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Eelpout Festival under way with 10,000 on the ice at Leech Lake

This group of St. Cloud men known as Team Bobber participated in the annual polar plunge. More than 100 teams took the plunge, raising more than $30,000 for the Walker Area Community Center. (Sarah Smith/Enterprise)1 / 2
Chris Wohlers of Breezy point steers a picnic table and umbrella down the 1-mile stretch of Leech Lake known as Main Street. (Sarah Smith/Enterprise)2 / 2

The riotous celebration in Walker that celebrates a gnarly-looking fish and some winter wardrobes to match got under way this weekend as 10,000 rabblerousers colonized Leech Lake and swelled the local population ten-fold.

It was, of course, the 31st annual Eelpout Festival.

"I've had 17 years of ice fun," said Chuck English of Pequot Lakes, Minn., as he stirred up breakfast on his icehouse stove Saturday morning while opening a beer.

It's the fishing festival where almost nobody dips a line. But the beer flows, the decked out rigs roll and it's de rigueur to see a mini-bar being towed by a four-wheeler sliding by - with customers bellied up quaffing a cold brewski.

Unseasonably warm temperatures this year made the main drag, about a mile long down the lake, a sea of slush and water.

English chuckled as his neighbors learned the hard way you don't fish where you pitch your tent.

"If you've got a big unit, you don't drill a hole in the ice," he observed. "You'll flood your own camp."

Next door, Rich Wilson of New Prague had a guest do just that to his igloo tent.

He was ankle deep in swill.

"We took on some serious water," he said as he and friends prepared to move the entire igloo back 30 feet to dry snow.

"Somebody decided to fish last night and when he popped that auger, the water just kept coming up and coming up," Wilson said.

"We were pretty sober," he added to the unasked question."

Back next door, English and friends were doubled over. "These virgin pouters are good for amusement," English laughed.

Down "Main Street" brothers Billy and Kris Katz were on their third beers, but who was counting?

The Twin Cities area men are notorious in Eelpout circles, as seemingly impossible as that status may be to attain in a festival that celebrates ar-rested development.

The Katzes have been pouting for 27 years. Way back when, they and friends pitched a monstrous Army tent for a week to party in. The joint was called "Eelcatraz," the men all wore prison garb and bad behavior was a badge of honor.

"Everybody got old," Kris Katz said wistfully.

"But I'd like to think we paved the way for a lot of this," he said, surveying the debauchery around him.

"We were the first ones here with a stripper pole."

Ina Vogt of Parkers Prairie, Minn., admitted she was an Eelpout virgin. She was getting ready to take the polar plunge.

"I shoulda worn my blond wig," she said to a photographer.

Adam Shulstad of Fargo whizzed by on a snowmobile, obviously tuned in to the unofficial dress code, dead coyote on his head.

Where do all these hap-less coyotes come from?

The Bourbon Street pouters, in their third year, are serious funsters. Each year they've added an addition on to their party house, decked out in harlequin patterns, beer-guzzling deer head on the roof.

They've set up a Face-book page to keep in touch with others they see once a year. Their numbers are growing.

Dan Brehm of Ramsey, Minn., had his drill out and was putting the finishing touches on the home décor, which is an annual Eelpout contest.

Decorating, Eelpout style, is none like you've ever seen, where pink flamingos may be the most tasteful accoutrements. Most of it is adult fare.

Sunday the steady parade of ice shacks will leave the lake headed for destinations in every directions.

But even if the memories are a bit foggy, the hangovers will last awhile.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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