Backstory: The ice fisherman cometh
(Page 2 of 2)
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).Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.