The ice fishing season closes at midnight on Sunday for walleyes, northern pike and other gamefish species in the inland waters of Minnesota. After the gamefish season is closed, anglers are still allowed to fish for perch, crappies, sunfish and trout (check regulations) along with "rough-fish" species like whitefish and eelpout.
In celebration of the last weekend of the fishing season as well as one of the first rites of spring, the 30th annual International Eelpout Festival will be held this today through Sunday on Walker Bay of Leech Lake. The festivities will be headquartered at Walker City Park, where vendors will be set up to provide food and display their wares.
Participants in the fishing portion of the Eelpout Festival are required to purchase a $10 button, or people are welcome to participate in other activities during the weekend. The event definitely has a "spring-break" feel to it, especially at night on Walker Bay.
Anglers interested in targeting eelpout this weekend will need to know a few more facts about "old mouse eyes." First of all, eelpout go by many different aliases. They are actually fresh water codfish, but they have been called things like burbot, lawyer fish, ling cod and freshwater lobster.
Eelpout live in deep, clear lakes and usually live in or close to the deepest portion of the lake. They have been found in water deeper than 1,000 feet in some of the Great Lakes.
Eelpout are the first fish to spawn in the spring in many of the lakes in the Bemidji area. They spawn under the ice in late February or early March in communal groups on top of mid-lake humps and shoreline flats with the right combination of depth and bottom content.
Eelpout rely heavily on their sense of hearing and smell and have limited eyesight, so they are well equipped to feed in areas with little or no sunlight. Eelpout love cold water and are one of the more active fish in the winter. They are seldom seen during the summer months, when they are inactive and living in the deepest portion of the lake.
Anglers should use live bait for eelpout because of the smell. Some concoctions anglers use to fish for eelpout are similar to baits used for catfish.
Eelpout are often caught accidentally by anglers fishing for walleyes. Jigging spoons with rattles in glow colors tipped with live bait and fished close to the bottom during low light conditions is the most common recipe for catching eelpout.
Eelpout are bottom feeders, so anglers are usually most productive when they put their baits within a few inches of the bottom. Adding scents like anise oil or other fish attractants can be effective for eelpout because of their acute sense of smell.
Eelpout can be delicious to eat despite their appearance. The back-strap and the tail are boneless. The meat can be cut into chunks and deep fried. It can also be dipped into boiling water with bay leaves and then broiled in the oven covered with butter and seafood spices and then dipped in melted butter and eaten like lobster.
Anglers looking for walleyes this weekend will find them in many of the same areas as the eelpout. Walker Bay of Leech Lake is a hot spot for eelpout, but they can also be caught in lakes like Bemidji, Cass, Pike's Bay and other deep area lakes.
Anglers in Leech Lake have been catching perch and walleyes in the main basin and larger bay both on the rocks and the weed flats. Crappies and sunfish have been active in some of the bays and whitefish and eelpout are being caught in areas with direct access to deep water.
The ice on most lakes is quite bumpy, since the surface of the ice melted and then froze again. Anglers should watch out for isolated areas of slush, especially where there is still a significant amount of snow on the ice. It is usually best for anglers to travel in pairs with a tow strap, just in case one vehicle gets stuck.
Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted by calling 218-759-2235.