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Eelpout Festival: circus-like atmosphere

Chip Leer shows off an eelpout, a fish often disliked by anglers. But this weekend's 31st annual International Eelpout Festival in Walker transforms the creature into the "fish of choice." (Jason Durham / For the Enterprise)

Anglers and curious observers will fill the town of Walker this weekend for the 31st annual International Eelpout Festival.

Most people are aware of the whimsical fish houses erected in miniature communities on Leech Lake, Minnesota's third largest body of water.

However, as anyone who has ever attended the celebration knows, fishing is only a part of the festival.

Though catching eelpout is the focus, anglers can enter "trash fish"--northern pike and walleye--to win prizes too.

But the circus-like atmosphere is fueled by prizes for the best eelpout encampment. Judging begins today at 3p.m. with bribes accepted until 2:59. That's all part of "the eelpout way".

On-ice activities include a 'pout race on a specially designed race track (bring your own eelpout or rent one from the organizers), the Eelpout Bowl Rugby Tournament (if you think getting tackled on the grass hurts, try it on the ice!), and a polar plunge to raise money for the Walker Community Center.

The awards ceremony will take place tomorrow, Sunday, Feb. 21 at high noon in Walker's City Park.

Each year the International Eelpout Festival reminds me that the season for walleye, northern pike and bass is closing soon. With a little over a week to go (the last day of the season is Sunday, Feb. 28), folks focused on catching a few of the larger fish in our local lakes are sure to give it one last try.

Some people may wonder why the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has a closed season to protect walleye, bass, northern and muskie.

As for the largest of the four species, muskie, several factors contribute to a closed season from Dec. 1 until the first Saturday in June. During the winter season the regulation protects a fish that becomes increasingly vulnerable in certain situations, such as in rivers where numbers of muskie will congregate in deeper pools.

The closed winter muskie season also keeps anglers from specifically targeting the species through the ice. Since sub-zero temperatures can quickly freeze a muskies' fins, tails and gills, it makes sense to limit that possibility, especially since the majority of anglers catching a muskie intend to release the fish.

Smallmouth bass are another fish that becomes vulnerable in the fall and winter as they migrate to specific habitat for the winter. But unlike the closed muskie season, smallmouth bass have a special catch and release season following the first weekend in September through next weekend, at which time they, like the other large freshwater fish, are entirely off-limits for a few months.

All of those species, bass, northern, walleye and muskie, are developing eggs for spawning in a few month and leaving those fish alone might help you catch more a few years later.

But angler beware, during the closed season for walleye, bass, northern pike and muskie, it is unlawful to specifically fish for those species, even if your intent is catch and release.