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Matt Breuer hoists an eelpout to display the unique body style of Minnesota's (arguably) ugliest fish. Anglers attending next weekend's International Eelpout Festival in Walker will welcome a fish of such magnificence. (Submitted photo)

Do the eelpout shuffle next weekend

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The 33rd annual International Eelpout Festival is set to take place beginning at Noon on Friday, Feb. 17 and concluding at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19.

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Approximately 10,000 people are expected to converge on the town of Walker, MN (population 1,069) in search of a fish most would consider unappealing.

The crowd of anglers will be scattered about Minnesota's third largest body of water, Leech Lake, hoping to catch an eelpout worthy of the event's seven-foot tall trophy.

Though walleye, northern pike, bass, bluegills, crappies and perch are typically targeted by anglers statewide, for one weekend, eelpout stands at the top of the most wanted list.

Some people might wonder, what exactly is an eelpout? The bottom dwelling fish also called ling or burbot is a close relative to cod. Anglers form other names for eelpout after the assumption of a big walleye on the hook turns out to be the olive green or brown skinned eelpout, which always seems to wear a frown. After catching an eelpout, anglers usually imitate the facial expression. Yet at the Eelpout Festival, smiles will prevail when a hefty, slimy, smelly eelpout emerges from the hole.

Eelpout, unlike many freshwater fish, spawn beneath the ice. The eggs of an eelpout are dispersed in late February through early March, but the hatching process is elongated compared to other freshwater species. The eggs lay dormant until water temperatures approach 40-degrees.

A pair, at minimum, or a pile of eelpout will writhe in a spherical formation to disperse the eggs (up to 1 million for a full grown female), but once complete, the adults vanish. There is no nest to protect, the eggs simply fall to the bottom. When the newborns hatch (ironically one of the smallest freshwater fish at birth), there is no parent to guide and protect them in their new environment.

Eelpout prefer to eat virtually anything that can fit in their mouth, including crayfish, gobies, walleye, perch, clams and aquatic insects. However, don't expect an eelpout to swallow a trophy walleye, the state record eelpout weighed 19 lbs. 3 oz., which was caught on Lake of the Woods.

Official weigh-masters Jeff Andersen and Toby Kvalevog of Leisure Outdoor Adventures look forward to this year's event. "It's a celebration of ice fishing," says an emphatic Andersen. Kvalevog refers to it as, "A social celebration of our heritage."

The weigh-masters anticipate numerous "Pout Shuffles" over the weekend, which take place after catching an eelpout. The dance steps aren't specific, "it's just what naturally happens once you grab onto an eelpout."

International Eelpout Festival owner Jared Olson adds, "You don't know what the event is truly like until you actually see it."

Olson says the weekend entertainment is equally spectacular, but the Polar Pout Plunge remains the most popular. "Who doesn't want to see someone jump into freezing water?"

Last year's Polar Pout Plunge raised over $50,000 for the Walker Area Community Center.

For more information on the International Eelpout Festival's events, go to eelpoutfestival.com.

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