Backstory: The ice fisherman cometh

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

On Saturday, anglers start arriving by 7 a.m. in hopes of securing the best holes. Many haul their gear on plastic sleds: bait (mainly fathead, shiner, and rainbow minnows), something to catch the fish with (usually a miniature rod and reel), and all kinds of electronic gear (GPS systems to pinpoint their position on the lake, sonar to determine the water's depth and locate fish, and underwater cameras to actually see them).

Precisely at noon, a cannon shot signals the opening. Within one minute, a man runs in with the first catch of the day – a small perch. Within five minutes, several hundred people line up with fish at a central "weigh in" tent. Inside, frenetic volunteers lay the fish on electronic scales, giving each angler a printout of the vital statistics. The fish are then handed to a state official, who flushes the live ones back into the lake through a PVC tube as part of a "catch and release" policy.

"We've come here five years in a row and never caught a fish," says Travis Denney of Saulk Rapids, Minn., ecstatic after registering his second under-a-half-pound walleye. Still, he says, the day is "just about having a good time."

***

The event does at times feel like a Mardi Gras in thermal underwear. Dustin Gawlik has driven up from Minneapolis, three hours south, with 12 of his friends for the past three years. They're wearing pink hats, pink shirts, and have erected a pink flag – all to mark their spot and be a comical contrast to the ubiquitous camouflage and traffic-cone-orange jumpsuits.

"We get together now once a year as a tradition," says Mr. Gawlik, who works for a bicycle company.

Not far away, Tim Yaeger watches his hole more seriously, but is still out on the ice for the enjoyment. He is in an orange jumpsuit. "We're in the land of 10,000 lakes," he says, explaining his passion for the sport. "It's relaxing. It's a way to get away from work and all the noise."

Mr. Yaeger, like most here, usually spends his time in a fish house – a small, heated structure with holes in the floor. The more sophisticated ones now have bunk beds, stoves, microwaves, and satellite dishes.

But the event here and other fishing derbies do it the old-fashioned way, in the open air. As a result, they take on the feel of a community hearth, without the BTUs. "It is a good way to be together," says Dave Wood, a local retiree, who has come out with his son and daughter-in-law.

Many novices are particularly impressed. Leo Desmond of Dover, England, married a woman from Brainerd in October. She kept telling him about ice fishing. He thought the idea was "nuts." When he heard that trucks routinely drive on the lake, he was even more incredulous. Today he's dangling a line in the hole – and intends to be a repeat visitor. "It's amazing," he says of the couple's unofficial honeymoon. "I can now say this is another thing I've done – the largest ice-fishing tournament in the world."

Nearby, some anglers are barbecuing. Whoops and hollers erupt as someone pulls up a fish and dashes for the weigh-in tent.

Clearly, not everyone is here just for fun, though. The sponsors hand out $150,000 in prizes for the 150 largest fish (entry fee: $45). All the proceeds from the tournament – this year $250,000 – go to charity. First place is a Ford truck. The 100th place winner gets $10,000.

As the cannon booms, ending the derby at 3 p.m., the anglers all congregate in front of a "big fish leader board." The biggest fish turns out to be a 4.91-pound northern pike, caught, for a change, by a local man from Baxter, Tim Piehl. His wife has been following the tournament on the radio and is already making room in the garage.

"It was unreal," Mr. Piehl says, simply.

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