Why we love eelpout
The February thaw brings a hint of spring to our minds in northern Minnesota. Warm winter days on the Chippewa National Forest have people thinking about maple taps and planning their summer vacations. Eagles sit near nest sites, raccoons are raiding birdfeeders and eelpout are spawning.
It is eelpout, actually, leading the charge into spring. These strange fish, deemed the ugliest in the lake, have one of the most interesting stories.
You need to learn about eelpout to really appreciate and fall in love with this fish.
First, recognize all the aliases this fish has. Eelpout is just one name in a long list, along with burbot, lawyer, loche, ling, ling cod, and cusk. Its Ojibwe name is Mizay. Some people use the word dogfish to describe it and others can find no words! This local fish is lovingly called pout in Minnesota.
Pout are the only freshwater cod in North America and can be found in large lakes on the Forest, including Leech Lake, Cass and Winnie. They range from the Arctic Ocean south to the north central United States and thrive in cold clear water.
The eelpout is one of the few fish that spawns in the winter, reveling in the icy waters. This is no small event. Pout spawn in mass, sometimes in groups of dozens and even hundreds. They do not create a nest and do not care for their young. A female pout may lay from 300,000 to over 1 million eggs. The hatchlings are some of the smallest freshwater fish larvae. These tiny pout babies drift in the water until they gain the ability to swim.
In looks alone, the eelpout could be considered one of our most unusual fish. Pout are perfectly camouflaged from predators with olive green to brown skin speckled with dark spots. They are both top predators and prey. The barbell (whisker) just under their broad face is used to track the scent of prey. A pout’s body is slimy and has tiny embedded scales. If you catch this fish, it may curl its eel-like body around your arm as you try to get it off the hook. This unique fish may also make an “ugh” sound when pulled from the water. A pout’s stomach is whitish yellow, and can become distended as the eelpout eats and eats and eats. The record Minnesota eelpout was caught in December 2016 on Lake of the Woods. It weighed 19 pounds, 3 ounces.
Eelpout are opportunistic piscivores meaning a majority of their diet is fish, but they will take advantage of any food source. Pout have triangular jaws and rows of tiny teeth, all engineered to swallow prey whole. Researchers have also found fish eggs, crustaceans, clams, wood chips, rocks, plastic, and other unrecognizable objects in the fish. A pout’s predatory nature may not be all bad. Fishery managers have introduced eelpout into lakes that have stunted fish populations in order to restore a balance of fish species.
In the 1920’s, fishery biologists announced eelpout as the “fish of the future.” Recipes were created for Barbequed Ling, Crispy Pout Puffs, Lakeland Cocktails and Poor Man’s Lobster, but still, the idea of pout as a gourmet food just didn’t hit. Until the Walker Eelpout Festival.
Eelpout are known to almost anyone who lives in the Walker area, on the south side of the Chippewa National Forest. The town celebrates the Annual Eelpout Festival each February, where showing affection for this less-than-fashionable fish becomes high-fashion on Leech Lake!
Pout Fishing Tips: If you want to meet a pout in person, visit the northern lakes in winter. During the spawn, they are in shallower water, but quickly return to the deeper pools. Fish at a depth from 15-20 feet or drop to 30-40 feet below the ice. Try jigging with a minnow on a fluorescent spoon or lure at dark. The eelpout are attracted to the vibrations.