BAXTER, Minn. – Dianne Kendall carefully surveyed her surroundings as she settled in for an evening of tournament ice fishing. Ranked seventh among more than 500 female tournament anglers, Kendall wanted things to be perfect, and they were.
The satellite television reception was excellent. A fine wine was on ice. A corkscrew was at the ready. So, too, were stemmed glasses, frozen pizza, plates and napkins.
“We’re all good,” said the 50-year-old pathologist as she plunked onto a couch in her ice fishing house. “Now I just need some crappies to bite.”
Kendall, who by day advises fellow physicians at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd, Minn., is among hundreds of women who spend evenings and other hours competing in the Ice Queen Virtual Ice Fishing Tournament. New this year, the contest is a mash-up of old-fashioned competition, smartphone technology and savvy marketing to women’s interests.
“I am not aware of anything else like it,” said Kristin Merwin, president of Women Anglers of Minnesota, the tournament host. “We tailored our tourney to accommodate women’s busy schedules and it is working well.”
How do you tailor a tournament to women?
One, you have it last weeks, not hours. This eliminates conflicts with children’s weekend hockey tournaments, social events and the like. The contest began Jan. 1 and ends Feb. 28.
Two, you don’t hold the event on one lake. Instead, you allow women to fish any frozen water. This eliminates hassles with overnight lodging, unpredictable driving conditions, and arrangements for family or pets. It also makes the contest affordable. In fact, the contest doesn’t even have an entry fee thanks to generous corporate sponsorships.
Three, you allow fishing 24/7. This means no matter when a woman works — day, night or graveyard shift — there’s always time to wet a line. In fact, there’s no cap on fishing hours. The tournament’s 25 prize winners will be determined by the total length of the 15 largest crappies each contestant catches and releases.
Verlinda Angell of Le Center, Minn., is leading the tournament. Her 15 largest crappies total 185 inches, or an average of 12.3 inches per fish. Every fish she and other contestants have entered has been photographed twice with a smartphone. One photo shows the fish on a measuring board so its length can be verified by the tournament director. The second photo shows the angler posed with the fish. Finally, a video of the fish being released also is required. All of this is done through a free app called FishDonkey.
Kendall, of Baxter, Minn., joined the contest, in part, because life has changed. “I didn’t fish much as a child,” she said. “I grew up in the Twin Cities, became a hockey mom, and spent a lot of weekends and evenings hauling the kids here and there with my husband. Now that the kids are out of the house I have time to pursue new things, and I am really getting into ice fishing.”
This winter Kendall has been driving to her fish house perhaps three times a week, frequently after work as a way to relax. Her house is often nestled among others on a lake just a few minutes from home. Sometimes she fishes alone. Sometimes she fishes with her husband. Sometimes friends join her.
“When you are on the ice you are part of two different communities,” Kendall said. “One is the community of women who you are competing against. The other is the community of fish house neighbors. These are the people who call or stop by and want to compare notes. It’s fun to be part of both.”
Kendall credited fish house neighbors Mike and Colleen Hammer of Baxter, Minn., with helping her become a better angler. “My husband and I so enjoyed fishing in the Hammers’ house that a couple years ago we bought our own,” she said. “These days I have a tackle box full of ice jigs, and I continue to learn as I experiment with them. I am also getting better with my Vexilar [a depth-finder and digital display]. I used to use it largely to check the lake’s depth and my lure’s location. Now, I recognize suspended fish and sometimes when I lift my lure to them, bingo!, I catch ’em.”
About three hours to the south of Baxter, Hailey Soukkala, 27, of Jordan is also fishing in the contest. At different stage in her life than Kendall, Soukkala is a hole-hopper who often fishes with her husband and children, meaning the foursome’s preferred technique is to drill a hole here and then one there until they find fish.
“I feel too confined when I fish in a house,” said Soukkala, currently ranked 14th in the tournament. “It can be a lot of work fishing the way we do but when you find the crappies it’s worth it.”
Like many anglers, Soukkala is mum about the specifics of her favorite hot spots. Still, she concedes her contest catches have been pulled from holes in backwaters of the Minnesota River. Her biggest contest crappie measured 14 inches. “Lately, I haven’t been fishing as much as I’d like,” she lamented. “But the contest is a real motivator. It makes you want to get out with your kids.”
Lara Soeth, 42, of Moorhead, Minn., is yet another tournament angler. The winner of a virtual sunfish tournament this summer, Soeth is in third place. She’s hoping to catch some 13- or 14-inch fish soon so she can move up in the rankings before the contest ends.
“My boyfriend and I like to fish for sunfish and crappies so the tournament has been a good fit for me,” Soeth said. “We do most of our fishing in the Detroit Lakes and Perham area, sometimes from a wheel house, sometimes from a portable house and sometimes out in the open.”
Soeth prefers ice fishing to open water fishing. “When you’re ice fishing you see more,” she said. “You are looking at your graph. You are looking at your camera. There’s more to it, which makes it more fun but sometimes more frustrating because you see fish that refuse to bite.”
Merwin said rising interest in ice fishing has contributed to rising membership in Women Anglers of Minnesota. “We’ve been around for 42 years but never had more than 100-some members until we started ice fishing events. Now we are well over 600 members. ”
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.