Recently I found myself at the world’s largest ice-fishing tournament on Hole in the Day Bay of Gull Lake near Brainerd, Minnesota. There are probably two words I never wanted to use in the same sentence – ice and fishing – so it was with some reluctance that I found myself there in the first place. But being nothing if not a good sport, I packed all the cold weather clothing I could muster.
The sun rose on the day of the tournament to -19 degrees Fahrenheit with enough of a breeze to push the windchill down to -39. Lovely, I thought, as I put on every article of clothing I brought to balmy Brainerd. I’m no push-over when it comes to the cold. I live in the frosty part of Upstate New York and can shovel a mean sidewalk with the best of them, but there’s something about temperature readings that sound like they come from Antarctica that gives me pause.
The day before, a hundred volunteers stood in a line about ten feet apart, power augers in hand, and walked slowly across a large section of the bay stopping every twenty feet to put their augers to the foot-and-a-half-thick ice and drill a hole eight inches in diameter. These power augers stand about waist-high and look like huge corkscrews. It takes the strength of a construction worker and the stamina of a workhorse to use one of these babies and by the end of the day they had drilled an astounding 21,000 holes.
The Brainerd Jaycees, the tournament sponsor, expected 7,000 ice fisherman and another 2,000 spectators. There were food tents, beer tents, and a warming tent that had about 20 heaters set up on tables in the middle. There was a tent where you could buy raffle tickets and a tent where you could buy the skin of any animal you could think of (a man wearing an entire fox skin – head and all – on his own head was happy to let you pet and fondle the skins for sale). You could buy hot sausage, hamburgers, and deep-fried chicken strips. Fried clams and fish chowder. It was a carnival with country music blaring from large speakers scattered about. And it was on the ice, which you were reminded of every time you tried to walk somewhere.
The most important tent was the big one at the center of tent city. It was surrounded by a snow fence with blaze orange netting. This was the weigh-in tent where fishermen would race with their newly-caught fish in a five-gallon bucket or in a large plastic bag. Dead or frozen fish were disqualified. Inside the tent the fish would be weighed and measured and then taken to the back of the tent where a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officer sat in a metal chair and presided over the releasing of the fish. This was a catch and release tournament. The gasping fish were placed in a shallow pool – maybe 8 inches deep – that had been excavated from the ice that had four holes drilled through to the lake. If it looked like a fish was going to make it, the DNR guy encouraged it with a net to go down one of the holes. If the fish was struggling, he netted it and threw it in one of three large bins – one for walleye, one for perch, and one for northern pike. The fish gasped and flopped in the bins until they died or froze. These fish would be filleted then given to a veterans group. About a third of the fish withstood the shock of all this and disappeared down one of the dark holes in the ice to the lake below.
The tournament began at noon with the playing of the National Anthem and then a shot from a cannon. At that signal, you could drop your line into the hole you had claimed. There were 150 prizes going to the top 150 fish by weight. First prize was a new Ford truck then there were ATV’s and a snowmobile or two and lots and lots of gift certificates. Except for the truck, all of the other prizes were given out randomly. For example, you could win an ATV by being number 37 and a snowmobile if you were 110. The desire to take home the truck – to haul out a fish big enough to be number one – kept a lot of people fishing for the full three hours.
“If I win the truck, I’m gonna sell it right away and keep the money,” said a woman standing in the weigh-in line. I looked at her little perch swimming in a plastic bag and said, “That sounds like a plan.”
I decided I wanted to try my hand at ice fishing so I got myself all set up with a sonar depth finder, a short fishing pole, and some artificial bait that was a day-glo green color and infused with essence of fish making it irresistible to fish passing by. The man who was helping me, told me to just watch the sonar screen and when “this line moved up toward this line” it meant a fish was approaching. The sonar looked like something from a 1950s sci-fi movie – a little metal box with a round glass face with red and green glowing lines representing your fishing line and anything that was about to come in contact with it.
So I stood and I stood and I watched the sonar and I watched the little bobber that kept my line in place and I watched the ice form around my line and the bobber. And I discovered that ice fishing was about as exciting as watching paint dry only a lot colder. Someone came by and offered me a little bottle of cherry schnapps, which I gladly took. And I discovered that cherry schnapps tasted exactly like Robitussin cough syrup. I stamped my feet up and down on the ice, hoping to bring back the feeling in them and secretly hoping to send a bioacoustic signal below to encourage a large fish to come my way. Then I worried about what I would do if I did catch a fish. How would I get if off the hook? Where would I get a plastic bag to put it in? How would my super-huge fish even fit through the ice hole that was rapidly icing over with slush?
Turns out that I – along with about 6,800 other people – didn’t have to worry about what to do with the fish we would never catch. Clearly the smart fish were swimming right outside the circle of death watching the thousands of lines dangle and sway to and fro in the frigid water. I stood and watched the ice form around my bobber and then creep up the line.
I finally abandoned my hole and walked around through the androgynous people completely covered in outerwear. Blaze orange and camouflage and bright red cold-weather clothing brought spots of color to the otherwise mostly brown and green coats and snow pants. Hoods, hats, balaclavas, scarves, and sunglasses covered every inch of every face – even the day’s high of -2 with a nice stiff breeze would freeze exposed skin in short order. People were sitting on overturned plastic bait buckets while they fished, on lawn chairs, on coolers, and one man had even hauled a barcalounger out there for the ultimate in fishing comfort.
I passed a man as large as a polar bear holding a basket of fried chicken in one giant paw. He saw the snow fence around the weigh-in tent and for some reason thought it would be a nice sturdy place to rest and eat. As he leaned against one of the temporary posts it gave way and with an oddly graceful slow motion move he went down to the ice, taking a section of blaze orange plastic fencing with him. I went over to help him up. He had such a surprised look on his face that I smiled as I hoisted and he hauled himself up from the ice. He looked down at his basket of chicken and said, “I seem to have lost a chicken wing but you can have it if you find it.”
I didn’t win a truck. I didn’t win an ATV. I didn’t win a bucket of bait. I didn’t even get a nibble on my line. But I had lived through a Garrison Keillor moment among the friendly Minnesotans and if I had seen an I Survived the Ice Fishing Tournament tee shirt I would have gladly bought that.
Rachel Dickinson lives in Upstate New York where she writes for a variety of publications including Audubon, The Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and Executive Traveler. Her book Falconer on the Edge: A Man, his Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West (Houghton Mifflin) will be out this spring.