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Paul Nelson: Anglers begin to make transition from walleyes to panfish

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Only one more weekend remains of the fishing season for gamefish in inland waters of Minnesota. The season closes for walleyes, northern pike and other gamefish species Sunday at midnight.

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Once the season closes for gamefish, anglers will turn all of their attention to non-gamefish and panfish species like perch, crappies, sunfish, whitefish, tulibees and eelpout. The seasons for those species are open year round for licensed anglers in Minnesota.

Anglers received a break from the cold this week. There was a brief warm-up and a few days with temperatures above the freezing mark.

The long winter has everyone looking for tangible signs of spring. The first fish species to spawn each year in the Bemidji area is the eelpout, which actually spawn under the ice. Eelpout are also known as burbot, lawyer fish, freshwater cod or ling cod.

Eelpout spawn in early to mid-March in most of the deeper lakes in the Bemidji area. Eelpout eggs will lay on the bottom for a month or more before hatching. Eelpout eggs are very large and hold enough food for the embryos to survive until the ice goes off the lakes and the surface water temperatures start to rise.

Freshwater eelpout are almost identical genetically to the dozens of the saltwater varieties of cod, which are best suited for cold water and will occupy some of the deepest water available to them in both the oceans and the freshwater lakes.

The elpout is a cold-water species, is most active during the winter and is rarely seen during the summer months. Eelpout living in the Great Lakes have been found in water deeper than 1,000 feet, so there is no such thing as “too deep” for eelpout living in the lakes in the Bemidji area.

To celebrate the beginning of spring and the notorious eelpout, The 34th annual Eelpout Festival will be held on this weekend. The event is headquartered at City Park on Walker Bay of Leech Lake in Walker.

Once a year, eelpout move out of the deepest parts of the lakes and prepare to spawn on top of chara covered humps and bars. Prespawn eelpout are very aggressive and will readily take an angler’s presentations if they can find them.

Eelpout have adapted to low light or no light situations, so they rely heavily on scent and vibrations to help them locate their food. Fish with smooth skin like eelpout are much more sensitive to vibrations than fish with scales. Eelpout can usually feel the presence of their prey before they can actually see it with their eyes.

An eelpout also has barbells, which are similar to the whiskers on catfish and bullheads. These help the eelpout pick-up scents so it knows something is good to eat before it puts the meal in its mouth.

Anglers can take advantage of the way eelpout feed when they choose what baits to use. Think big and bold when fishing for eelpout. Larger lures, with rattles and UV glowing paint jobs are best and anglers can use a big blob of bait and some stinky scents to help the eelpout target their baits.

Anglers wanting to catch eelpout should fish at night on top of humps and bars surrounded by deep water. Eelpout like to hug the bottom so anglers should pound their lures on the bottom and then hold them a few inches off the bottom while they wait for a bite.

Eelpout are very good to eat, despite their less than appealing appearance. Anglers can take the back-straps and tail sections of the fish and discard the rest.

Eelpout meat has a high fat content. It can be cut into nuggets and fried but many anglers prefer to put the bite-size pieces into boiling water for about a minute and then bake them in a glass pan for about 10 to 15 minutes.. Some anglers also like to boil the eelpout pieces in beer or soda to improve the flavor even more.

The eelpout pieces can be brushed with butter and then seasoned with salt and pepper or with a seafood seasoning and then dipped in melted butter and eaten like “poor-mans” lobster or crab meat.

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Paul Nelson
Paul Nelson writes a weekly fishing column for the Bemidji Pioneer. He runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service.
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