MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — There are few traditions in Minnesota that show off our love of winter like the Eelpout Festival. That’s why Mark Rosen and Amelia Santaniello drove to Walker Thursday for this week’s edition of Goin’ To The (Frozen) Lake!
The town of Walker is roughly 1,000 people, but that can grow to 10,000 on the weekend of the Eelpout Festival, when it turns into a city on ice.
Chase On The Lake
The actual town on land is a great, up-north stop for the family. They welcome visitors to this very big festival every February.
It’s not just this weekend: Walker embraces the outdoor culture year-round. We’ll show you some great places to eat and visit over the next couple days.
One of the big attractions in Walker is Chase On The Lake. The hotel sits right on Leech Lake, and has a great view of everything Eelpout. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
Logistics At The Eelpout Festival
As you can imagine, running this festival safely is extremely important to organizers, and it’s a challenge that has an added wrinkle this year.
The population of Walker, Minnesota will jump ten-fold this weekend, thanks to the big celebration for an ugly fish. It’s a winter tradition 37 years running, and Jared Olson has been in charge for the last five.
“You have a mix of all different kinds and different ages of people here, that’s for sure,” he said.
Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch has the challenge of keeping Eelpout participants safe. Slips on the ice after a few too many are common, and dozens of deputies will be out to stop drinking and driving.
Another job they have this year is to keep vehicles off the lake. Our warmer winter means no cars or trucks are allowed on Walker Bay from noon tomorrow until noon Sunday.
So the rush is on today to get fish houses on the lake. Once festival-goers are set up, it’s time to have fun at an event that just keeps getting bigger.
Eelpouters Arrive & Walker Bay Spirits
That restriction due to ice thickness worries means people got here early to get their houses on the lake. A steady stream of traffic headed out from the City Park here in Walker Thursday.
There’s more than 22 inches of ice all over the bay, but the sheriff here in Cass County didn’t want to take any chances with so much weight out there tomorrow and Saturday. There’s plenty of parking in town, and shuttles running from the nearby casino.
One stop for many folks before they head out on the ice: The liquor store. Walker Bay Spirits is an interesting one. What goes well with red wine? How about stuffed wildlife? The taxidermy throughout the store is left over from when the building was the city museum.
The eelpout used to be something ice anglers just threw back in the hole, but not here.
And the tradition here is to kiss one if you catch it. Check out the video above to see if Amelia and Rosie had to follow tradition!
Fun At Benson’s, The Piggy & Eelpout Pre-Party
There are thousands of people out on the ice all weekend, but there’s also plenty to do here on land. Mark and Amelia hung out at Benson’s Eating and Drinking Emporium in Walker Thursday night. They have great pizza, great sandwiches and a great crowd.
Another favorite in Walker is The Piggy, where they serve authentic barbeque done perfectly. The new owners have been here just over a month, but they’re cooking the same food as the previous owner: ribs, brisket and pulled pork. You name it, it’s good. And it’s just a couple blocks from Leech Lake, right on the main drag in Walker.
After some food, it was time for Amelia and Mark to go grab a drink at the Pre-Pout Party at the Walker City Park Tent. If you’re looking for a quiet getaway, the Eelpout Festival probably isn’t for you! It’s a celebration of winter — and they do it big. Again, this was just the pre-party. There are two more days of this!
Bowling At ‘Chase On The Lake’ In Walker
Amelia and Mark had a fun getaway Thursday night — right in their hotel. Chase On The Lake, which has been so good to WCCO during our stay, also has their own, private bowling alley. Make sure you call ahead to reserve the lanes. Watch the video above to see who was an ace with the bowling ball.