BRAINERD, MINN. — Bob Rieckenberg of Delano had intended to bring his wife, Cathy, onto the Gull Lake ice with him just north of here Saturday morning. He was on the frozen lake by 8:30, the temperature 16 degrees or so, the sky overcast.
But there had been a change of plans. Cathy Rieckenberg would not be joining her husband at the 18th Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza.
Instead, she and two friends would pass the day at nearby Grand View Lodge. Rather than peering through icy cylinders, eager for fish, they would pass the day splayed on massage tables, relaxing.
"So we came fishing without our wives," Bob Rieckenberg said, nodding to his two pals, Bill Fink of Delano and Mike Miller of Wayzata.
But they weren't exactly alone.
By noon Saturday when the big contest kicked off, more than 10,000 anglers were sequestered atop a specifically delineated portion of Gull Lake. Double that number of holes had been drilled Friday through the ice, and Rieckenberg, Miller and Fink were among entrants who thought it to their advantage to arrive early.
"We wanted to fish holes near the edge" of the contest area, Rieckenberg said.
My son Trevor, 14, and I also coughed up the $45 entry fee ($35 for early registrants) to test our mettle against the other participants. Why not? As much a lottery as a test of skill, the competition -- with its 150 prizes, including a new 4x4 pickup, a boat and a showroom full of ATVs -- rewards luck, chance and expertise almost equally.
True, the angler who catches the biggest fish gets the pickup. But the boat, motor and trailer, for example, go to the person who reels through the ice the 100th-largest fish -- a specimen that would weigh, in the end, exactly six-tenths of a pound.
Women fished, too
Trevor and I hadn't even left our Brainerd-area motel Saturday morning for Gull Lake when we were hit on by a bevy of women from the Twin Cities who were fishing the Gull Lake contest as part of a weekend celebration of their friend Jeanine Lore's 40th birthday.
Our new friends needed a ride to the contest and were only too happy to pile into the back of my minivan (cut me a break, it's my wife's; my pickup's in the shop) and on cue duck down as I brandished my media credentials to ease us by contest checkpoint after checkpoint.
Once on the ice, Trevor and I settled in by coincidence alongside Rieckenberg, Miller and Fink, and our new female friends ("this is our 'WOW' event -- Women Only Weekend") disappeared among the thousands of Carhardt-wearing, beer-swigging, jig-stick-brandishing would-be big-fish catchers.
"Would-be" is the important modifier here.
"In a typical year we'll weigh some 1,000 fish," said Mary Devine, marketing coordinator for the Brainerd Jaycees.
Yet midway through the competition, fishing in about 25 feet of water, Trevor, Miller, Fink, Rieckenberg and I had only seen one fish caught, a rock bass that eventually would tip the official scale at about 1.3 pounds.
Finally, I said to Trevor, "This ain't working. I need a new truck. Let's try deeper water."
In fact, prevailing contestants in past competitions often had bent over watery holes that sat atop 50 feet or more of water. And, yes, edges of the huge contest area generally also have yielded more fish than have the middle.
Within minutes, Trevor and I were standing over 55 feet of water, where, ultimately, we would again catch no fish.
But nearby, a roar of approval soon erupted, the hollering arising from a circle of friends surrounding Terry Schwichtenberg, a 48-year-old dairy farmer from Morristown, in the southern part of the state.
Schwichtenberg had just changed shiner minnows and was dropping his fresh bait and a 1-inch-long red-and-white jig into 65 feet of water when the biggest walleye of his life -- the biggest fish of his life -- hooked up.
"It didn't really fight; I just reeled it up," Schwichtenberg would say. His 5.34-pound prizewinner earned him the new pickup.
And the new boat, motor and trailer?
That rig went to the 100th prizewinner, Trevor Birdsall, 26, of Princeton, who caught a 0.60-pound rock bass.
Prizes 101 through 150 -- including three four-wheelers -- in fact all went to fish weighing about a half-pound or less.
Trevor and I, as suggested previously, were among the legions who caught nothing, zippo.
We never did see our female friends again.
Ditto Rieckenberg, Fink and Miller, temporary residents each of a Gull Lake Ice City now disbanded.