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What's the spirit of Minnesota's International Eelpout Fest, Eelpouters?

What's the spirit of Eelpout Fest? Answers vary.

What's the spirit of Eelpout Fest? Answers vary. Lilly Ball

“So, this is America,” photographer Lilly Ball remarked, matter-of-factly and without a hint of derision, as we surveyed the shantytown of ice fishing trailers stationed like barracks along Leech Lake. 

We'd arrived in Walker, Minnesota, about a three-hour drive northwest of the Twin Cities. Our mission? Discover the true spirit of the International Eelpout Festival, a decades-long winter tradition. 

Our day was spent watching cognizant adults hurl their half-naked bodies into the frigid bay, men in penguin and cow costumes struggle to light cigarettes against the arctic wind. We'd ducked into and climbed blinking from huge canvas tents in which blasting honky-tonk and hip-hop sent ripples across the watery ice-floor. We guzzled our weight in light beer and tentatively ingested “REAL eelpout nuggets fried with Goose Antler Batter!”

In one tent, we watched giggling women shudder and demure as they bent to kiss palsied eelpout, the festival's namesake fish and one of nature's most unfortunate-looking creatures. In another tent, the combined screams of men during something called the Bikini Ice Fishing Show (“Do not miss out on this one guys!”) could best be described as guttural.

Under a pale and vestigial sun, we wiped our noses and breathed snowmobile exhaust. And while that Norwegian luxury known as “hygge” is still trending among indoor softies, we, like our indomitable Eelpouters (some of the friendliest folks we've met in ages), decided to tackle the elements helmet-to-helmet.  

This past weekend's 38th annual Eelpout Festival was wild, folksy, and all over the place; it was uniquely Minnesotan. Here's what we learned about the spirit of the fest. 

(Click here to see a slideshow of Eelpout Fest '17; all photos by Lilly Ball)

Jack 
Bismarck, North Dakota

City Pages: To you, what is the spirit of Eelpout Festival?

Jack: You know, I'm here to party. That's exactly what it is.

CP: Alright. Perfect.

Jack [to Lilly]: You lookin' for work, sweetheart?

 

Todd
Minneapolis

City Pages: In your opinion, what is the spirit of Eelpout Festival?

Todd: The spirit of Eelpout Festival ... you got it right here [gestures around the crowded tent, at which time a woman slips on the ice-floor and goes down with a splash]. Lookit! No dancin' before the music starts! [Laughs] People spillin' all over the place! It's just a beautiful… [laughs, the woman tries to get up and slips again]. It's just fun chaos. You guys can see that as you go, right?

CP: I almost fell down myself over there.

Todd: This is some good entertainment in here. [Laughs] Love City Pages. Rock 'n' roll.

Joe, Melody, Chantel, Andrew
Minneapolis

City Pages: To you guys, one at a time, starting with Andrew, what is the spirit of Eelpout Festival?

Andrew: [Laughs] Um, I guess I'd just say fun? I don't know.

Joe (pictured): I mean it's technically a fishing competition. I would say that, mostly, it's just people coming out and having a good time.

Melodie: Yeah, I think it's everyone kinda out ... partying ... on the lake. Together. [Laughs]

Chantelle: I'd say a lot of alcohol and debauchery.

Joe: It's a very Minnesota thing.

Chantelle: Oh, yeah.

Melodie: Yeah.

Andrew: Yeah.

 

Jed Shaw
Walker (he's actually the mayor)

City Pages: What, to you, is the spirit of Eelpout Festival?

Jed: I think the spirit of Eelpout Festival is mostly just fun. It's February, and if you live here year-round, you're a Minnesotan, by the end of a long winter you're getting a lot of cabin fever. We tend to go from one enclosed place to another. So I think this is a good chance for everybody to come up, have a good time, play with a lot of other people out on the ice, and just have fun. One last blowout before spring gets here.

James
“Rosemont-Inver Grove area”

James [to Lilly]: How do you want it?

Lilly: However you like it.

City Pages: What, to you, is the spirit of Eelpout Festival?

James: What's that?

CP: The spir-ir-it of Eelpout Festival [my mouth was frozen at this point]. To you.

James: Secrets.

CP: Secrets?

James: To be honest with you? Absolutely. This is probably the only year I came up here and not actually actually gone fishing. Actually actually.

CP: So it's, uh, secret fishing spots, or what?

James: Oh, kind of. But, honestly, not many people are catching 'em. It's kind of a difficult thing to do, really.

CP: OK. What's your favorite part of Eelpout Festival?

 

James: I suppose the crowd, I guess. You know? Lot of positive vibes. I mean, you usually get a lot of negative people and stuff, depending on where you go. This is the first time I've ever done something like this [gestures at full-body cow costume], and actually figured out what they're gonna get for a riot. It turned out really well. Everybody likes it.

 

Chris
“Park Rapids, son.”

City Pages: What's the spirit of Eelpout Festival, Chris?

Chris: Fuckin' bitches.

CP: [Unsure whether “fuckin'” was used as an adjective or verb phrase or what.]

Clint, Mike, Dalton, Emily, and Lance
St. Michael; “Montrose, Ugly Bar”; Zimmerman

Clint: Talk away. Or ask away, we'll talk.

Emily: Can I be in it?

City Pages: Alright. So, can you tell me what the spirit of Eelpout Festival is, to you?

Mike: Bourbon.

CP: Good one.

Emily: Drinkin'!

Clint: Eelpout. And drinkin'.

Lance: Drinkin' with all your buddies.

Mike: And havin' fun.

Scott and Dave
Location(s) undisclosed

City Pages: Name?

Scott: Uh, David R.

Scott's acquaintance: Yeah, no. That's him.

Scott: Scott B.

CP: All right, Scott B. What's the spirit of Eelpout Festival, to you?

Scott: Camaraderie.

CP [to Dave]: How about you?

Dave: Interesting vehicles.

CP: Interesting vehicles? All right. Name?

Dave: Dave R.

Dave's acquaintance: That is not Dave R.!

CP: Whatever.

 

Jim
Location undisclosed

City Pages: What's your name?

Jim: Jim.

Jim's acquaintance: He ain't Jim.

Jim: Rob.

Jim's acquaintance: He ain't Rob.

Jim: [Looks at acquaintance]

CP: So, Jim. What's the spirit of Eelpout Fest, to you?

Jim: What's the what?

CP: Spirit of the Eelpout Festival. What's it mean to you?

Jim: [Looks at acquaintance] I just wanna drink my fuckin' beer. Is that alright with you?

CP: [Gestures at Trump flag] Cool flag.