimy, eel-like benthic predator that lives in cold northern lakes and rivers. His ugly reputation has prompted reporters to give him such unflattering titles as “Fish Broth” and “Minnesota’s Slipperiest Tough Guy”—an unlikely inspiration for the city’s festival. Unlike most Minnesota fish species, it spawns in the winter and hibernates in the summer, so it is easiest to catch in late winter.

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In January 1980, about 800 people gathered on the frozen Piyavka Lake for the first International Eelpout Festival to compete for the trophy awarded to the largest eelpout caught. The organizers offered a consolation prize for the largest zander (usually considered a valuable catch, but jokingly called “rough fish” during the competition) caught during the two-day festival. Teams with names such as “Walker’ Pout Scouts”, “Cod Camp” and “Norwegian Eelpout Team” competed for the “Chase on the Lake elpout” trophy. The festival buttons helped fund the event by giving the wearers the right to enter a prize draw. Walker Pilot-independent The newspaper released its first souvenir section of the International Eelpout Festival, filled with humorous articles and trivia about the eelpout.

The following year, between 2,250 and 2,400 anglers caught a total of 306 eelpouts. Festival guests took part in bowling with eelpouts and arranged fireworks.

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In 1983, the festival was moved to February. Participants paid an entry fee of four dollars. Anyone who beat the state’s fourteen pounds and one ounce eelpout record stood a chance of winning the car, although the record stood and the prize went unclaimed.

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The popularity of the event has grown every year. Beginning in 1984, the festival lasted three days and included new events such as a five-mile race called the “Eelpout Exam”. To help promote the festival, in 1987 and 1988 the organizers held competitions for official prints and stamps, “International eelpout”. The winning entries were submitted by Minnesota-based wildlife artists Les K. Cuba and James Meager.

By the mid-1990s, the festival boasted top prizes of a new fish house, a trip to Mexico, and a new four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle. In 1997, festival officials sent a piece of captured eelpout to the Mall of America for display at the mall’s “Underwater World”. Activities included a polar dive in the icy waters of Piyavka Lake.

By the 2010s, the festival had expanded to four days and included events such as snowmobile racing, eelpout curling, eelpout rugby, eelpout fry and concerts.

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Over the years, the festival has reached a national audience through various television programs. Jay Leno of The Tonight Show performed at the Eelpout Festival in 2011. In 2013, Animal Planet’s Off the Hook: Extreme Catches featured a program called “Land of 10,000 Holes”. In 2018, Lidia Bastianich, host of a cooking show on public television, filmed a program fragment at the festival in which she shared her opinion that the eelpout, for all its ugliness, is a tasty fish. These programs highlighted the festival legend that a kiss with an eelpout brings good luck in the coming year.

Global warming has sometimes interfered with the Ice Fishing Festival. In 2016 and 2017, the Cass County Sheriff banned cars and trucks from Leech Lake during festival hours due to thin ice, although attendees were able to haul fish houses onto the ice prior to the event.

An attempt to relocate the festival to Bemidji Lake in Beltrami County failed in 2017, and it has continued as an annual Leech Lake event with an attendance of approximately 15,000 people per year. In 2019, the International Eel Pout Festival turned forty years old, but due to rising costs and safety concerns, the festival was canceled in 2020.

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For more information on this topic, see original recording on Mnopedia.

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