CASS LAKE (AP) -- The finned form that slithered into view on the screen of Mark Christianson's underwater camera looked like something out of an old black-and-white horror movie. Covered with mottled skin, the fish kicked up a cloud of silt as its long, eel-like tail brushed the lake bottom.
Other mottled forms occasionally appeared, as if out of nowhere. Their presence was betrayed by the infrared lens that displayed with crystal clarity the bottom nearly 30 feet below.
The sun was down. It was pitch dark. The show had begun.
Christianson, of Walker, and his buddy, Greg Johnson of Guthrie, had braved the elements on a night when wind chills flirted with 40 below zero to pursue that most-maligned and least-appreciated of fish species, the lowly eelpout. These slimy, beady-eyed freshwater members of the cod family are a fish of many names. Ling in the Dakotas. Burbot, eelpout or just plain old 'pout in Minnesota. And then, of course, the widely known moniker, "lawyer."
By any name, these "ish of fish" are a blast to catch through a hole in the ice.
Set up in two portable shelters just a few yards apart, Christianson and Johnson were using heavy-duty baitcast rigs and big jigs, ready to tangle with hard-fighting fish and poised to utter the gleeful cry of "POUT!" whenever a fish slammed the lure. The previous evening, 'pout shouts had filled the air.
"They bit like crazy last night," said Christianson, a professional walleye angler who guides and fishes tournaments during the open-water season. "We must have caught 20 in an hour."
That kind of action would draw hordes of anglers if the quarry were respectable fare, such as perch or crappies, and if the temperature was 50 degrees warmer. But on a subzero night like this, it takes a special breed to pursue fish of any species, even from the confines of a heated shelter. No wonder, then, that Christianson and Johnson had the lake to themselves.
Christianson acknowledges the fishing is more fun when the weather's warm enough to stand outside and move from hole to hole.
"When it's warm, it's kind of like a big party," he said.
It was no coincidence that 'pout were on the prowl. Every year about this time, eelpout gather below the ice to engage in one of nature's strangest spawning rituals, twisting, writhing and swarming in the annual effort to propagate their species. As they stage for the spawn, eelpout go on voracious feeding sprees that usually begin at nightfall.
Tom Dickson and Rob Buffler, in their 1990 book "Fishing for Buffalo," quoted a spawning encounter witnessed in the winter of 1936 by A.R. Cahn, a Wisconsin fisheries scientist: "At first, a dark shadow was noted at the edge of the ice, something which appeared to be a large ball -- a tangled, nearly globular mass of moving, writhing lawyers," Cahn wrote in his account. "The fish were all intertwined, slithering over one another constantly, slowly, weaving in and out of the living ball."
Christianson's underwater camera doesn't record that kind of voyeuristic activity on this cold March evening. If anything, these lawyers are camera shy, and Christianson fails to get a bite until he reels up the lens.
Still, aside from the occasional bout of camera shyness, eelpout aren't timid about hitting a jig. Tip the hook with a minnow or two, and a night-stalking pout often will hit as soon as the jig hits the bottom.
There's nothing subtle about the technique, Christianson says: The heavier the jig, the better the eelpout like it. The action of pounding the jig off the bottom seems to provoke the fish into striking.
"Most of the time, you're going to lift it up, and it feels like you're snagged," he said. "That's probably a fish."
According to Christianson, he and Johnson caught the eelpout bug late one winter about 20 years ago while fishing perch on Lake Bemidji. Set up along a midlake drop-off, the action switched from perch to 'pout toward dark. They'd stumbled on to a pattern, he recalled, and future excursions produced more eelpout about the time the sun hit the trees.
The fish were full of spawn, Christianson said, and as spawning time got closer, the fishing got better. Once he caught 50 eelpout in four hours, and another time he and his two partners put 117 fish on the ice in about six hours. They'd caught the peak of the spawn.
Pursuit of 'pout has been a late-winter ritual for Christianson almost every year since. While most anglers in this part of northern Minnesota shift from walleyes to perch or crappies after mid-February, he chases eelpout. Ask him why, and he just laughs.
"I don't know," Christianson said. "They're just fun because they're big. It's hard to go out and catch 3- to 8-pound walleyes."
Christianson said his biggest eelpout weighed about 11 pounds.
Get past the slime and the beady eyes, and there's another reason to pursue eelpout: They're great table fare. Christianson usually keep a few fish to cut out and boil the backstraps, a delicacy that rivals lobster when served with butter. He also fillets out the tail, but says it doesn't taste as good as the backstraps.
In northern Minnesota, Christianson said just about any natural walleye lake probably has eelpout. Lake of the Woods traditionally produces the biggest specimens, including the 19-pound, 3-ounce behemoth that John Galles of St. Paul landed in February 2001. Leech Lake, home of the renowned International Eelpout Festival, along with Cass, Bemidji, Winnie, Pike Bay and Upper Red also are good bets.
Near Duluth, the Nemadji and St. Louis rivers both take large runs of eelpout. Best fishing is at night in December, after first ice, using a dead smelt on the bottom, says Scott VanValkenburg of Fisherman's Corner in Pike Lake.
The key, Christianson advised, is to set up off shoreline or midlake drop-offs and then hang on tight to the fishing pole when darkness falls.
Eelpout bite throughout the winter, he said, but there's a definite spike in the action in February and March. Some years, the spawn will occur as early as mid-February. Other years, it's up to a month later on the same lake.
"They're spawning later this year," Christianson said. "They obviously haven't spawned yet. That's when they really bite. Once they've spawned, you'll just catch the smaller males -- the females will be all gone."
The shouts of 'pout weren't quite as frequent as the previous evening, Christianson, Johnson and a reporter managed to ice about 20 eelpout up to 8 pounds or so in 3 hours of fishing.
It's not for the timid, this eelpout fishing. But for anglers who savor a good fight on hook and line, it's more fun than a black-and-white horror movie any day.
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