CASS LAKE, Minn.–The fish took off on a line-peeling run, and all Brian Jones could do was hang on and enjoy the ride.
Welcome to the world of eelpout fishing.
“Whoa, he didn’t like that,” Jones said with a laugh as the drag on his reel screamed, and his lightweight ice fishing rod bent to the handle. “That’s one of the longest runs I’ve ever seen a pout take. That was sustained. I wonder how many feet of line he just pulled off. I bet it was 10-15 feet.
“They just don’t give up.”
Owner of First Choice Guide Service on Cass Lake, Jones, 35, is among the growing number of anglers who’ve caught on to the pure joy of catching eelpout–also commonly known as burbot–through the ice.
“Cass Lake leopards,” he calls them for their mottled patchwork of yellow and brown skin that’s not unlike the spots on a leopard.
“It’s the fight, the coloration,” Jones, who has been fishing eelpout about 20 years, says of the attraction. “They hit harder than a lot of other fish.”
The big lake’s leopards definitely were on our minds a couple of hours earlier as we rumbled across the melting surface of Cass in Jones’ well-seasoned Toyota Tundra. Our destination on this Monday afternoon in early March was a fish house several miles offshore set atop 22 inches of ice over nearly 50 feet of water.
Also joining us was Tara Hokuf, an avid hunter and angler who does promotional work for Northcountry Guide Service in Bemidji.
Eelpout, which spawn under the ice and feed most aggressively after dark, had been on a rampage in recent days, Jones said; 20-fish nights were common without too much effort.
He was optimistic about the evening’s prospects, and it didn’t take long to find out why.
As for the ice, conditions were going south in a hurry.
“I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be able to get out,” Jones said, scanning the sloppy surface of the lake for the telltale swirls of water draining down old ice holes or spearing holes. “Right now is when you really have to watch out. The holes are widening out, and you get that toilet bowl effect.”
The sound of trickling water would persist throughout the evening.
Eelpout, which have been described as resembling a cross between an eel and a catfish, are the only freshwater members of the cod family. Once widely regarded as the “ish of fish” for their slimy skin and slithery tendencies, few fish have more nicknames than the eelpout.
Mariah, they’re called in Canada; ling in North Dakota, where they’re mostly limited to Lake Sakakawea and other parts of the Missouri River System.
Burbot. Lawyer. Cusk. Mudblower. Mud pout.
The list goes on.
By any name, these freshwater cod are a blast to catch. And darn fine table fare.
“Pound for pound, I think they’re a pretty hard-fighting fish,” Jones said. “If you hook a 23-inch pout vs. a 23-inch walleye, it’s pretty similar.”
The difference–on Cass Lake, at least–is the average eelpout is 25 inches long up to 30 inches or more, which is bigger than the average walleye.
“I can come out here, like these last three nights in a row, and catch 20 pout” that size, Jones said. “You’re not going to catch 20 walleyes that big in a night.”
Because eelpout spawn under the ice, late February through March are the prime times for catching them. In Minnesota, where walleye season on inland waters closes in late February, eelpout bridge the gap for anglers who want to tangle with something larger than panfish or perch.
Rocky humps, gravel flats and steep dropoffs all are good places to look for pout, Jones says.
“If you have a shelf, they really seem to come up and sit on those a lot,” he said.
Pounding the bottom
Fishing eelpout isn’t a finesse deal. Jones’ favorite technique is to use a large, heavy jigging spoon such as a Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon, tip the treble hook with two live minnows hooked near the tail, and pound the bottom to attract fish.
Hokuf hooked her first pout about 15 minutes into the evening, and as darkness descended, the frenzy was on.
Two nights earlier, Jones and buddy Matt Breuer of Northcountry Guide Service–also a pout aficionado–and Breuer’s son, Tate, reeled up after catching 20 burbot.
Jones said they easily would have surpassed the 20-eelpout mark if they’d kept fishing.
“As soon as we dropped lines down, there were two or three fish on our graph, and almost the whole time, someone was catching fish,” Jones said. “It was pretty wild.”
Unlike North Dakota, which has a limit of 10 daily and 20 in possession, eelpout are considered a rough fish in Minnesota with no limit.
Gradually, though, the eelpout’s reputation is improving. Gone, for the most part, are the days when anglers illegally threw eelpout on the ice to rot or be eaten by the eagles.
Anglers are discovering the fun of catching eelpout. What’s not to like after all, about a big, tasty fish that bites aggressively and fights hard?
“There’s definitely an uptick” in eelpout fishing, Jones said. “People are starting to eat them. People are starting to just go catch them for fun.”
Fussy and tasty
Denizens of the deep, eelpout have fussy biological requirements and need cold water to survive.
“They’re an extremely warm water-intolerant species,” said Henry Drewes, northwest regional fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. “The lakes need to have some deep, well-oxygenated water.”
In Minnesota, that means larger, deeper lakes such as Cass, Bemidji, Kabekona, Leech, Mille Lacs and the border waters of Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake.
“They’re not that common,” Drewes said; because they go deep, eelpout rarely are caught in the summer.
“You just don’t hear of an eelpout being caught in the summer,” Drewes said. “It’s a rare, rare event.”
Drewes said a favorite method for preparing eelpout is to remove the back straps–where most of the meat is found–cut the strips into chunks and boil them in 7-Up for three minutes.
The result, dipped in melted butter, is a tasty “poor man’s lobster.”
“It has a little bit of sweet taste” with the 7-Up, Drewes said. “I’ve also had it boiled with just a good crab boil seasoning.”
True to form, the eelpout action during Monday night’s excursion was best from about 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Hokuf, who never had targeted eelpout before joining Jones on Cass, said she was hooked.
“It’s definitely fun,” she said. “Once the walleye and pike (seasons close), why not catch these?
“And,” she added, “they’re beautiful.”
Beauty, in this case, might be one of those “eye of the beholder” things, but there’s no doubt eelpout are fun to catch.
We had iced 31 eelpout measuring up to about 32 inches, releasing all but three, by the time we reeled up about 10 p.m. for the spooky ride back to shore on water-covered ice that glistened in the headlights.
Eelpout fishing traditionally goes strong through March, Jones said, but this year’s early onset of spring means the days of chasing “Cass Lake leopards” likely are numbered.
Just to be safe, Jones pulled his small fish house back to shore, where it likely will remain until next winter.
And another season of catching Cass Lake leopards.
- If you go: Brian Jones of First Choice Guide Service guides on Cass Lake and connected waters year-round, fishing in a boat from May into November and guiding and renting eight ice fishing houses throughout the winter months. For more information, check out his website at fishingcasslake.com.
To see video of Brian Jones reeling in “Cass Lake leopards” and a clip of water swirling down a widening ice fishing hole, go to gfherald.com.