Smile You’re Pouting by Chip Leer On Ice Tour
As fish species go, one will always stand apart in the northland.
It challenges anxious anglers with its ability to play hide and seek. Its lean, mean physique gives it the strength to break your heart when it breaks your line with a sudden but determined surge toward the depths of a northern lake. It rewards successful anglers at the dinner table, and it captures the fancy of thousands who flock north each year to celebrate its existence.
Okay, so the eelpout isn’t often mentioned in the same breath with the precious walleye. In fact, in the eyes of all but a few, it’s a lowdown, despicable, loathsome, undesirable, repugnant, revolting and unwelcome intruder on most fishing outings. For that matter, it’s ugly, slimy and it stinks, too.
But how many fish answer to four names — eelpout, burbot, lawyers and buzzard-bait? How many merit their own festival? It’s all part of the fun that will draw thousands of anglers to Leech Lake, near Walker, Minnesota Feb. 14-16 for the 24th Annual International Eelpout Festival. The three-day slimefest developed by Master Pouter Ken Bresley of Walker, MN offers competition for both the serious and casual pouter. However, a select few of us don’t need a pout festival to forget about walleyes, pike, crappies and perch a few times each year. While we don’t talk about it at family reunions, we are part of a growing cult of pouters who sneak off a couple of days a year to get ugly.
To me, pout fishing summarizes what fish catching is all about, which is fun. It isn’t fishing for the sophisticated or refined. No caviar crowd here. And you may want to consider other options for a “first date” of someone your trying to impress. It’s fishing for those who like to fish, enjoy life and want to embrace a unique sport. It’s fishing for newcomers and youngsters who harbor no prejudice toward one species over another.
And who doesn’t enjoy sticking a big hook in a lawyer? Seriously, what’s not to like about a fish that often reaches double-digit weights, lurks in deep, cold water, fights relentlessly, and literally throws itself from an ice-fishing hole? Contrary to popular belief, the eelpout is also remarkably good to eat. Served with drawn butter, its firm white meat is a poor man’s lobster. So often, anglers return to the same locations year after year or even day after day to pursue the same popular species. Eelpout provide an opportunity most anglers completely ignore at a time of year when fishing for other species is often slowing down. Mark Christianson, a prominent member of the Leech Lake Guides Coalition, is a past champion of the International Eelpout Festival. He discovered the joys of pouting while fishing perch on Lake Bemidji. “We were fishing perch when it got dark one night, and we caught a bunch of eelpout,” Christianson recalled. “I’d always heard that they spawn in late February and March, although they do bite a little all winter. “When they are getting ready to spawn, you can catch a lot of them.” “Early evening and after dark are the best times to catch eelpout”, Christianson added. “When you find them, they are usually cooperative”. “They get very aggressive,” he said. “A lot of times you’ll feel them hit down there and you won’t get them initially, but they will keep biting. Eventually, you will hook them.” Glow or rattle spoons tipped with a minnow or two works well, and the bigger the better. Adding a Northland Firelight Glow Stick to your spoon helps attract them, too. Christianson’s jigging stroke is aggressive, and ranges from 18 to 24 inches. The lure is allowed to free-fall all the way to the bottom where it stirs up the muck, then is snapped back toward the surface.
“A lot of times, when you go to pull it off the bottom you will feel like you’re snagged,” Christianson noted. “That’s usually a fish.” Another of Christianson’s favorite presentations is a big minnow on a single #2 Super-Glo hook fished a couple of inches off the bottom.
Most of the year eelpout live in deep water, although toward evening, during this time of year, they will move up onto structure in water from 25 to 50 feet deep. Now during their spawning period, it is a numbers game. “As the spawning period peaks it’s not uncommon to catch 100 of them,” Christianson explained. “A lot of them will be 3 to 8 pounds with the occasional 10 or 12.”
Purposeful pouting requires a bit more stout equipment than most species. The presentations are aggressive and the fish are deep. Rig yourself as Christianson and I do with a heavy 36″ solid-core graphite rod with a round baitcasting reel. The Berkley Lightning Rod (LSIC36MH-R) combined with an Abu Garcia 4600C or 3600C. This combo will give you the muscle to get these critters up from the depths. In depths of over 30 ft., stretch from monofilament line can keep you from getting a good hookset, so it is to your advantage to use a superline. A great choice here is Berkley FireLine (14lb. test). It’s also a good idea to attach the lure to a three-foot leader of Berkley Micro Ice, (10lb. test) which is then attached to the FireLine with a swivel. Pout have a tendency to twist and turn, as do spoons that are jigged aggressively. The swivel helps eliminate line twist.
Does Christianson brag about his past glory as the Eelpout King. “Not really,” he said. “But I will be going after that title again this year. It’s just a fun get-together.” So go ahead and pout. You just might end up with a smile on your face.