There are similarities.
Both traditional “events” target two unique, almost-mystical species of fish in the Northland. The kickoff for both of the popular winter fishing happenings is separated by a week in February, and both are a celebration of pursuing these two species in the wintertime.
Well, one of the happenings is mainly just that — a celebration. As in a massive party that, probably because of tradition, just so happens to still include fishing.
Not that Lake Winnebago-system sturgeon spearing isn’t a party — the popular Sturgeon Spectacular most certainly is. But overall, sturgeon spearing on the Lake Winnebago system around Fond du Lac is at least an equal part serious fishing — as in spearing — too, probably more.
The 37th Pout Fest (Feb. 18-21), on the other hand, will turn Leech Lake in Walker, Minn., into party central. Many eelpout will be pulled through the ice at the festival. But one look at the schedule of events on the Pout Fest website will tell you what it’s all about: Eelpout are mentioned here and there — as in Eelpout Curling, Eelpout Rugby, the Eelpout 500 Races and the Polar Pout Plunge.
Pout weigh-ins are held after each day of fishing, and typically draw a crowd. And there’s also the Eelpout Fishing Show, where local fishing guides will talk about catching big pout in the radio show Saturday, Feb. 20. But, later that day, the Bikini Ice Fishing Show likely will be a much, much bigger draw.
And that’s OK. While Pout Fest may have been a more-serious fishing event in its early years, for decades it has embraced its ever-growing party side. A recent news release from the festival office said it all:
“Stir crazy is an understatement when describing the more than 12,000 participants and visitors who descend on Walker, Minn. (pop. 1,069) for three days every February for the annual International Eelpout Festival. The festival, always a spectacle, is known for providing a mid-winter respite for the many hearty Midwesterners looking for an outlet during a long Minnesota winter. The revelry and gamesmanship that ensues has drawn the curiosity of countless reporters and media over the years, including national coverage from big-hitters like the ‘Tonight Show with Jay Leno’ and ‘Animal Planet.'”
But, as the release continues, there’s still the pout factor, too:
Like Pout Fest, the Sturgeon Spectacular, held the previous week (Feb. 11-14; the overall sturgeon spearing season is Feb. 13-28, or until any of the pre-set harvest caps are reached), is loaded with activities — but mostly of the family-oriented variety. It opens Thursday, Feb. 11 with “People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair with an Ancient Fish,” a book and story-telling event at the Fond du Lac Public Library, followed by a screening of the award-winning documentary “Frozen Chosen,” which chronicles “men and women who are willing to wait day, years, even decades for a fish.”
Yes, sturgeon spearing is serious stuff on Winnebago in February. So a recent “favorable” ice update for the lake was good news; Pout Fest organizers haven’t made mention of ice conditions on Leech, so it likely won’t be an issue for that event.
Also like Pout Fest, the Sturgeon Spectacular is about more than fish — likewise a “Celebration of Winter,” it includes an outdoor hockey game, public ice skating, dog-sled rides, ice- and snow-sailing/kiting and even Spear the Fatty, a fat-tired bike race.
If you’ve never seen a fat bike, it’s tires are monstrous, wild-looking.
Not unlike a Winnebago sturgeon.