Kissing an eelpout at the International Eelpout Festival
Courtesy International Eelpout Festival
On February 21-24, Walker, Minnesota, upholds a 40-year tradition, welcoming 12,000-plus anglers—fur-hatted, camo-coated—to the 1,000-person north-central town to catch one of the world’s ugliest fish: a weaselly, bull-faced carnivore whose ancient adaptation to ice-age lakes endowed it with protruding nostril tubes and a prey-detecting chin waggler that apparently looked stately enough for someone to start calling it the Lawyer Fish (plus, they’re slimy).
Officially, these speckled predators are known as burbots. In Minnesota, home of the International Eelpout Festival, they’re called, well, eelpouts. (Why? See: spindly bodies that coil around your forearm if you grab them near the head.)
They’re so notorious that the Walker fest can claim “international” status. The lissome crayfish-muncher’s history goes as deep as the frigid murk that they prefer: From Minnesota to Canada, from the Bering Strait to Asia and Europe, the cod’s only freshwater family member has wriggled its way into cultural references (like collectors’ cards in the U.K.) and literary lore (like the one that got away in a fishing tale by Russian author Anton Chekhov). Pollution and transmogrifying habitats have threatened burbot pockets across the globe, sadly. But we shan’t forget the eelpout. (Even if Wisconsin does classify them as undesirable “rough fish,” despite vitamin-loaded deliciousness and their ecologically useful aggression.)
In 2019, to mark year 40, the International Eelpout Fest again takes place on Leech Lake. Along with fishing, you’ll find curling, kids’ ice hockey, kart racing, chainsaw carving, dog sledding, helicopter rides, live music, an ice bar, food vendors, a beer pong tournament with a cash prize, and more.
Fishers famously smooch their ’pouts on their jowly lips. Just watch out for those ferret teeth.
Here are some weird eelpout facts to honor our state’s annual honoring:
- They taste like lobster.
Eelpouts have a “firm, white meat with a mild flavor,” Minnesota Department of National Resources expert Tom Dickson told Outdoor Life. To others, this translates as the smack of a certain shellfish. Eelpouts are in fact known as the “poor man’s lobster.” (Their liver oil is also so dense with vitamin D that Minnesota had its own company devoted to it in the ’30s and ’40s: the Burbot Liver Products Company, which became Rowell Laboratories, Inc., a pharmaceutical manufacturing company in Baudette.)
- There was a £100 reward out for anyone who could find an eelpout in the U.K.
In the sixteenth century, burbots were so underestimated, yet so overused, that people in the British Isles dumped the tasty, nasty teeth-tubes into pig troughs, according to Ugly Food: Overlooked and Undercooked. Now, we’re pretty sure eelpouts are extinct there. The Angling Times offered a £100 reward for anyone who could catch one in the ’60s. Sadly, that prize remains unclaimed.
- Their skin has unexpected uses.
In Siberia and Russia, eelpouts’ tough, smooth, scaly skin has been used in place of glass for windows or to trim dresses.