I’m here to report that the International Eelpout Festival lives up to its name and more. Before I begin — if partying is not your thing, have no fear. This festival is more than just party.
I first heard about the International Eelpout Festival through Nick (my partner in both life and fishing). He actually wrote the first ever Wikipedia article on the festival. Fun fact, right? After years of talking about it, we finally committed this year to the 39th Annual International Eelpout Festival on Leech Lake in Walker, Minnesota.
Here is what I heard about the festival:
- It’s the “Burning Man” of the frozen lake. Don’t know what Burning Man is? Look it up on Instagram for a glimpse.
- There’s a lot of beverage consumption and I’m not talking about milk or OJ.
- There are “poles” on the ice, the kind meant to be danced on.
- People build creative vehicles to get around the lake, like couches on skis being pulled by an ATV.
- Walker, MN is a small town with a population of approximately 1000. But one weekend a year, it becomes the center of attention as thousands upon thousands of party people and anglers flock to Leech Lake.
- Chase on the Lake, the resort next to the event, gets booked up very quickly.
- There’s an ice fishing contest centered around the infamous eelpout, a slimy, fugly fish that looks like the offspring of catfish and eel.
- The festival is also named after that fish.
All of the above turned out to be pretty much true.
I’ve never seen so many people on one lake in my life. A true “shanty town” made up of Ice Castle Fish Houses, popup ice shacks, campers, and shelters of all shapes and sizes. Some people get on the lake days in advance and build actual temporary buildings made of plywood, which eventually turn into party-central.
There may have been a dancing pole somewhere on the lake, but I’m happy to report I didn’t see one with my eyes, lol.
BYOB is no secret, but you can also take part in libations at the Chase on the Lake Ice Tent. There, you’ll find a HUGE ice bar and luges where shots readily pour. I’m always so impressed by the talented folks who can carve ice into just about anything. You’ll also be entertained with live music, enjoy the VIP area where there’s cushy seating if you’re willing to pay a little more, plus plenty of standing room for busting moves. Scroll down to see photos.
It’s not quite “artsy” or hypnotic as Burning Man, but there are some interesting personalities and outfits! Not surprisingly, everyone is super friendly and there to have a good time. What’s not to love?
Final numbers are still being tallied, but organizers say based on early estimates, around 6,000 people were on the lake at this year’s festival. If you’re worried about whether the frozen lake can hold that many people, have no fear. This year, the ice was around 35″ — at least where we parked the Lil Hotdish. Hot damn, the auger barely made it through the ice!
Speaking of auger, the main point of this event is the eelpout fishing tournament. We were probably among the minority who drilled holes – haha. I did get three bites, but alas — no eelpout.
I did however get to touch an eelpout twice. The first time was with…my…lips. Yup, you read that right. I puckered up and kissed an eelpout at the kissing booth. Ok, I take that back. It wasn’t just once. It was at least four times because we were trying to capture a clear photo. Ha! I also held one of the eelpouts during the weigh-in process. The winning eelpout came in at 10.66 lbs! They say it’s the “freshwater cod” and might even taste like lobster if cooked and dipped in butter. The pout nuggets were good, not going to lie!
There’s also a Polar Pout Plunge, eelpout rugby, an Eelpout 101 class which teaches you how to fish for eelpout, auto and cart races, an official beer pong tournament, dog sledding, helicopter rides, eelpout curling, a jalapeno eating contest, and even an event for kids to jig for perch. A festival for all ages! And of course, event organizers made sure to have a cleanup plan for Leech Lake when all was said and done.
In the end it’s all about what you make of it! You can choose to have a rockstar time with your friends and party all weekend long or you can spend your time taking part in some of the organized events, have a beer or two, and fish for eelpout.
Scroll through the photos below to get a look inside my experience at the International Eelpout Festival.