Eelpout organizers object to the vehicle restrictions on Leech Lake
WALKER Minn.—Organizers of this year's International Eelpout Festival butted heads with the Cass County Sheriff's Office on Monday after the sheriff's office announced restrictictions of vehicle traffic on Walker Bay during the annual event, which will be held Feb. 23-26.
Citing safety concerns, the sheriff's office issued a news release Monday stating that most vehicle traffic will not be allowed on the bay during the festival because of unseasonably warm temperatures and the large number of vehicles. Shortly afterward, festival organizer Jared Olson penned and distributed a letter objecting to the vehicle restrictions.
In the letter, "a couple hundred" of which were sent to businesses in the Walker area, Olson stated that drilling measurements taken over the past week showed that the average thickness of the ice to be 24.1 inches across the festival's primary traffic area. According to the letter, the Cass County Sheriff's Office usually sets 24 inches as the necessary ice thickness for vehicle traffic.
Despite the measurements, the sheriff's office will only allow snowmobiles and class 1 and 2 all-terrain vehicles on the ice between noon Friday, Feb. 24, and 10 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 26. All vehicles must be removed from the ice by noon that Friday, the release said, and violators will be ticketed.
The Cass County Sheriff's Office declined to comment further on the vehicle restrictions.
Olson said he and other business owners are concerned that the vehicle restrictions will hamper attendance, as those who want to use trucks to tow fish houses onto the ice will have to do so by noon on Feb. 24.
The festival drew about 11,000 attendees last year, despite similar vehicle restrictions.
"It definitely hurts attendance," Olson said. "Not a lot of people have the bigger rangers or more expensive vehicles to pull their fish houses out with, so it does hurt the crowd that comes, and they just can't physically get out there."
Though some business owners plan to call or write to the sheriff's office to voice concerns, Olson said they don't anticipate a change to the restrictions. Instead, he hopes to see a more consistent plan put in place for future festivals.
"We'd like a plan in place for following years that isn't just a shoot-by-the-hip kind of decision," Olson said.
A Facebook comment that appeared to be from the Cass County Sheriff's Office added another layer to the controversy later Monday. A screenshot showed a comment from the office's Facebook page that read: "Warm for the next two weeks, I believe. It'll be a slushy mess. The ice fishermen will still be able to drive to their houses. Just the drunks will have to walk."
In a Facebook message, a data entry clerk for the sheriff's office confirmed that he had intended to post the comment from his personal page but mistakenly posted it from the sheriff's office's account. He added that the comment was his own opinion and not that of the sheriff's office.
Olson said that, for the second year in a row, festival attendees will be allowed to drive onto the ice until noon Friday, then remove their vehicles and park in Walker.
"I think the restrictions are going to remain in place," Olson said. "The people that can get out early will still come and we'll still have a great event."
This is not the first time Eelpout has been at odds with Cass County.
Post-festival cleanup has historically challenged the county. And while things improved after organizers hired a private company to provide and service outhouses during the festival, inmate crews and sheriff's deputies still picked up 900 pounds of trash from the lake in the three days following last year's event.
This year, Olson was given the option to put down a deposit with the county that would cover cleanup, or hire a private company. Olson said Monday he has already hired a private company. Other vendors at the event will also have option to pay the county a deposit or pay Olson for part of the clean-up costs.