Back in town, gangs of out-of-towners roamed Main Street. At Eelpout Festival headquarters, near the lake, judges weighed dozens of eelpout. "They're supposed to come in live, to prevent the entry of previously caught fish," said judge Steve Berry as he slid a slippery eelpout across the pan of a butcher's scale. "But at night it's hard to keep them from freezing solid."
The carnival on ice didn't distract the real competitors in the fishing contest, Pursch among them. Camp Cod intended to win the Team Tonnage Championship for a third year running through experience and persistence. Pursch and most of his 19 teammates had some special connection to fishing. Several were professional guides, one was a biologist, another worked in a tackle store. At the very least, they were all angling addicts, so they knew about fish, even eelpout.
Camp Cod employed a bit of burbot biology in their fishing. "The males are coming into the area now and staging, and the females will come in a week later," Pursch said. Because only the males (usually smaller than the females) were being caught, Pursch cautioned his mates not to panic.
Pout are most active in the dark, so the Camp Codders fished almost entirely at night. "We started fishing at 3 p.m. yesterday," Pursch said on Saturday morning after a hard night's pouting. "Last night I was real comfortable in the shanty—TV on, and my wife, Lynn, had brought out some food—but then Dave Harrington pounded on the door and said, 'Let's move.' So we hooked the truck up and moved the shanty two miles."
After sunrise Pursch returned home to compare notes with teammates. Pursch had gone 30 hours without sleep. "Things are kind of fuzzy on the edges right now," he said.
Nodding off on the ice can be a problem. Accordingly, Pursch had installed electronic alarms in the largest of the ice shanties that sounded if a fish bit. When he's fishing in less technologically advanced surroundings, Pursch improvises. "If I lie down, I lay the line across my throat with the tip of the jigging rod right next to my neck," he says. "When a fish takes the jig, I feel the line pull tight against my neck. We could have won in 1986, but one of our team members fell asleep. I found him asleep with a bucket filled with eelpout, and I said, 'Have you weighed these yet?' 'No,' he says. 'It's all over,' I told him."
Camp Cod held a solid lead after the first full day of fishing. As darkness fell and less serious pouters geared up for another night of partying, Camp Codders drove out to their ice shanties. Don and Lynn Pursch, like other Codders, jigged with short ice-fishing rods, stout line and luminescent jigs tipped with shiner minnows. "Take the flash attachment from a 35-millimeter camera," Don instructed. "Blast the jig with the flash and throw it down the hole." Thirty-six feet below, the pout attacked the glowing lures. Sunday morning, Camp Cod reported back to tournament headquarters with 96 eelpout (out of the 568 total for the tournament).
"Camp Cod is blowing everybody away," Judge Berry said, sliding another slippery lawyer onto his butcher's scale. When the contest ended, Camp Cod had won the Team Tonnage title again, with 551 pounds, 11 ounces of eelpout, which would be filleted and donated to a local nursing home. Despite the size of the Camp Cod catch, the team didn't catch the biggest pout. That achievement belonged to Mike Peterson of nearby Hackensack, who caught an 11-pound, 10-ounce burbot that looked as if it had swallowed a shot-put shot. At the award ceremony Bresley held up the fish, eyed it dubiously and declared it the winner. An audience that recognizes a champion pout when it sees one congratulated the winner with the muffled sound of hundreds of clapping mittens.