BRAINERD - You really can't make this stuff up: 10,000 people on the ice Saturday, the mercury not yet inching above zero at noon, and the state's chief executive -- a department store heir, no less -- warming up to all of it, a jig stick in his hand, laughing and looking for fish, just like everyone else.

Only in Minnesota.

The attraction near this north-central Minnesota town was the 21st Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake, an annual spectacle that this year awarded -- never mind the name -- $190,000 in prizes.

None of which, in the end, was issued to the state's newly installed governor, who seemed bothered not a whit by the very chilly weather.

"I grew up playing hockey outdoors on days like this," Mark Dayton said. "It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon in January."

And not just to Minnesotans. Anglers traveled to Brainerd from as far away as Sweden, according to contest organizers, to impale minnows onto tiny jigs and drop their tantalizing outfits into frigid water.

One such interloper, Andy Schultz, who lives near Milwaukee, won the top prize, a new Ford pickup, for hoisting a 7.18-pound northern from 11 feet of water a mere 15 minutes after the contest began.

"It's the biggest fish I ever caught," said Schultz, who arrived in Brainerd on Thursday with five friends, also from Wisconsin, but who still managed nearly to be late to the Extravaganza.

"After Andy caught his northern, we stopped fishing and immediately started drinking," said one of Schultz's travel mates.

Indeed, among commercial interests benefiting from the influx of so many winter anglers to Brainerd for the charity contest, beer and liquor sellers must be toward the head of the line.

And justifiably so. Considerable time, after all, often passes between bites.

"My secret?" said Theresa Kruchten of Brainerd when asked how she landed a .15-pound walleye, the fifth fish registered in the tournament. "Jigging and Coors Light."

A nurse, Kruchten was one of a group of 11 that plodded onto Hole in the Day Bay of Gull Lake Saturday to fish, laugh, eat and, well, imbibe.

At day's end, 150 prizes were awarded to those who caught the "biggest" fish. And while Schultz left for Wisconsin in a new pickup, Bill Wemer of Cloquet, who earned 150th place for winching a .43-pound perch through the ice, didn't pull away with chump change.

His diminutive fish earned him an Arctic Cat 550 all-terrain vehicle.

Billed as the largest charitable ice fishing event in the world, the Extravaganza began in 1991 with 5,500 anglers vying for $100,000 in cash and prizes.

Held during a typically slow tourism month in Brainerd, the contest has grown wildly, with some $2.6 million benefiting local charities. Largest among beneficiaries has been Confidence Learning Center, which caters to people with development disabilities.

Fish caught during the competition that survive are released. Others fall into the fillet-knife-wielding hands of Roy LaDoux and Larry Sjostrand of Grand Rapids, Minn.

The two belong to a group called Pike For Vets, now in its 62nd year, which annually provides a fish dinner for patients in the Veterans Hospital in Minneapolis.

"It started with a bunch of service guys in 1949 who wanted to do something for vets in the hospital," LaDoux said. "They took 800 pounds of fillets to the hospital for their first dinner. In August, we took 272 pounds of walleye fillets down there to feed patients."

Not far from where LaDoux and Sjostrand held forth in the weigh-in tent, Roger Spieker of New London, Minn., near Willmar, was philosophical about the chances he might leave the ice with a prize.

"It's the luck of the draw," he said, peering into an icy hole kept open by an adjacent coffee can of burning coals. "You pick a spot, trying to outsmart the fish. But it doesn't work."

Not mostly, anyway, though John Brenny of Rice, Minn., did reel in a dandy 2.5-pound walleye about 2:30 p.m., fishing in 60 feet of water.

"This is my fourth year in the contest, but my first walleye," he said. "I jigged all day. Then I stopped. And I caught a fish."

Gov Dayton couldn't say that. He finished the outing similar to the way that perhaps a long line of Minnesota chief executives dating to Henry Sibley have completed such contests: fishless.

But if he was worried, he didn't show it. Fishing, it appeared, seemed to assuage any concerns he might have, perhaps among them even the state's lunker deficit, as he alternately angled, posed for photos and recalled, gregariously, hockey tales from his youth, and big fish caught years ago while in Alaska.

All on a very cold Minnesota afternoon.

"A great day," the governor said.

Dennis Anderson •