SUPERIOR, Wis. -- There's a glow on the ice of the St. Louis River.
The epicenter of light: a shanty town about a dozen miles west of Superior.
A half dozen anglers have assembled for a holiday outing. Depth finders and flashers provide season-appropriate red and green hues. White light streams from lanterns. Neon colors shine from lures.
And then there's the spirit.
"Once a year, it's a special time and you've got to make the most of it," said Dustin Carlson of Duluth, Minn.
The zest for life of outdoors people can brighten even the longest winter night.
Carlson could have been speaking of Christmas or New Year's. The outing was smack in the middle.
But the timing was tied to another annual treat: eelpout.
The native fish has many names, including burbot, lawyer, ling and a fifth to be named later.
The eelpout, a freshwater member of the cod family, is nocturnal and spends most of its life in deep water. It receives relatively little attention from sport or commercial anglers.
But in select areas, anglers have learned to time their outings with eelpout spawning runs and experience some extraordinary fishing.
"We spend a lot of the year chasing walleyes and muskies," said Carlson, 36. "But we wouldn't miss the 'pout run."
The crew on this late December night includes Pete Brzezinski of Duluth, Scott Hanson of Duluth, Ted Sellers of Duluth (formerly of Stoughton) and Rich Smith of Duluth.
Carlson and Brzezinski, along with Bob Benson and Adam LaPorte, run Northland Muskie Adventures Guide Service. The guides focus mostly on the world-class musky fishing in the St. Louis River and lakes in northern Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota.
When ice locks up the water or seasons close, however, they take advantage of the bounty nature offers.
The eelpout is one of the most unusual fish in the Upper Midwest. It is found in the Great Lakes and many inland waters of Wisconsin, but not the southeast.
In keeping with its name, the fish has an elongated body and looks like a cross between an eel and a catfish. It has smooth, shiny skin and two dorsal fins that cover about two-thirds of its back.
A hipster of the fish community, it sports a single, long whisker -- or barbel -- from the center of its chin.
The eelpout population is considered stable in Wisconsin, according to John Lyons, research scientist with the Department of Natural Resources. The species declined in number in the mid-1900s in the Great Lakes due to sea lampreys, but increased after lamprey control measures were put in place.
Lyons said the eelpout is a valuable native species but is relatively little studied due to its life cycle, its nocturnal habits and its preference for deep water.
The fish has no daily bag limit, no season closure or minimum size limit in Wisconsin waters.
The eelpout also is distinguished by its reproductive cycle: It is the first fish to spawn in Wisconsin waters each year. In fact, it spawns under the ice.
Carlson said he has some of the best eelpout fishing "around the full moon closest to New Year's Day" as the fish swim out of Lake Superior and into the St. Louis River to spawn.
Our party set up on a stretch of the river that was about 14 feet deep and had a firm bottom. We augured through about a foot of ice and erected portable shelters over the holes. Then we fished near the bottom with \- or 3/8-ounce jigging spoons tipped with a piece of minnow.
Eelpout are predators and eat a wide range of other fish as well as crustaceans.
Carlson, who grew up in Fond du Lac and graduated from Northland College in Ashland before moving to Duluth, said the eelpout is part of the local culture.
"I knew we had them in the Winnebago system when I grew up, but they weren't really popular to fish for," Carlson said. "Around here, everybody knows what you mean if you say you're 'pout fishing."
The fish is the star attraction at the International Eelpout Festival each February on Leech Lake in Minnesota.
The action this night was sporadic. Several "bogies" showed on our electronics before we had our first hit.
Carlson set the hook and after a couple of minutes of to-and-fro, pulled a 26-inch eelpout on the ice.
A half-hour later my line tightened and I set the hook to another solid fish.
Eelpout are known for being strong fighters, and this fish showed why. It took drag from my reel and surged on runs up and downriver before it came to the hole.
Carlson used a gaff to pull the 25-incher on the ice.
We caught two more fish from our shanty in the next hour. One of the males was freely expressing milt. The others in our party iced six eelpout.
The eelpout's other -- and perhaps most significant -- moniker becomes clear after a successful outing. When boiled and served with melted butter, the fish is regarded as "poor man's lobster."
I would only argue with the word "poor." An angler fortunate enough to pursue, catch and dine on this native fish is rich by any measure.
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