It wasn’t my usual Saturday morning….up at 6 a.m. to get ready for my 7:30 tee time. It wasn’t going to be 70 degrees. It was going to be cold, 20 degrees with a possible wind chill factor of six degrees. I wasn’t going to wear shorts and a golf shirt. I wasn’t even going to take my golf clubs. I wasn’t in warm Southern California. I was in Brainerd, Minnesota, two and one-half hours north of Minneapolis.
I was about to join more than 10,000 other hearty souls in the Brainerd Jaycee’s 16th Annual $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza, billed as the world’s largest ice fishing contest. My vocabulary was about to change. Instead of drivers and fairway woods, I was about to learn about ice augers and sonar. Instead of wedges and putters, I was going to speak about bobbers and bait. Instead of 18 holes cut into lush greens, I was going to see 20,000 holes in two-foot thick ice. It was going to be an adventure!.
Dressed in layer upon layer of clothes, including black long johns from my Squaw Valley skiing days, a white San Diego Padres turtleneck, a brown fleece pullover, a San Jose Sharks teal blue parka, a red jumpsuit, and bright orange ski mask, I looked more like the Abominable Snowman than a golfer. But, I was ready for what I was told would be a “warm” 20-degree day. When the wind came up and the wind chill factor dropped to six degrees, I was very happy that I was bundled up. Along with boots with ice grabbers, my fishing pole, heavy-duty gloves, and my one-day fishing license.
I drove to the 250-acre fishing area on Gull Lake’s Hole in Day Bay, site of the tournament Walking onto an ice covered lake for this California born and reared Saturday morning golfer was a new and somewhat scary experience. Fortunately, I was somewhat familiar with my surroundings because the day before I had been given a preview of the lake and the tournament area by local fishing guide, Walleye Dan. He had taken me out on the frozen lake in his heated Sno Bear which was equipped with sonar for reading water depth, a GPS system that showed everything in the lake beneath us, an underwater camera with which we could see fish swimming in the lake, all the fishing gear one would ever need and an all important a beverage container.
However, watching cars, trucks and trailers drive out on the ice to the fishing area…that was still quite a surreal experience. To get to the fishing site, I walked between hundreds of red, white and blue American flags proudly lining the entranceway on the ice. As I got closer to the fishing site, I got a whiff of sausages being barbecued on huge portable barbecues. I chatted with men, women and children of all ages dressed in a variety of colorful fishing attire. I saw food vendors cooking their treats; inexpensive and upscale ice houses on display, and smiles everywhere. I knew this was going to be a Saturday I would long remember. Although the actual contest wasn’t to begin until 12:00 Noon following the playing of the Star Spangled banner, I was out on the ice covered lake at 9:00 AM trying to understand why anyone in their right mind would venture out on a 20-degree day to try and catch fish through a salad plate sized hole on an ice-covered lake.
Understanding that the first prize for the largest fish was a shiny new Ford 4X4 truck, and the lucky fisherman with the 100th largest fish would win a check for $10,000, I realized there were incentives to fish in the tournament. However, I quickly came to realize that the 150 prizes to be given were really secondary to being a participant and having a fun day in the Jaycee’s fundraiser. Since the closest I had ever come to ice fishing was watching Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon fight over Ann-Margaret in Grumpy Old Men, I decided to watch contestants decided which hole in the ice they would choose from the 20,000 that had been pre-drilled the previous day. Because I was absolutely clueless as what to do, except bait my hook with minnows I didn’t have, I was as helpless as a 30 handicapper trying to compete in the U. S. Open. Fortunately, I was “adopted” by a group of fishermen from Roscoe, South Dakota. Ranging in age from 18 to 70, this delightful group of anglers made up of friends and family members, included a grandfather, son, and grandson. “The Rosconians” (as I dubbed them) immediately saw I was totally flustered and invited me to join their group.
Of course, I quickly accepted their generous invitation. I listened to their stories of previous tournaments, how many had been participating since the first tournament in 1991, and how some had never caught a fish. I heard of their love for the outdoors, for family and friends. I watched as they prepared for the contest by rigging their poles and checking the depth of the water with their sonar devices. I even joined them in a beer although I did decline their multiple offers of blackberry, root beer and/or butterscotch schnapps. “The Rosconians” typified to me what I found ice fishing to be all about… fun, friends and family. Today many ice fishermen have heated icehouses that they drive onto Minnesota’s frozen lakes. Inside the fancier ones you’ll find TV’s, bars, propane stoves, card tables and even bunk beds. However, during the three-hour tournament, it was man against nature. No shelters allowed, just man against the elements, as I was told by one veteran ice fisherman, just like the old days.” I was fortunate to be participating on a “warm” sunny day. Evidently in past years, temperatures during the tournament dipped to as low as 20 degrees below zero.
At exactly 12 noon the contest began, not with a normal charity golf tournament shotgun start, but with a cannon blast. I can just imagine what it must have been like under the ice as the fish swam quietly about and then, following a large boom, more than 10,000 baited hooks dropped through the ice.
The fish must have been hungry because within seconds lucky fishermen began to form a more than 100-yard line at the weigh-in shed to get their catch officially weighed. When the cannon blasted again at 3:00 PM, signaling the end of the tournament, the first prize Ford 4X4 went to an angler who landed a 4.91 pound Walleye, which according to a Brainerd native, is “the best eating fish in the world”. The 100th largest fish, which garnered the $10,000 check, was also a Walleye, weighing in at .8 of a pound. The last place finisher won a Suzuki ATV with a .58-pound Perch. Other prizes, placed randomly among the top 150 places included cash, ice augers, fish locators, and underwater cameras. The perch I caught was too small to be included in the largest 150 fish caught. So, like so many of my Saturday morning golf games, I contributed but didn’t win a prize. However, I came home realizing that my prize was being able to be part of the Brainerd Jaycee’s $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza, a truly fun fundraiser.
Over the years the Brainerd Jaycee’s have raised nearly two million dollars for local charities. You can join in the fun and participate in the 17th annual world’s largest ice fishing tournament on January 26, 2008.