Minnesota

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Small Town Ice Fishing Festival Gets Too Big to Succeed

9 Mar, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Thanks to the 2008 economic crisis, we’re familiar with the term, “too big to fail.” But can a sports event become too big to succeed? Can that success lead to its own demise? Apparently so, according to organizers of the International Eelpout Festival in Walker, Minnesota.

The annual four-day-long ice fishing competition and festival was held for four straight decades (it began in 1979) and posted enviable year-over-year growth numbers. Ice fishermen came from across the country and even outside U.S. borders to try for – and celebrate – the ugly but desirable eelpout (also known as the burbot and sometimes described as a cross between a catfish and an eel). Traditionally held in late February, the Eelpout Festival was a magnet to draw not just anglers but outdoor sports enthusiasts and plenty of curiosity seekers to the lake.

And while fishermen reaped rewards for big catches, it was the town of Walker, with its population of less than 1,000, that was the real winner. Walker saw 12,000-plus attendees coming in for the event. In addition to the tournament itself, the frozen Leech Lake hosted bars, food vendors, ice houses and live music, and received plenty of media attention. Participants brought campers, stayed in hotels, ate in restaurants, shopped in stores and generally boosted the local economy in a way the city didn’t experience the rest of the year.

But success caught up with the event, and the rising costs of services, including regular trash pickup and cleanup, portable toilet maintenance and insurance, all weighed heavily on organizers. According to an article in the Star-Tribune in early January, the event was abruptly cancelled with less than eight weeks to go after organizers could not reach an agreement with city officials over the regulation of the ever-growing demands of the festival and a lack of municipal support.

A note on the festival’s site stated, “Over the years, attendance has multiplied substantially. Each year more attendees equals more traffic, more trash and more safety concerns. After trying to work with the county for the past five months to develop a solution for this year’s event, we have come to an impasse on lake enforcement. Because we are the only permit holder required to supply services and clean up, and are not allowed to control the lake, the economics no longer work.”

Organizers noted they had tried to put forward a proposal to move all commercial activity into downtown Walker, but that the permit process was not acceptable. Of course, the lake was still available for ice fishing, but the tournament would not be held:

“This year there will be no fishing contest or on ice commercial activity from the festival. We will NOT supply ice roads, porta potties or trash removal during what would historically be the Festival weekend. We have had a great ride and appreciate all of you loyal “POUTERS” over the years and thank you for your support.”

In other words, fish at your own risk and don’t expect to be entertained.

In 2018, one man died of carbon monoxide poisoning while in a fish house at the festival; however, the 2019 event was held without incident.

The Star Tribune article also noted that some Walker residents mentioned “fluctuating weather patterns in recent years, which have sometimes left the ice unsafe for trucks and heavy fish houses.” Ice conditions this year, noted Walker Mayor Jed Shaw, have not been optimal, either.

Shaw said he was in favor of continuing to support the activities that had already been contracted for (including several musical groups), even without the fishing festival itself. As a result, the first Frozen Block Party was held at the same time as the Eelpout Festival would have taken place; however, according to the Bemidji Pioneer, the event, which featured live music and ice sculptures, as well as drinking contests and a scavenger hunt, had “a noticeably smaller attendance.”

No matter what, Shaw hopes for a positive outcome in years ahead. The area enjoyed the business and Leech Lake (the third-largest lake in the state) is well known among locals for its abundance of walleye, bass, Northern pike, sunfish and muskie. Eelpout are frequently caught only during the winter months.

“I don’t want to see Eelpout go away,” he said, “if we can figure it out and make it work, given some of the challenges with trash issues and environmental issues. The lake is our No. 1 natural resource and it’s hugely important to us. As a city, we are used to throwing parties. It’s a big part of what we do. And it’s nice to have a big event in the winter when it’s slower.”

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