BRAINERD – If as advertised 20,000 holes had been drilled in Gull Lake on Friday, at least half were occupied Saturday when the 26th Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza began at noon.
Equal parts party and lottery-on-ice, the extravaganza each winter attracts anglers both serious and silly, many in outfits, and with intonations, that suggest the event is more a product of the Coen brothers’ imaginations than a fundraiser.
But the event is a charity benefit, and at stake are prizes worth $150,000, including a new Chevrolet or Ford pickup, winner’s choice.
“Chevy,” said Dan Volbert of Chaska, when asked which he preferred to take home.
Volbert landed on top of the leaderboard at contest’s end, having caught a 5.33 pound walleye on a Rapala Rippin’ Rap.
The walleye was pulled through the ice in just 5.8 feet of water at about 1:45 Saturday, and was the biggest of 150 fish that earned prizes, including an ATV, a fish house and other winter valuables.
Contest organizers were surprised by the record number of relatively large fish that were caught, particularly walleyes.
In previous contests, fish weighing about a half-pound — perch mostly — wound up among prize winners. Not this year. Apparently for the first time, the 150th largest fish, a walleye, weighed more than 1 pound — 1.12 pounds, to be exact.
Another aberration was recorded when a 4.59 pound eelpout was caught, a fish big enough to earn third place. Additionally, tullibees were well represented among winners, some weighing in excess of 1 pound and caught in water as deep as 80 feet.
Cordoned off in Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay, just off Hwy. 371 between Brainerd and Nisswa, the contest area used by the Jaycees encompasses some 250 acres, in which water depth varies considerably.
Thus a challenge for anglers who want to win the contest, not merely participate: Where to fish?
Historically, some anglers who have fished deep, in 55 feet of water or deeper, have been rewarded with hefty walleyes.
Such action can seem counterintuitive in winter, when oxygen is less available down deep than it is in summer. On the other hand, 10,000 people parading on 250 acres of hard water can make a lot of noise. So perhaps fish are frightened to the deeper water during contest hours.
Needing a new truck as badly as the 9,999 other anglers who wet a line Saturday, I, along with my son, Cole, also fished the contest. Our strategy was twofold: to bait a wax worm or euro larvae on a panfish jig, seeking a big perch in one hole, while fishing a tip-up baited with a shiner in a second hole, hoping to hook a northern.
The tact was partly successful.
We caught no northerns — we didn’t see a tip-up flag wave upright all day anywhere on Gull Lake — but we did pull 18 perch out of 7 feet of water.
Unfortunately, 17 of the fish were about as long as my index finger. But one was bigger, enough so that I figured it was at least worth registering.
This required a long walk from our position near the perimeter of the contest area, past a thousand or more anglers, some huddled around barbecue grills, while others peered intently into watery holes, hoping for the best.
My fish didn’t compare to the 5.18-pound walleye that Kelly Kopplin of Rockford, Minn., registered Saturday, a lunker good enough for second place.
And it was a far cry from the 1.71-pound walleye that Brad Arnold of Brainerd caught. Fishing in 55 feet of water, Arnold took his walleye using a minnow on a plain hook.
Still, to my eye my perch weighed perhaps a half-pound, plus or minus a couple of ounces — bulky enough, perhaps, for a prize.
“That’s a nice one,” the woman who registered my catch said, peering into my bucket at the still-very-much-alive perch (all registered fish are released live).
The official scale said otherwise, recording my catch at .35 pounds.
First held in 1991, with 5,500 participants, the Brainerd Jaycees Extravaganza has in some years attracted as many as 13,000 anglers. Given Saturday’s pleasant afternoon temperatures that hovered in the high 20s and low 30s, that number might be topped when the final turnout is tallied in coming days.
The contest has attracted anglers from 22 states and 11 countries over the years, and those in attendance Saturday popped $50 apiece to participate, with 100 percent of proceeds going to Brainerd area charities.
More than $3 million has been shared with 67 charities, with Confidence Learning Center receiving the majority of funds.
For this reason and countless others, the extravaganza is just that: extravagant.
And a good time.
Peter Jacob of northeast Minneapolis could have been speaking for everyone on Gull Lake when asked Saturday why he and two friends came to the contest:
“For fun and to win a big prize,” he said.