Minnesotans know how to escape from the boredom of winter: 3-foot-thick plowed ice roads that carry Airstream trailers, a keg-laden school bus painted like a Holstein, a parade of vehicles of all make and model, all accompanied by up to 10,000 nocturnal merry-makers. The reason for this celebration? A homely, bottom-dwelling fish.
Every February Minnesota's enormous Leech Lake hosts the International Eelpout Festival, an ice fishing competition that is part The Man Show and part Outdoor Life Network. This month entering its 25th year, the festival celebrates a fish of many names--burbot, eelpout, pout, ling--a freshwater cod that breeds beneath the ice and feeds most willingly after dark. In other words, it's the perfect excuse for a humdinger of a party during the interminably dark, cold cabin-fever season.
A variety of "fish houses," Minnesota slang for ice shanties, attests to the anglers' ingenuity. One sports a hand-lettered sign that reads TRADE YOUR BRA FOR A MARGARITA next to a clothesline strung with C-and D-cup trophies. Elsewhere, a circus-size tent erected on ice, heated to shirtsleeves temperature by a jet engine, becomes the home of a thronged Cod Encampment (an official festival category of competition) called Eel-Catraz.
That's not to say debauchery has an exclusive hold on the Eelpout Festival. In fact, plenty of folks fish, wrestling up nearly 1,000 of the mottled, olive-green eel look-alikes over three days, competing for pout large and small. When I last visited the festival a few years back, the wife of the police chief won with a 13-pounder when he handed her his rod in order to go turn the bratwurst on the grill.
This year, the festival runs February 13-15. Headquarters are on terra firma in Walker, Minnesota, about a four-hour drive northwest of the Twin Cities. Contact 800-833-1118; www.eelpoutfestival.com.
Check out these ice fishing competitions and festivals across the country:
Arctic Cat Trap Attack Open Spirit Lake, Iowa. When 100 two-man teams compete in a bluegill tourney with a $2,000 first prize on Lake Okoboji, Iowa, spectators are welcome to wander on the ice to check out how the ice savants use underwater cameras and electronic fishfinders. February 28-29; 763-231-4129; www.iceteam.com.
Eighth Annual Ice Fishing Contest Fort Peck, Montana. Pony up $100 for three holes, $50 for one, for your own frozen piece of 134-mile-long Fort Peck Reservoir in a three-hour contest for the biggest fish--usually a northern pike--on the enormous impoundment of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. About $2,000 is in the coffers for the top winner. February 14; 406-228-2222; www.glasgowmt.net.
Windham Rotary Sebago Ice Fishing Tournament Windham, Maine. Up to 5,000 participants hit 28,800 acres of ice in a togue tournament with a $25,000 purse, split among individual and family categories. (Togue are rogue lake trout that the state wants removed due to their supplanting native Atlantic salmon.) February 22-23; 888-423-3524; www.icefishingderby.com. --D.S.