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Fishing for eelpout continues to grow in popularity

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The ice conditions are good on most lakes in the Bemidji area. Temperatures were near or above freezing during the day most of the week but the temperatures were cold enough overnight to re-freeze any melting on the lakes.

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The gamefish season will end at midnight on Feb. 26 for the inland waters of Minnesota so there is an extra day of ice fishing this winter because of leap year. Anglers are allowed to continue fishing for panfish and rough fish after the gamefish season closes.

One of the rough fish species that is growing in popularity is the eelpout, which has its own festival on Leech Lake this weekend. The 33rd annual Eelpout Festival for begins today and runs through Sunday and is headquartered at City Park in Walker.

The Eelpout Festival is only partly about fishing, with the spectator and social aspects of the celebration actually more important than fishing to many participants.

Just in case anglers are serious about catching eelpout, there are a few things they should know about eelpout to help them catch more fish.

Eelpout are actually freshwater cod and live in the deepest parts of the lake during the summer to avoid the heat. Eelpout living in Lake Superior have been found in water deeper than 1,000 feet so there is no such thing as too deep when looking for eelpout.

It is rare to see eelpout during the warm water months but during the winter eelpout come out of the depths to feed and frolic under the ice. Eelpout are the poster fish for cold water species and are most active during the winter.

Eelpout are actually the first fish to spawn in many of the lakes in the Bemidji area. Eelpout spawn under the ice in late February or early March, with their eggs waiting more than a month for the ice to go off the lakes and the water to begin to warm before the eggs hatch into little eelpout.

Eelpout eggs are some of the largest eggs of any species of freshwater fish because of how long they have to sit on the bottom before they hatch. Eelpout embryos need to carry their food with them inside the eggs so the eggs have to be large to hold the food they need to survive for so long before they hatch.

Perch and other species feed on eelpout eggs because of their high calorie content. Anglers often see the brownish-green eggs in the stomachs of fish they clean late in the season.

Eelpout have developed a keen sense of smell and rely less on sight than other species because they spend so much time in deep water where there is little or no sunlight.

Eelpout usually stay close to the bottom when they search for food. Anglers should use live bait and keep their presentations close to the bottom to keep their bait in the proper strike zone. Liquid scents, rattle baits and lures that glow also help eelpout locate the bait with their limited eyesight.

Eelpout spawn on top of chara or rock covered humps and larger flats with direct access to deep water. They spawn in swarming communal groups so once anglers find eelpout during the pre-spawn period there will usually be more eelpout somewhere nearby.

Eelpout like similar structure and similar baits as walleyes, which is why walleye anglers often catch eelpout by accident during the winter. Eelpout are also light sensitive so anglers usually catch most of their eelpout during low light or after dark.

The Eelpout Festival is held on Walker Bay of Leech Lake, which is near perfect habitat for eelpout with all the humps and super deep water. Virtually any of the humps or shoreline points of Walker Bay are potential eelpout haunts so anglers can spread out and fish almost any structure and have a chance to catch eelpout in Walker Bay.

Participants in the Eelpout Festival this weekend need to purchase a button to enter fish into the contest but spectators are welcome to come and look at the displays or sample some of the eelpout nuggets available at the City Park in Walker.

PAUL A. NELSON runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted at panelson@paulbunyan.net

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