AS I WALK out onto the ice of Leech Lake, in north-central Minnesota, a snowmobile buzzes past, towing a half-dozen parka-clad college kids on a living-room love seat. It’s actually less love seat than tricked-out throne sled, complete with speakers overhead blasting AC/DC, a couple of built-in beer funnels, and two American flags flying from 15-foot poles. The bundled sofa surfers (think: pigs in a blanket wearing Nepalese Sherpa hats) shout greetings and raise their cans of Budweiser toward me in salute. I wave back as they disappear behind a row of parked pickups. With the temperature hovering in the teens, it’s a relatively balmy February morning for upstate Minnesota, and the 2018 International Eelpout Festival is gearing up for its second, and rowdiest, day.
Nominally a fishing tournament, the three-day festival annually draws some 10,000 determined partiers here to Leech Lake, outside the town of Walker (population: 1,069), all in the name of one unfortunate-looking fish: the eelpout. The festival is basically the upper Midwest’s version of Burning Man, with earnest, inebriated 20-somethings instead of tripping hippies.
The festivities take place right on the ice, which is three feet thick this year, deeper than any time in recent memory. As I follow a 30-foot-wide path across the frozen lake, about a thousand vehicles—RVs, merch and food trucks, pickups towing portable ice shacks for fishing and sleeping—form a mile-wide circle before me. From these makeshift camps, the attendees, composed overwhelmingly of college kids from Duluth, Minneapolis, and Fargo, North Dakota, are starting to stir, no doubt debating, following last night’s boozy revelry, whether to start the morning with beer or coffee.
Having prepared for the day by loading up on my hotel’s breakfast buffet, I, for one, decide that it’s high time for my first cold one. Heck, it is already 9:30.
AS I SHUFFLE PAST the fish-registration trailer, I run into a bleary-eyed guy named Kevin, dressed in a bait-slimed snowmobiler’s onesie. He spent last night truck fishing—a hardcore tactic that involves driving around the 160-square-mile lake all night, going from one hole to the next to find active fish. The method requires constant motion and constant guesswork, with little relief from the windy, often subzero conditions. But Kevin’s efforts paid off. He’s checking in six good-sized eelpouts. His biggest catch, a 9.98-pounder, puts him in the lead for heaviest fish, the winner of which will take home $3,500 worth of fishing gear, tackle, and electronics, including an ice auger.
Eelpouts, better known as burbot, are a curious target for a fishing tournament, especially one of this size. They’ve been called the ugliest fish in the world, and not unfairly. To characterize the slimy bottom-feeder as a cross between a catfish and an eel would be an insult to either species. The eelpout not only bears a striking resemblance to phlegm, but it also tends to emerge tail-first from the ice, then wrap itself around an angler’s arm, as if it were a small, mucusy anaconda.
During the Second World War, when meat became scarce, the federal government launched a campaign to promote the untapped potential of eelpouts, along with muskrat and carp, as table fare. “What we’re trying to do is round up foods that somebody has been eating all along, but which the country as a whole has laughed off as local eccentricities,” an official told the United Press, adding, “Everyone can eat them if they have to.” (Not exactly a rousing endorsement.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the following years, baked eelpout creole and eelpout flake pie—two dishes the government recommended—didn’t catch on; in 1957, The New York Times reported that, among Minnesota ice fishermen, the eelpout was still “the one variety that nobody [wanted].” Nowadays, there is a contingent of anglers that considers the fish a delicacy. (It gets called “poor man’s lobster,” though it tastes more like haddock.) But, for many other fishermen, it remains a strictly catch-and-release species.
Despite the eelpout’s goblin-like appearance and debatable palatability, the people of Walker, about three hours north of the Twin Cities, have nonetheless deemed it worthy of celebration. “In Minnesota, February just sucks, OK?” Kevin tells me, trying to explain the tournament’s appeal. “I mean, January’s bad—it’s 20 below and you don’t see the sun for weeks. And February? It’s just January reloaded.” So you’re losing your mind and the walls are closing in, he says.
Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” suddenly starts blaring from a nearby hospitality tent at organ-rearranging volume. Kevin has to yell over the music: “We know winter is almost over, except it’s not. So all this is kind of a final Fuck You to winter.”
He gestures behind him: College guys wearing outsize children’s cat pajamas over their insulated duds. Plywood encampments festooned with Christmas lights and plastic palm trees. A couple of young women dressed as zombies. A porta potty, towed by snowmobile, serenely skating across the ice on skids. Everyone here is going to party and have a good time, even if it gets down to 35 below. “I’ve seen it,” Kevin adds.
A few minutes earlier, I passed a flesh-colored, double-ended dildo squirming on the ice. Nearby, a red-faced dude in his 40s, wearing a captain’s hat and an orange life preserver around his neck, was trying to discreetly twitch the dildo with a fishing rod and some line. But the prank wasn’t fooling anyone, and the whole scene was fairly uncomfortable to witness, especially since there were a few kids around. When I tell Kevin about the encounter, he just shrugs. “It’s Eelpout,” he says. “There’s no such thing as shame here.”
THE INTERNATIONAL EELPOUT Festival began, in 1979, as a kind of winking tribute to its much-maligned namesake fish. The festival’s chief founder, Ken Bresley, a Chicago transplant who owned a tackle shop in downtown Walker, figured that a fishing tournament might drive some business to town and, more important, help local anglers cling to their sanity during the bleakest part of the winter. In February, the temperature in this part of Minnesota can linger between -3 and 5 degrees, and Walker was so dead slow during this period that “we were happy just to wake up,” a resident once recalled. Bresley decided to focus the festival on the eelpout, of all species, largely because of the novelty; it’s also one of the few freshwater fish that spawns under the ice. “Being from Chicago, I’d never seen such a thing,” Bresley, who died in 2018, later told a reporter. The creature amused locals, too. The first year, the festival drew some 400 anglers. The next year, 1,000. By the early 1990s, it had grown comparable in size to what it is today.
Consuming large quantities of booze was part of the deal from the get-go. But over the past decade and a half, partying has supplanted fishing as the main attraction. Coors Light and Ice Hole spirits are now sponsors, and, according to Jared Olson, the current organizer, only about a 10th of the 10,000 people who show up register a fish in the tournament.
The crowds gather not around holes in the ice but in the pop-up tent bars, where barmaids will pour shots through huge blocks of ice straight into your mouth. People come to drink beer by the case, to guzzle ungodly amounts of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey, and to shout themselves hoarse to a mediocre cover band playing Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name.” They come to eat fried eelpout, to jump near-naked into the lake together, and to compete in curling competitions, sliding not stones but blocks of ice with a frozen eelpout sticking out from the top. It is, in effect, three days of fishing-adjacent mayhem.
AFTER TALKING WITH KEVIN, I stop by one of the makeshift bars for a beer, then amble down an ice road. There’s a lot of walking around with a drink and grinning going on, and it doesn’t take long to sense just how badly people need this weekend on the lake together. When the sun pops out momentarily, the crowd emits an audible sigh of relief. Given the weather and positive vibes, today is shaping up far better than yesterday—which was mostly a disaster, at least in terms of fishing. I spent the evening with Brad Michaud, a perpetually upbeat guy in his 50s who used to be a manager at the Northern Lights Casino, in Walker. A third-generation fishing guide and an Ojibwe Indian, Michaud now runs a lure company, Arrowhead Tackle, out of his house and is probably the closest thing there is to being an expert eelpout fisherman. He has competed in the festival since its first year and has gained a reputation for putting together competitive teams, which number up to 20 anglers. (This year, he decided just to fish for fun, however.)
We got to his homemade fish house at sundown, when eelpouts begin to bite. For four hours, I bounced a minnow-tipped spoon lure off the lake bottom through a hole in the ice. I tried to mimic Michaud’s form: flick the tip of your fairy-wand-size rod six times to mimic a struggling baitfish, then suspend the lure just off the bottom, 25 feet below. Last year the ice was so thin, “they were talking about limiting cars and trucks on the lake during the festival,” Michaud told me. “This year, heck, you could drive a tank out here.”
Two of his friends—a pair of Cajuns, both seasonal cooks he’d worked with back in his casino days—had come up for the tournament and were still recovering from Mardi Gras a week earlier. Their therapy involved detoxing with King Cake Vodka—a bottle of which continuously made the rounds in the fish house. The stuff was sickly sweet and tasted like almonds, cinnamon, and questionable behavior. (Eelpout fishing, I discovered, has a curious, inexplicable way of making bad booze tolerable.)
The Cajuns, being from Louisiana, were accustomed to catching fish quickly and easily, and too polite to say anything about the strange northern ritual of freezing your ass off while hooking not a single thing. But it was clear that they were really just biding their time until the bars on the lake hit full stride later in the evening. It’s best to go late if you hope to see a woman dance on top of the bar, one of Cajuns said.
At the end of the four hours, having gotten exactly zero bites, we had only a pile of Bud Light cans to show for ourselves. To a Midwestern ice fisherman, four fishless hours are nothing. “They’ll turn on eventually,” Michaud said. “If not tonight, tomorrow. Or the day after.” Easy for him to say. Me, I’d be gone in 48 hours.
AS THE SATURDAY festivities ramp up, I realize that if I hang near the hospitality tents and the 40-foot square hacked in the ice, where the Polar Pout Plunge will take place later today, I don’t need to walk far to see the full range of attendees. There are more guys than gals, I’d say, but not overwhelmingly so. Fur hats—beaver, bobcat, coyote, lynx, muskrat, raccoon—seem to be the Northwoods equivalent of dreadlocks. Many of the vendors sport hats with the animal’s head and tail still attached. One dude is wearing a full black bear head, complete with canines and a pink tongue. It has to weigh 60 pounds.
I soon fall in with three guys in their late 20s named Daren Brunko, Ben Litke, and Mark Wensole—all from Anoka, Minnesota, about three hours away, and all close friends since high school. They’ve attended a combined 20 Eelpouts, and this year, each has a dozen cans of Budweiser strapped across his chest as if it were ammunition. “You gotta pace yourself to get through the whole weekend,” Wensole, soft-faced and goateed, cautions.
“We’ve been in training, drinking a lot to build up our tolerance,” adds Litke, a stocky guy, also goateed. “Otherwise, you might do something stupid.”
Back home, Brunko installs insulation, Litke runs a machine at a metal-fabrication shop, and Wensole is a carpenter. This weekend is a highlight of their year. Each morning during the festival, the three wake at about 6, roll out of their Arctic-grade tent, and start drinking. They don’t stop until about 3 a.m., when they catch a few hours of sleep before starting the cycle anew. This morning, the trio decided to fortify itself at a hotel buffet with French toast, eggs, sausage, bacon, and biscuits. The meal cost $12.95 per man—pretty steep—but they were wise to put something in their stomachs. They brought enough beer to have 36 cans a day each. “But you got to remember, we’re drinking Bud, not Bud Light,” Brunko, all of 5’3″, explains. “And that doesn’t count shots.” So a case and a half per man is just their daily base-level consumption.
For them, the festival is all about meeting new folks, and fishing, in particular, runs counter to this goal. “Our number-one rule is that we don’t drill a hole,” Litke says. When he was a kid, his dad would return from Eelpout with crazy stories about the people he’d met and seen, and now he wants tales of his own. “But if you’re fishing,” he adds, “you can’t leave your line unattended”—per state law—“so you have to constantly be in your fish house; you can’t go out and see all the attractions.” Which, for him, defeats the entire point.
But befriending people is easy when you’re walking around—especially if you’re wearing the right outfit. Brunko pulls out his cell phone and shows me photos from last year’s festival. The three of them are dressed in cowboy, samurai, and Spartan costumes, each adeptly constructed from Budweiser-case cardboard. Litke’s samurai getup is particularly impressive, with paneled armor on the body, shoulders, and upper legs. People couldn’t get enough; Brunko says that folks even offered money to take photos with them. “Sure, c’mon, take all the photos you want,” he recalls saying. “But we don’t want your money.”
A few minutes later, I spot a guy leading the smallest horse I’ve ever seen around by a rope. He tells me that he was a rodeo clown for 26 years and went by the name Slipknot. His horse, Tinker, is black and 271⁄2 inches long at the withers. Slipknot stops obligingly for anyone who wants a photo and tirelessly explains that Tinker is not a Shetland pony but a full-grown registered American miniature. He likes showing her to kids especially, and even has a sled for giving rides. “But she’s a little feisty for that today,” Slipknot says.
SHORTLY PAST NOON, I find the beer-soldier dudes again. They’re headed toward the Polar Pout Plunge—a highlight of the festival—where, for a $50 donation to the local community center, you can jump into the lake before a crowd, including a local TV crew and some photographers. The plunge must have sounded like wild, crazy fun at the ice bar last night. Now many of the participants look grimly resigned. But it’s too late for them to back out. Sports-radio DJ Mike Mussman, up from the Twin Cities, already has them in his clutches. “Hey, nice outfit,” he booms over a P.A. to a little dude wearing only lederhosen and second thoughts. “Really accentuates your nipples.”
The little guy bounds into the arms of his burly co-jumper, attired in undershorts and a T-shirt. Then—no way to tell whether this is scripted—a figure in a panda head and a black body stocking darts out and pushes them both in. They surface astonished and gasping. Drysuited divers are on hand to make sure that they and the other jumpers find the ladder and don’t succumb to the cripplingly cold water.
The entire event lasts maybe 15 minutes, and the jumpers come in quick succession: A shirtless guy with his chest hair shaved into an ace of spades. A dozen women and one guy in matching red swimsuits. A slender dude wearing a white prom dress and a tinfoil crown, with the number 69 painted on it.
The most surprising moment comes when a guy chickens out at the last second. “Dude, why aren’t you jumping?” Mussman demands. The guy mumbles something. “What’s that?” Mussman asks loudly. “I said, ‘I’m a pussy,’” the guy hollers.
The crowd roars as if he were a hero. He retreats offstage and back into his clothes. At first, I’m surprised. Why cheer for the wuss? Then I remember: This is Eelpout. And shame does not exist at Eelpout, not even for cowards.
THE REST OF THE DAY passes in a blur of beer and hot dogs. I spy a young girl and her parents dragging a toboggan full of Girl Scout cookies for sale. It’s a genius move: She finds another customer every 15 feet. I then talk to a cop leaning against his cruiser and ask if he makes many arrests. “Not really,” he says. But he mentions that at one point yesterday, Tinker and a guy wearing a full-body Sasquatch costume crossed paths and that the little horse tried to mount poor Sasquatch. It was quite a scene, apparently. I hate that I missed it.
Late in the afternoon, a guy on a snowmobile drives past me towing a half-dozen partiers on a love seat. It’s the same driver I saw first thing this morning. I try to flag him down, but I lose him behind some trailers. I wait at the intersection of two ice roads, and he passes by 10 minutes later.
The driver’s name is Jason, and he tells me to hop on. I jump on the love seat and explain to the woman next to me—she’s pretty but so bundled in a powder-blue snowsuit that I can’t tell whether she’s 18 or 30—that I’m writing about the festival. She tries to help me hang on as I take notes, but it’s not happening, so I give up and enjoy the ride. I ask the woman whether she knows the driver. “Nope. Me and my girlfriend Denise just got on.” She whoops and slaps gloves with strangers as we pass.
A few minutes later, Jason slows down to pick up two girls sticking out their thumbs. “Where you headed?” he asks. “Penetration Station!” they shout in unison.
I ride the love seat to a semicircle of fish houses around a fire ring, where Jason and a group of friends are staying. (Penetration Station, turns out, is a massive party shack nearby.) “So you guys just haul people around for free?” I ask. “Yeah,” Jason says. “We won’t take money for it. We saw other people doing it a few years back and decided to make our own. It’s gotten more elaborate over time. This year, we’ve got a generator for the sound system and strings of lights, plus two flagpoles and two beer bongs.”
He explains that he and his friends take turns driving “since you need to be reasonably sober.” (In Minnesota, it’s legal to have a beverage on a recreational vehicle, as long as you aren’t drunk or on a public road.) “So you’re losing money on all this, right?” I ask.
“There’s gas for the snowmobile and the generator, not to mention wear-and-tear on them and the rest of your gear.”
Jason shakes his head. “We don’t look at it that way,” he says. “We’re having a blast, and, you know, paying it forward, making sure everybody has a good time.”
And at Eelpout, there’s no shame in that.
This story appears in the print edition of the February 2019 issue, with the headline “The Great All-American Fish Party.”