The International Eelpout Festival in Walker began in 1980 as a way to bring tourists to northern Minnesota during the long winter months. Centered on what is considered the state’s ugliest fish, it grew into an annual four-day festival that has attracted national attention and thousands of visitors.
In 1979, Don and Debbie Overcash, owners of Walker Drug, and Ken Bresley of the Tackle Box bait shop came up with the idea of an International Eelpout Festival to encourage winter tourism in Walker, Minnesota. When the idea was rejected by the Chamber of Commerce, each invested $1 and began planning the first festival.
The eelpout (Lota lota), or burbot, is a variety of cod. It is a slimy, eel-like bottom-feeder that dwells in cold northern lakes and rivers. Its reputation for ugliness has prompted news reporters to give it such uncomplimentary names as the “Ish of Fish,” and “Minnesota’s Slimiest Tough Guy”—an unlikely inspiration for a town festival. Unlike most Minnesota fish species, it spawns in the winter and goes dormant in summer, so it is easiest to catch in late winter.
In January 1980, an estimated 800 people turned out on frozen Leech Lake for the first International Eelpout Festival to compete for the trophy awarded for the largest eelpout caught. Organizers offered a consolation prize for the largest walleye (generally considered a prized catch but jokingly referred to as a “rough fish” during the competition) caught during the two-day festival. Teams with names like the Walker ‘Pout Scouts, Cod Camp, and the Norwegian Eelpout Team competed for the Chase on the Lake eelpout trophy. Festival buttons helped to finance the event entitled holders to be entered into a prize drawing. The Walker Pilot-Independent newspaper issued its first International Eelpout Festival souvenir section, filled with tongue-in-cheek articles and eelpout trivia.
The following year, an estimated 2,250 to 2,400 anglers landed a total of 306 eelpout. Festival attendees participated in Eelpout bowling and enjoyed a fireworks display.
In 1983, the festival moved to February. Participants paid an entry fee of four dollars. Anyone beating the state eelpout record of fourteen pounds and one ounce had a chance to win a car, though the record held and the prize went unclaimed.
The event’s popularity increased each year. Beginning in 1984, the festival ran three days and featured new events, such as a five-mile footrace called the Eelpout Peel-Out. To help promote the festival, the organizers held contests for official “International Eelpout” prints and stamps in 1987 and 1988. Minnesota wildlife artists Les C. Kouba and James Meger submitted the winning entries.
By the mid-1990s, the festival boasted grand prizes of a new fish house, a trip to Mexico, and a new, four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle. In 1997, festival officials shipped some of the eelpout caught to the Mall of America for display in the mall’s Underwater World. Events included a Polar Plunge into the icy waters of Leech Lake.
Over the years, the festival has reached national audiences through a variety of television programs. Jay Leno of “The Tonight Show” did a feature on the 2011 Eelpout Festival. Animal Planet’s “Off the Hook: Extreme Catches” series featured a program in 2013 titled “Land of 10,000 Iceholes.” In 2018, public television cooking show host Lidia Bastianich filmed a program segment at the festival, sharing the tip that eelpout, for all their ugliness, are tasty fish. These programs highlighted the festival legend that kissing an eelpout brings good luck for the coming year.
Global warming has occasionally put a damper on the ice fishing festival. In 2016 and 2017, the Cass County sheriff banned cars and trucks from driving onto Leech Lake during the hours of the festival due to thin ice, though participants could haul fish houses onto the ice before the event.
An attempt to move the festival to Lake Bemidji in Beltrami County in 2017 failed, and it continued as an annual event on Leech Lake, with attendance reaching an estimated 15,000 people each year. 2019 marked the International Eelpout Festival’s fortieth anniversary, but due to rising costs and safety concerns, the festival was canceled in 2020.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.