What we accept as normal winter behavior here in the Upper Midwest is often viewed with disbelief by people in the Sun Belt.

For example, if you told a waitress at a small-town Texas cafe that people in Minnesota drive and walk on water, use an oversized drill to punch holes in the ice, flip over a 5-gallon pail for a seat and fish, she’d likely get a grin on her face waiting for the punch line to your joke.

And she’d be more surprised to know we compete in contests to see who can catch the biggest fish through the ice. Or that those contests often raise money for charities — including honoring the life and tragic death of an 18-year-old Lindstrom man.

More on that later.

Regardless, Minnesotans love their hard-water fishing. In addition to the open-air pail seats, we erect pop-up tents, fire up small propane heaters, take the gloves off and fish. Or we haul houses, complete with bunk beds, kitchens and cribbage boards, out to join whole communities of ice shacks. And when we get them set, we open the floor boards and fish.

On the more popular Minnesota lakes, there are probably more ice shelters than houses in a small Texas town.

Every winter, hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans pull on their snowmobile suits and pac boots, head to their favorite lake and stare at a bobber in an 8-inch hole, willing for it to disappear. Al Stevens, Department of Natural Resources fisheries consultant, says the agency’s surveys consistently show that 30 percent of fishing in Minnesota is done on ice.

Last year the DNR issued permits for 47,686 ice shelters, houses that are pulled to can’t-miss locations and left for the winter. Before 2007, when the DNR dropped portables from the permit-necessary category, Minnesotans registered 140,000 ice shelters every winter.

Ice fishing contests

Ice fishing contests number just under 100 each winter in Minnesota. They are an expression of our love for the sport. These contests, more social, civic-minded, charity-supporting events than true fishing tournaments, can be found any given winter Saturday where the ice, from Iowa to Canada, is thick enough to safely support a crowd.

If it’s crowds you want, take part in the Brainerd Jaycees’ Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Jan. 25 at Gull Lake, which regularly attracts 10,000 hardy anglers. It’s billed as the World’s Largest Ice Fishing Contest, and the 20,000 pre-drilled holes will make you believe it. Prizes worth $150,000, ranging from a 2014 GMC pickup to ice augers, will be awarded. Forty-five local charities, principally Confidence Learning Center, stand to receive $150,000 from the proceeds of the event.

Other larger contests are held at Lake Le Homme Dieu near Alexandria on Feb. 8 and the International Eelpout Festival at Leech Lake in Walker on Feb. 20-23.

You can find listings of Minnesota ice fishing contests at www.startribune.com/a2534 and www.startribune.com/a2535.

Jake’s Hope

Size isn’t always the measure of a good ice fishing contest. In what might be Minnesota’s smallest ice fishing derby, Jake’s Grab a Pole & Pick a Hole Contest is being held for the first time on North Center Lake in Center City on Feb. 8, starting at 11 a.m.

This event, rising from tragedy, seeks to celebrate the promise of faith, hope and community support. The namesake of the contest, Jacob Steuernagel, a handsome, soccer-playing, avid fisherman, took his own life on June 17, 2013, the victim of depression. He was 18.

Jacob’s mother, Deanna Steuernagel, 42, of Lindstrom, is confronting her unimaginable grief with determination, driven by the love of her son.

“My husband, Jeff, and I, our family and our friends, will not let Jacob’s story end at the cemetery,” Steuernagel said. “We will tell it again and again to raise suicide awareness, remove the stigma and point the way to hope.”

To this end, the family has founded a nonprofit organization: Jake’s Hope.

Suicide is one of the three leading causes of death among teenagers. Preventing suicide is the singular mission of Jake’s Hope.

With the help of professionals trained in the QPR technique (Question, Persuade, Refer) the Steuernagels, through Jake’s Hope, are speaking to any group in the Chisago County area who will listen about the three-step process for identifying and helping people contemplating suicide.

“We aren’t professionals,” said Deanna Steuernagel, “but, sadly, we have firsthand experience we can share.” Even the Steuernagel’s daughter, Katelyn, 15, is speaking about suicide awareness to younger audiences.

An ice fishing contest seemed like a natural for Jake’s Hope’s first fundraising effort because Jacob and his tackle box were never far apart. Now his fishing buddies and the entire Lindstrom/Center City community are rallying around the event. Clam Outdoors, Eco Jigs, Tips Outdoors and Fish Addictions, local ice fishing vendors, are sending 20 men to drill holes and help orchestrate the day’s activities. Area retailers are supplying prizes such as TV sets, bikes, electronic fishing aids and Nintendo games.

There will be food trucks, warming tents and the promise of fish. All this sounds like a great way to spend a winter day.

So grab your short poles and find an ice fishing contest.

You’ll have another hard-water tale you can share with your uninitiated friends in the Sun Belt. The fishing and the fun are guaranteed. You might not win a pickup truck or an ice auger, but just being on the ice with kindred spirits, knowing you’re supporting a good cause, is a grand prize.


Retired from the workaday world, Bill Klein lives in May Township, just north of St. Paul.