There was some question if this year’s Ice Fishing Extravaganza was going to happen. In mid-January, only one week before the contest was set to occur, ice conditions were less than ideal on Hole-in-the-Day Bay at the northeast corner of Gull Lake in Crow Wing County, Minnesota. The Sheriff’s department will not issue a permit for the contest unless they find a consistent 14-18 inches of ice across the 250-acre contest area.
The unusually mild winter caused the contest to be postponed until February 6. The ice conditions improved and the permit was issued. The day before the event, dozens of volunteers plowed roads onto the lake, set up tents, positioned dozens of porta-potties, and of course, drilled holes. In fact, they drilled a grid of about 20,000 holes about four feet apart.
Throngs of people flowed out onto the fishing area on Saturday, each hoping to get a piece of the $150,000 prize package. Most years, this event draws about 10,000-12,000 anglers and this year won’t break the record of 13,000, but when the final numbers are tabulated, it will show that the turnout was good. Each paid $50 to participate in the fundraising event.
The Ice Fishing Extravaganza is organized by the Brainerd Jaycees, which gives away about $200,000 of the funds raised to community charities each year. More than 3 million has been donated to 67 charities due to this event.
While most anglers hail from Minnesota, the contest draws from several surrounding states. All told, anglers from 22 states and 11 countries have participated since the contest was first held in 1991.
Any fish caught are weighed to the 100th of a pound and the top 150 fish are awarded a prize. The prize range from big to small, with the winner taking home his choice of a brand new Ford or GMC pickup. Other large prizes include an Ice Castle custom fish house, ATVs and other fishing gear. Each prize package is valued at a minimum of $250. Even if you are among the list of anglers who do not catch a single fish—which includes the vast majority—you can still win prizes in a drawing, some of which are valued at over $10,000.
This year’s winner was Dan Volbert of Chaska, Minnesota. He chose the GMC truck and his 5.33-pound walleye was slid back through a hole into Gull Lake. He caught the fish in only five feet of water, unusual for ice fishing where most of the anglers gravitated towards the drop-offs and even fished as deep as the 80-foot deep portion of the 250-acre fishing area.
Any species of fish is eligible to win, but the winning fish most years is either a northern pike or a walleye. Pike were noticeably absent in the bags this year, with only one making the top 150. Most of the top 50 heaviest fish were walleyes, although a few eelpout made an appearance. Normally a good sized perch will get you a prize, but this year, an abundance of tulibee over a pound filled out most of the places from 50-150.
Because of the way the tournament is organized and held, it’s jam-packed with activity and crowds of people at every turn; it would be very difficult to cheat in the event. Still, some of the largest prizes are scattered at random among the 150 places, making it impossible to take advantage of the situation.
This event is a boon to the local economy in the Brainerd Lakes area. An area well-known for its summer tourism season, the ice fishing contest gives much-needed wintertime tourism boost. The funds raised goes back into many community projects, with the majority of the money going to Camp Confidence Learning Center, a camp that introduces kids with developmental disabilities to the outdoors.
The contest’s reign as the “world’s largest charitable ice fishing event” is not in danger of being dethroned any time soon. The organizers call the event the second largest city in Crow Wing County for a day. The event also includes numerous concession tents, games for kids, vendor displays, first aid station and a central stage area. It’s not all about fishing, and people of all ages participate in the fun.
If you would like to be a part of the event in the future, check out the website at http://www.icefishing.org for more information. The 2017 Extravaganza is scheduled for the third Saturday in January.
All photos courtesy of Brainerd Jaycees