Don Pursch is a professional fisherman—a guide, teacher and occasional tournament pro with an aptitude for catching the toothy brutes known as muskellunge that cruise the clear blue lakes near his home in Walker, Minn. He's so good at it that he has shared boats with TV anglers Roland Martin, Al Lindner and Babe Winkleman to show them a bit about muskie fishing. He also owns a fly-in camp in Canada, where his guests can take trophy lake trout and muskies and where he himself has coaxed a 45-pound muskie from the black depths.
Yet despite his prowess at catching the fierce and glamorous muskie, Pursch spends a sleepless weekend each year with his friends catching hundreds of pounds of the most repulsive fish of the North and thereby usually winning one of the strangest contests in angling.
"We go all out to win it," says Pursch. "Then you can go through the rest of the year knowing you are the champion of the International Eelpout Festival."
The center of Pursch's attention, the eelpout, is a freshwater relative of the cod, whose outstanding characteristic is its unpleasant appearance. Potbellied and barbeled, the eelpout looks like Alfred Hitchcock with fins.
The eelpout has many names, among them: burbot, ling, cod, cusk, gudgeon, mud blower and lush. Perhaps oddest of all is lawyer, used quite graphically in 1936 by a biologist describing the fish's spawning habits: "At first a dark shadow was noted at the edge of the ice, something which appeared to be a large ball. Eventually this moved out into view and it was seen to be indeed a ball—a tangled, nearly globular mass of moving, writhing lawyers."
This orgy occurs in winter, when the bottom-dwelling pout migrates from a lake's depths to shallow water, where it can be hooked by ice fishermen. An 18-pound, four-ounce specimen hangs in Dahlems caf� in Walker. Though a sign proclaims that fish the WORLD RECORD EELPOUT, European and Siberian specimens sometimes exceed 50 pounds. Large or small, the pout is despised for its habit of emerging from the ice hole tailfirst and wrapping itself, eel-like, around the arm of the angler. Eelpout aren't considered game fish, and the creel limit on the creature, according to one fisherman, is "all you can stand." Once the burbot bacchanalia ends, however, the fish return to deep water, so most summertime anglers never see them.
"I'd never heard of them," says Ken Bresley. "Being in the tackle business, I was kind of embarrassed." It was 12 years ago that Bresley moved from Chicago and opened the Tackle Box and Gift Shop in downtown Walker, on the shores of 20-mile-long Leech Lake. "All was well during the spring and summer, when thousands of tourists descended on the town. In May and June people would throw money at you and run out the door," Bresley says. "Then December hit, and I couldn't believe what happened." The only thing to descend on Walker was snow, and the town's population dwindled from about 5,000 inhabitants to 1,021 permanent residents. The pace of life was so slow, said one resident, "we were happy just to wake up."
"I got together with some of my friends," Bresley said. "We talked about staging a fishing contest." Inspiration can strike at strange moments. One day, while ice fishing, Bresley caught one of the strangest, slimiest fish he had ever seen. "Nice eelpout," another man said, and Bresley instantly knew what kind of fishing contest Walker could sponsor. "When we first started, in 1980, we were lucky to get 500 people," Bresley said. "We never thought we'd see anything like this."
The Eelpout Festival has become a three-day weekend of parties, promotions, footraces and helicopter rides, drawing some 8,000 people to town. Still, the main event is the fishing contest. Anglers compete in several categories for trophies and prizes. Naturally, there are awards for the biggest fish and so forth, but there are also prizes for the Team Having the Most Fun, and Most Elaborate Eelpout Subdivision (referring to the ice-shanty towns that spring up on Leech Lake). Teams may number up to 20, "excluding alternates, cheerleaders and substitutes," according to the rules. Perhaps the most coveted prize is the Team Tonnage Championship. The name of the category is only a slight exaggeration. Pursch's team, Camp Cod, won in 1988 by registering 847 pounds of eelpout. In 1987 Camp Cod won with the whopping total of 1,115 pounds, five ounces of slippery lawyers.
Last year fishing was poor because the pout were spawning late. Nonetheless, by Saturday morning of the second weekend in February, a city of hundreds of tents and ice-fishing shanties had spread across Leech Lake. Nineteen teams signed up, including the Big Boys Don't Pout, Burbot Bangers, Damn Chislers, and Special Ex-Pouts. At Sand Point, just outside of town, a team called the Slimy Pouters shoveled the ice smooth and set up bowling alleys and a pool table. "Last year we captured the trophy for the group that has the most fun," said one Slimy Pouter, "and we're sure to bring home the trophy this year." (They didn't. The Slimy Ones did.)