If anthropologists 100 years from now puzzle to understand exactly the who, what and why of the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza — the 29th of which will be held Saturday on Gull Lake near Brainerd, Minn. — you couldn’t blame them.
Seen through history’s long lens, the event from noon to 3 p.m. might appear to be equal parts competition, celebration and carnival, with more than 10,000 mostly fish-seeking, oftentimes clownishly dressed Minnesotans joining like-thinking ice anglers from around the world.
“We’ve had participants from Australia, China, Switzerland, Denmark and France, among other countries,” said this year’s Extravaganza chairman, Clint Meyer. “They come to fish.”
Well, not everyone …
“I have a party before the contest, and a bigger party afterward,” said Claudia Allene, who lives on Gull Lake. “For us, it’s turned into quite a cooking thing. I’ll have 20 people at my house before the fishing starts, and 50 people afterward.”
Allene is among a small cadre of fur coat-wearing women whose presence at the charity fundraiser has become, along with glow-in-the-dark jigs and buckets of fathead minnows, a staple on the square-mile slab of Gull Lake ice where the contest is held.
Since the contest’s founding in 1991, the Brainerd Jaycees showcase fundraiser has amassed $3.4 million for local charities, with the largest portion dedicated to Camp Confidence, an outdoor learning center for people with developmental and cognitive disabilities and hearing problems.
“All of the money we raise, 100 percent, goes to charity,” Meyer said. “We keep none of it.”
Last year, as the volunteer head of security, Meyer, along with law enforcement officials and two attorneys, helped investigate an alleged Ice Extravaganza scandal by three Ohio men: a father, son and another relative who earned first, third and 98th places among the tournament’s 150 prize winners.
An anonymous letter sent to contest officials and the media after the tournament suggested the Ohio men had cheated. Tournament organizers reacted quickly.
“We’re not only the biggest ice fishing contest in the world, we’re the best,” said last year’s chairman, Shane Meyer (no relation to Clint), while announcing the investigation. “We want there to be no question whatsoever that the contest is legitimate and on the up-and-up.”
The 98th prize in the 2018 contest was an ice auger. Third place was $1,000 cash, and the top prize, as usual at the event, was a new pickup.
Of the 150 prizewinning fish in that tournament, 135 were tullibees, or ciscoes, a forage fish that can weigh up to 5 pounds. Only three were northern pike. Two, a 3.1-pounder and one weighing 2.89 pounds, were caught by the Ohio men, placing first and third. The contest’s only perch, a 1.07 pounder, was registered by the third Ohio man. The perch, according to experts, was a whopper by Gull Lake standards.
Only two other anglers have been investigated for cheating since the event’s founding in 1991. Rules governing contestants require them to take lie-detector tests if asked. One angler did and passed. The other declined and relinquished his prize.
Each of the three Ohio men passed lie-detector tests.
“We were satisfied their catches were legitimate,” Clint Meyer said.
Nonetheless, security will be tighter this year. Entry points to the cordoned-off fishing area and its 20,000 drilled holes will be reduced from six to four, and Jaycees-recruited volunteers — hundreds will be on hand Saturday — will closely inspect coolers, buckets and other containers passing through the check stations.
C.B. Bylander of Baxter, Minn., an event veteran and an occasional contributor to Star Tribune Outdoors, has fished the big contest about 10 times. He can readily recall the moment years ago when his minnow-baited Swedish Pimple hooked a 1-pound, 8-ounce walleye.
Per Extravaganza custom, Bylander quickly reeled up the fish. Then he placed the walleye in a bucket of water and ran to the registration tent to have it weighed and released alive back into the chilled lake.
“I caught that fish about halfway through the three-hour contest,” Bylander said. “Then I watched the leaderboard to see if the fish would win a prize.”
It did. Bylander’s walleye was the 20th-largest fish caught that year, good for a new Suzuki four-wheeler.
Clint Meyer, 40, who fishes “a little,” takes pride in stories like that, while noting that after 14 years as a tournament volunteer, he will age out of the Jaycees after his current chairman stint.
Attracting men and women ages 18 to 40, Jaycees is a leadership development organization whose goal is to improve members’ professional skills — including, obviously, fundraising for a good cause.