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Walker Eelpout Festival draws thousands

Eelpout participants have a roadside breakdown Saturday when their rolling couch falls off its support beams during the 31st annual Eelpout Festival on Leech Lake near Walker. Sarah Smith/Forum Communications Co.

WALKER, Minn. - It's the fishing festival where almost nobody dips a line. But the beer flows, the decked-out rigs roll, and it's de rigueur to see a mini-bar being towed by a four-wheeler sliding by - with customers bellied up with a cold brew.

It's the frozen version of Mardi Gras, where 10,000 rabble-rousers set up camp on Leech Lake near Walker for the annual Eelpout Festival.

Now in its 31st year, the festival celebrates a gnarly-looking fish as revelers gather to swell the local population tenfold.

"I've had 17 years of ice fun," Chuck English of Pequot Lakes, Minn., said as he stirred up breakfast on his icehouse stove Saturday morning while opening a beer.

Unseasonably warm temperatures this year made the main drag, about a mile long down the lake, a sea of slush and water.

English chuckled as his neighbors learned the hard way you don't fish where you pitch your tent.

"If you've got a big unit, you don't drill a hole in the ice," he observed. "You'll flood your own camp."

Next door, Rich Wilson of New Prague had a guest do just that to his igloo tent.

He was ankle deep in swill.

"We took on some serious water," he said as he and friends prepared to move the entire igloo back 30 feet to dry snow.

"Somebody decided to fish last night, and when he popped that auger, the water just kept coming up and coming up," Wilson said.

Back next door, English and friends were doubled over in laughter.

Down "Main Street," brothers Billy and Kris Katz were drinking their third frosty one of the day.

The Twin Cities-area men are notorious in Eelpout circles, as seemingly impossible as that status may be to attain in a festival that celebrates arrested development.

The Katzes have been pouting for 27 years. Way back when, they and friends pitched an Army tent for a week of partying. The joint was called "Eelcatraz," the men all wore prison garb, and bad behavior was a badge of honor.

"Everybody got old," Kris Katz said wistfully.

"But I'd like to think we paved the way for a lot of this," he said, surveying the debauchery around him.

Ina Vogt of Parkers Prairie, Minn., said she was new to the festival as she prepared for a polar plunge.

"I shoulda worn my blond wig," she said.

Adam Shulstad of Fargo whizzed by on a snowmobile, obviously tuned in to the unofficial dress code, wearing a dead coyote on his head.

The Bourbon Street pouters, in their third year, are serious funsters. Each year they've added an addition to their party house, decked out in harlequin patterns and a beer-guzzling deer head on the roof.

They've set up a Facebook page to keep in touch with others they see once a year. Their numbers are growing.

Dan Brehn of Ramsey, Minn., had his drill out, putting the finishing touches on the home décor, which is an annual Eelpout contest.

And while pouters were busy having fun Saturday, they'll pack up today and head for destinations in every direction - until next year.