There’s something mind-boggling about a couple hundred, or a couple thousand, or maybe more than 10,000 anglers huddled on the ice, staring at their bobbers, electronics and the slush melting around their one hole; hopefully that lucky spot in a grid of many, many similar holes. The fact that ice gets thick enough to support that many people, vehicles, RV-based weigh stations, on-ice restaurants and tiki bars, even in this winter which has lost much of its punch in the last few weeks, is what carries us, both literally and figuratively, through the middle stretch of the season. The ice fishing derbies, tournaments and festivals that are a hallmark of February in the upper Midwest are a sight to behold, and for wildlife clubs, lake associations and chambers of commerce, they’re a major source of funding, and a fun break in the dog days of winter for the communities involved.
I’ll be honest, the biggest fish I’ve ever caught at any one of the dozens of the events I’ve participated in was an eight inch perch in derby near Park Rapids, Minn. In the -15 degree temps of that no-shelter event, it was a fishsicle before I even got it up to the weigh-in station and realized that it wouldn’t crack the top three spots. But that event wasn’t the coldest I’ve experienced, as I endured last year’s Ice Castle Classic on Lac Qui Parle in Southwestern Minnesota and its -20 air temps and sustained breezes which left me with shivers that didn’t subside until I was halfway home from the similar no-shelter event. It was a far cry from this weekend’s spring-like 45 degree temperatures which made it a far more social event and allowed me to get around and check in with other anglers while I peddled the last of my Pheasants Forever chapter’s raffle tickets to the captive audience. (The Girl Scouts have caught onto this sales plan too, and they’re vicious competition on the ice, as one would expect.)
But catching a fish is rarely the highlight of these events unless, of course, it’s you, going at a dead sprint in full winter gear up to the main tent, fish flopping in your hands like a wet noodle of a baton in some strange relay race. It’s more about the camaraderie, especially with conditions that accommodate discussion and fun, once the initial half-hour of the event is complete. This weekend, anglers in sweatshirts and jeans were interspersed among those who donned their blue Clam coveralls or black-and-yellow Frabill ice suits. After the first few minutes of serious fishing, where several dozen crappies, walleyes and pike had been run up to the weigh-in station, the mood became more jovial. Footballs and Frisbees zinged over the crowd, groups of anglers raised their cups to the camera drone buzzing above and mostly good-natured insults were hurled between the purple- and green-clad anglers a few holes apart.
Their set-ups were as varied as their team allegiances, as bobbers of all shapes, brands and colors floated their minnows, jigs and static offerings, while some die-hards did their best to stay focused on the fishing. Ignoring the distractions, they ripped spoons and other aggressive lures to draw in that pike or walleye they’d need to be up high on the 50-fish leader board above the multitude of crappies and perch that dominated the bottom half of the entries. Intently focused on the whir of unmoving color on their sonar, in an apparent act of sheer will, they tried to make the red-and-green line of a fish appear just above the bottom. Needless to say, even the Girl Scouts couldn’t get a sale out of these stalwart anglers.
It was three hours of socializing that spanned the spectrum of sportsmen; from ninety-year-olds under fur bomber hats to five-year-olds diligently cleaning slush from around the edges of their family’s phalanx of tip-ups. There were those who were there to fish and win, and those who were there just to party, or shake off the effects from the one the night before. All traded stories, songs and strategies with me, and occasionally bought a golden ticket, while asking for that “guaranteed to win” number in my book.
But like raffles, there’s no guarantee with ice fishing derbies, not even of a good time when the conditions don’t align. Thankfully that wasn’t the case this year as the anglers made their way back to shore through the wet and snow-free surface of the lake with smiles on their faces, having found the break in winter they were looking for…in our outdoors.