Backstory: The ice fisherman cometh
GULL LAKE, MINN.
Joe Gobel is sitting in an upholstered chair – an upholstered reclining chair – in the middle of a frozen lake. He's got a small propane heater burning near his feet. A radio pumps out a country song at his elbow.Skip to next paragraph
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Even though an Arctic wind has driven the temperatures down near the single digits, Mr. Gobel doesn't seem to care. He's focused on a small bobber dangling in a six-inch-wide borehole in the ice. This is contentment, Minnesota style.
"It's nice," says Gobel, a machinist from nearby Fort Ripley, Minn. "I'm not catching anything, but at least I'm comfortable."
So are the more than 10,000 others doing the same thing in what can only be called the "hajj" of ice fishing. Each year, a local chapter of the Jaycees puts on an ice-fishing event that organizers believe is the largest in the world. So far, no one has come forward to refute them.
The anglers are spread over 250 acres of Gull Lake, a frozen expanse in central Minnesota. For one afternoon in January, they make this the largest city in Crow Wing County. The fishermen, and some women, come from more than a dozen states and seven countries, including Canada, England, and Germany. Three groups are here from Australia.
Beside the hordes of moon-suited anglers, several thousand spectators arrive to gawk at this annual tableau on the tundra. Dozens of tents have been set up where vendors sell everything from ice augers to fur hats. Makeshift restaurants hawk hearty food – bratwurst and turkey drumsticks and hamburgers. A local radio station broadcasts from the ice, allowing the far-flung anglers to monitor their competition.
As fish are caught, the results are posted on a website, along with pictures, in part so Minnesota service members stationed in Iraq can participate electronically in a pastime that, perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, is part of the local DNA.
"For Minnesotans, ice fishing is a unique culture," says Bob Slaybaugh, a Jaycee who has been helping with the event for years. "Here we have a festival on the ice with all the flair of a typical Fourth of July celebration."
On a map, the shape of Gull Lake looks surprisingly like Yogi Bear. It is 33 miles around, with innumerable bays and inlets. More important is what lies beneath the ice. Like many lakes in Minnesota, it abounds with perch, crappie, bass, northern pike, and the state's Fabergé egg of fish – the walleye.
The "central lakes" area, as the region is known, has always been a fishing mecca, particularly in the summer. But 17 years ago, the Brainerd Jaycees came up with a way to generate more excitement in the winter: the annual "ice fishing extravaganza." Many small towns in the state hold similar derbies, including Walker, Minn., with its yearly Eel Pout Festival. (Last year even the governor participated in the event's "polar plunge" into frigid Leech Lake.) But none has come to rival the city on the ice that rises here.
Ominously, this year's event on Saturday almost didn't happen. Warm weather that has engulfed much of the nation conspired to keep even Minnesota's ice unusually thin. Until a week ago, local authorities didn't know if Gull Lake would support 15,000 people. But a recent subzero cold snap began to produce an inch of ice a day. And event organizers have come to know precisely, as most Minnesotans do intuitively, the arithmetic of winter-lake use: three to five inches of ice to safely support a person, six to eight inches to handle a snowmobile, and at least 12 inches to carry a car or land a small plane. By last weekend, Gull Lake glistened with 18 inches.
Organizers swung into action. On Friday, more than 100 volunteers wielding ice augers perforated the lake with 20,000 holes in just three hours.