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Eelpout Festival coming to Bemidji? Organizers submit application to hold 2018 event on Lake Bemidji

Ladeen Schillinger of Alexandra attempts to slide a "curling rock" -- an eelpout frozen in a octagonal shaped block of ice -- during the 2014 International Eelpout Festival in Walker, Minn. The festival, which has been hosted by Walker, may move to Bemidji, Minn., in 2018. Forum News Service File photo

BEMIDJI, Minn.—After 38 years in Walker, Minn., the International Eelpout Festival may be moving to Lake Bemidji in 2018.

According to the agenda for the Beltrami County Commission meeting, Tuesday, Oct. 17, an application has been made to the county requesting approval of a permit to hold the 2018 Eelpout Festival in Bemidji.

Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp and county Environmental Services Director Brent Rud are expected to address the board about the application and applicable ordinances.

"We are aware that this issue could be a relatively high-profile issue and (we) want to provide background to the Board and public regarding the process," the memo on the agenda states.

No dates for the possible festival were given on the agenda, but the festival is generally held in late February on Walker Bay on Leech Lake in north-central Minnesota.

The International Eelpout Festival is one of the northland's most famous outdoor winter gatherings, and it's even known internationally. The event routinely draws more than 10,000 people to the three-day festival.

Along with the ice fishing aspect, the festival has been known to feature an eelpout fish fry, eelpout rugby, eelpout curling and the Polar Pout Plunge. Held on the ice, the festival is also widely known for its party atmosphere, featuring ice bars and portable camps.

When reached, Eelpout event publicist Michael Deering offered no comment and attempts to reach Event Director Jared Olson, as well as Hodapp, were unsuccessful. Walker Mayor Jed Shaw also had no comment.

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht said she's has been in contact with event organizers about the possibility of the festival coming to her city.

"I met with the organizer and shared some thoughts, ideas and concerns that I had, and he took those under advisement and said that he would be trying to address those concerns," Albrecht said.

Post-event cleanup and parking issues have caused some concerns the past few years at the Eelpout.

For last year's event, citing safety concerns, the Cass County Sheriff's Office announced restrictions for vehicle traffic on Walker Bay. The decision was based on the unseasonably warm temperatures and the large number of vehicles expected.

Additionally, the Cass County Board set a policy in 2017 giving the organizers the option to pay a deposit to the county to cover post-event clean up, or pay the county nothing for cleanup and hire a private company to do it. In the past, the Cass County Environmental Services Department, Sheriff's Department and Service Jail Inmates have helped clean up the lake, picking up an estimated 900 pounds of trash after the 2016 event.

According to local lore, the Eelpout Festival started out as just a simple gathering of some friends on the lake for some ice fishing. But when Ken Bresley, who had just moved to the area, reeled in an eelpout, that sparked an idea that would eventually become the International Eelpout Festival.

"I'd never seen one before," Bresley told CNN in 2009. "It was so ugly. People wouldn't even touch them."

Eelpout are an eel-like bottom feeding fish also known as the burbot. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources describes the eelpout as looking "like a cross between an eel and a catfish. It has a long body with smooth skin and a single whisker under its chin."

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

(218) 333-9791
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