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 cafè 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.)
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.
Free-lance writer Greg Breining didn't mind losing sleep for the sake of this story.