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Annual Eelpout Festival becoming a rite of spring

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Lakes in the Bemidji area lost a lot of snow cover this past week after several days with above-normal temperatures as high as the low 50s.

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The melting snow created some sloppy ice conditions on the lakes. Some accesses are already beginning to break-up, especially heavily used accesses on the north and west shores of lakes which are most directly exposed to the afternoon sun.

The extended forecast is predicting a return to colder temperatures this weekend and into next week, which should help firm the ice and help stabilize the public accesses.

The ice fishing season will likely continue as long as overnight temperatures stay below freezing. The ice fishing season usually comes to an abrupt end after consecutive nights with temperatures staying above freezing all night so the ice doesn't have a chance to re-freeze.

The 32nd annual Eelpout Festival begins today in Walker Bay of Leech Lake. The unstable ice conditions in Walker Bay have caused officials to restrict the use of vehicles on the ice during the festival.

Access on Walker Bay will be limited to snowmobiles and ATVs for the duration of the festival. There should be people helping shuttle anglers onto the ice and most of the activities will take place close to the access at the Walker City Park.

The annual celebration of the elusive eelpout is becoming a rite of spring. Eelpout actually prefer cold water and are more active in the winter than they are during the summer.

The cold water in the winter allows eelpout to come out of the depths and feed in shallower water. Anglers seldom see eelpout during the summer because they stay in the deepest portions of the lakes to avoid the heat.

Eelpout are the first fish in the lakes to spawn in the spring, actually spawning under the ice in late February to early March.

Eelpout eggs are very large and may lie on the bottom for more than a month before they hatch. The eggs won't hatch until the ice goes out lakes and the water warms into the mid 40s.

Many eelpout eggs are eaten by perch and other fish before they have a chance to hatch. Eelpout like to lay their eggs on chara beds because the chara acts like an egg crate to help support the eggs and keep them from getting buried under the sand.

Chara also has anti-fungal properties, which helps keep the eelpout eggs viable until they hatch.

Eelpout spawn in larger groups on top of humps and on other structures that have the right depth and bottom content and also have direct access to deep water.

Anglers wanting to catch eelpout during the festivial can fish much like they would when trying to catch walleyes.

Live bait is almost a must for eelpout because they have poor eyesight and rely heavily on their sense of smell to locate their food. Eelpout do not have scales so their smooth skin is more sensitive to vibrations in the water, which also helps them locate food.

Eelpout usually feed during low-light periods and will move on top of structure to feed, especially when they are in their pre-spawn feeding mode.

Anglers usually want to keep their presentations for eelpout within a couple inches of the bottom. Bobber rigs with a lively medium-sized minnow hooked on a glowing ice jig work well for eelpout.

Anglers wanting to pull out all the stops for eelpout can use jigging spoons with rattles that glow, tip them with half a minnow and spray them with some type of fish scent to try to appeal to all of the eelpout's senses.

Anglers may also catch a few bonus fish like walleyes and perch when fishing for eelpout, which are actually fresh water cod and very edible.

Don't forget to try some eelpout nuggets at the Eelpout Festival. Anglers wanting to try some fresh eelpout at home can fillet out the back strap and tail meat and try it boiled or broiled and dipped in butter, cocktail sauce or another condiment.

Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be e-mailed at panelson@paulbunyan.net.

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