Competition on Ice
Minnesota is becoming an ice-fishing contest capital.
By Jason Abraham
Ice fishing might seem to be a solitary sport, practiced only by reclusive people holed up in cramped shelters on desolate lakes. But a visit to the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake reveals a far more social side of ice fishing.
Each February Jaycees hold one of the nation's largest ice-fishing contests. For three hours, without benefit of shelter, thousands of anglers cluster around ice holes drilled about 15 feet apart on Hole-in-the-Day Bay on Gull Lake. At the center of the square mile of angling action is a conglomeration of tents and booths that, like a mini-state fair, attracts participants and spectators to eat fried food and browse the latest outdoor gear.
If the weather is bearable, this temporary community on ice supports a population of about 14,500-outnumbering the population of nearby Brainerd by about 500.
Volunteers set up warming tents, food booths, and the fish weigh-in area in the three days before the tournament. Hours before the contest begins at noon on Saturday, 460 volunteers or more dash around the fishing zone, creating a blur of flying ice and a din of engine noise as they drill a grid of about 24,000 holes.
Ice thickness ranges from 14 inches to 2 feet, and holes are 10 to 12 inches wide, according to Bob Slaybaugh, one of hundreds who help organize the event. If the ice is less than 14 inches thick, the event is postponed, which happened only once (2002) in the contest's 15-year history.
At the contest, at local businesses, or online, anglers purchase a $35 ticket to fish in one hole, or two tickets to fish two holes. (State law prohibits ice angling with more than two lines.)
At 9 a.m. anglers are allowed to enter the fishing zone to select a hole. Once anglers claim a hole, they stay nearby. At noon a cannon blasts, and contestants begin to fish.
"It's a strange sight: Everyone's moving around and talking until just before noon. Then it gets dead quiet and everyone just stares down their hole," Slaybaugh said. "That lasts until people start catching fish and running to the weigh-in area."
Lucky anglers rush their catch to be weighed by volunteers, who write the angler's name and the fish weight on a large board. During the first 15 minutes of the contest, the line to register a fish can be 200 yards long, according to Slaybaugh. Anglers who catch the largest 150 fish registered by 3 p.m. win prizes ranging from a pickup truck and all-terrain vehicles to ice augers, GPS units, depthfinders, and cash. Local businesses donate many of the prizes.
Besides prizes, people come to fish simply for the fun of it. "We had people from 27 states and nine countries last year," Slaybaugh said. "People just want to participate in something so unique. It's really a festival atmosphere on the ice."
Last year the contest raised funds for Confidence Learning Center, a nonprofit outdoor education center for people with developmental disabilities, as well as other local charities and community programs.
Though ice fishing is found from New York to Alaska, Minnesota is clearly king of the Ice Fishing Contests . According to Department of Natural Resources records, ice-fishing contests attracted 90,538 participants in 2003-52 percent of the state's total number of tournament fishing contestants for the year.
In addition to the Brainerd event, Minnesota hosts two other high-profile ice-fishing contests. The International Eelpout Festival in Walker attracts -thousands of anglers to Leech Lake. The Golden Rainbow Ice Fishing Contest on Forest Lake last year drew about 4,000 anglers.
A group of Minnesota-based ice--fishing businesses called Ice Team sponsors a series of five ice-fishing contests in five states, including Minnesota. They offer -professional-level cash prizes to attract the nation's top ice anglers. The top angling teams then compete in the North American Ice Fishing Championship.
"We're trying to raise the profile of ice fishing. Anglers from local communities get a chance to watch and learn from professional ice anglers, which hopefully results in more interest in the sport," said Noel Vick, communications director for Ice Team.
BACK TO THE '30S
Minnesota's ice-fishing contest traditions go back to at least the 1930s, when the St. Paul Winter Carnival held annual ice-fishing contests on White Bear Lake. Historically, ice-fishing contests were fundraisers for local rod and gun clubs, according to Dave Genz, a leading promoter of ice fishing since the 1970s.
"The sport didn't get much attention until Bert Momsen started the Golden Rainbow contest on White Bear Lake," Genz said. "That contest raised the ante by offering big prizes. It got people's attention."
For 17 years starting in 1981, Momsen made his living by organizing the contest, held for the first four years on White Bear Lake and, in the remaining years, on Forest Lake. Anglers bought a ticket that gave them a chance to collect $100,000 by catching one of three to five rainbow trout that Momsen had released into the lake under the watchful eyes of city officials and DNR Fisheries staff the day before the contest. Momsen said the DNR granted permission to release the rainbows, which would probably not survive the warm water during the summer if they were not caught during the contest. Momsen also offered prizes for the largest fish of the day.
To prevent anglers from trying to claim the grand prize with a substitute trout, Momsen had each trout photographed prior to its release. No angler ever caught the "golden rainbow" trout during the contests, although someone almost always caught the fish after the contest, Momsen said.
Momsen never worried about paying off the $100,000 prizes because an insurance policy through Lloyd's of London would have covered the cost. Nevertheless, he said, the stress of trying to make a living by holding an ice-fishing contest eventually forced him out of the business.
"The whole year's income came down to a three-hour event in the dead of -winter. Everything depended on the weather," Momsen said. "My wife gave me a lot of encouragement-to get out of the -business!"
The Golden Rainbow contest wasn't held for several years after Momsen quit in 1998. Recently, however, the Hopkins Jaycees have been holding it on Forest Lake.
Just before Momsen started the Golden Rainbow contest, another angling entrepreneur started the International Eelpout Festival in Walker on Leech Lake, a contest in mock tribute to the burbot (Lota lota). Eelpout, as the name suggests, are eel-like fish with mucus-covered, mottled skin, and a single dorsal fin that runs almost the entire length of the serpentine body. Though many anglers abhor their odd appearance and penchant for stealing bait, eelpout are good to eat and an important food source for northern pike and walleye. Eelpout are most commonly found in large, northern Minnesota lakes, including Lake Superior.
Ken Bresley, who moved to Walker after purchasing a sporting goods store there in 1977, got the idea for the festival while fishing. "I caught an eelpout," he said. "Being from Chicago, I'd never seen such a thing."
The festival, now in its 26th year, quickly became a media favorite, according to Bresley. Just before the contest's second year, WCCO's Boone and Erickson interviewed Bresley on their radio show.
"That was a big turning point," Bresley said. "Attendance went from 400 to 500 in the first year to nearly 1,000." Since then, the festival has grown, luring up to 10,000 participants and the national press, including The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, and Sports Illustrated. Rather than fish in the open or from typical ice-fishing shelters, many eelpout contestants set up elaborate "encampments," which range from campers fancifully decorated with plastic palm trees to two-story fishing palaces built from plywood.
To visit neighboring encampments, some anglers devise "eelpout touring vehicles," such as a motorized picnic table, a snowmobile fitted with a boat, or a toilet on skis.
Prizes go to the most original and elaborate encampments, as well as to the angler who catches the weekend's largest eelpout, usually 11 to 12 pounds, according to Bresley. Prizes also go to the individual who catches the most eelpout (303 pounds last year) and to the team that catches the most (321 pounds last year).
The festival also lures nonanglers to the ice. A 2003 study by a St. John's University student estimated that 60 percent of those who purchase eelpout festival buttons don't actually fish. With the buttons, they gain entrance into the contest as well as to community events such as a dance and a car race.>
In 2002 Bresley sold the rights to the contest name and logo.
PERMIT TO FISH
Minnesota ice-fishing-contest organizers must apply for a permit from the DNR if the entry fee is more than $25, if the number of participants is more than 150, if prizes exceed $25,000, or if the target species is trout. DNR permits are free. State law also requires a permit from the county sheriff's office for any competitive event. Organizers must also file a report with the DNR after the event.
"We issue permits and monitor ice--fishing contests to gauge the recreational use of lakes in wintertime and help avoid conflicts between recreational interests," said Al Stevens, who coordinates the DNR fishing-contest permit program. "If there are too many ice-fishing contests being held on a given lake, we can recognize the conflict earlier and help suggest ways to alleviate the situation."
Last year the DNR issued 82 ice-fishing contest permits, up from 68 in 2003 and 58 in 2002 and 2001.
"We're definitely seeing an increase in the numbers of ice-fishing contests," Stevens said. "That probably reflects an increasing interest in the sport."
Resource managers say winter tournaments currently have little effect on the fishery. Stevens points to the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza , where 11,000 anglers caught 1,074 fish in 2003, as an example. "That very low catch rate is typical of winter tournaments," Stevens said. "You have a big crowd of anglers making noise on the ice. It's a great social event. But it's not going to have any real effect on the resource."
So far, social concerns related to ice-fishing contests are few as well, according to Stevens. "We'll get a call if tournament participants are tying up an access and nontournament anglers have difficulty getting on and off the lake," he said. "Ice-fishing contests are great chances for anglers to socialize and enjoy their sport without having much impact on the fishery."
Jason Abraham is a contributing editor to the Conservation Volunteer and staff writer for the DNR divisions of Ecological Resources and Fish and Wildlife. He occasionally ice fishes on the Mississippi River.