Minnesota ice fishing contests won’t end for another month, but tournament specialist Al Stevens with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is confident this year’s permitting work is over.
As the overseer of about 100 prizewinning ice-fishing derbies across the state, Stevens said the approximately 10-week-long season has settled into a predictable balance of big and small gatherings that focus on fun and create very few public conflicts.
“It’s become a very steady slate,” Stevens said. “A lot of them have a carnival atmosphere. They break up the winter and they’re good, community events.”
The sometimes wacky individual contests come and go — with an occasional cheating scandal thrown in — but ice-fishing contest organizers have settled into a cadence where tourneys don’t overlap, Stevens said.
“There’s a few new ones here and there,” said Stevens, who also works on fisheries lake and stream surveys for the DNR. “But there’s only about seven good weekends that you can count on.”
The granddaddy of all the contests — billed as the largest charitable ice fishing tournament in the world — is the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza, held last weekend on Gull Lake.
Angie Nelson of the Brainerd Jaycees said this year’s three-hour contest drew 9,100 contestants. The winner, Dan Volbert of Chaska, took home a new pickup truck. When all the accounting is wrapped up, the Jaycees will donate more than $100,000 in proceeds to local charities.
Contests of that size also pack a punch for local economies; for instance, the Jaycees estimate a $1 million economic impact for the Brainerd-Baxter area.
In Garrison next weekend, when another large ice-fishing contest is held to benefit Ducks Unlimited, Tutt’s Bait & Tackle will enjoy one of its busiest Saturdays of the year, owner Sarah King said. “We’ll sell three times what we sell on a normal weekend,” she said.
Greg Erickson, the tournament director for Fishing for Ducks, said the event is expected to draw nearly 4,000 contestants to Lake Mille Lacs, including Ducks Unlimited members from southern states who have never ice-fished before. Between raffles and fishing prizes, the event will feature the giveaway of more than 100 guns, a new Chevy pickup and a rolling Ice Castle Fish House.
“It makes for a good fundraiser,” said Erickson, who anticipates proceeds of nearly $100,000.
According to a Star Tribune review of permitted ice fishing contests held last January, February and March, organizers of 88 tournaments hosted more than 62,000 ice anglers. There are four times as many open-water fishing tournaments in Minnesota as there are ice fishing derbies, but the ice events are far more accessible and community-minded since boats are not required.
In 1999, the DNR permitted just 21 ice-fishing contests. That number quadrupled by 2005 but has leveled off since then.
Jolly’s Jiggin’ Jamboree, set this year for Feb. 27 on Knife Lake near Mora, exemplifies the typical Minnesota ice fishing contest. Organizer Jim Hallin said the event started nine years ago in memory of local outdoorsman Greg “Jolly” Jolstad, a construction worker who died in the historic Interstate 35W bridge collapse. The derby has grown to field about 200 ice anglers and another 150 raffle ticket buyers. The local Boy Scouts serve food, bands and DJs play music on the ice and the mayor of Mora helps run the raffle.
“What we are trying to do is keep his memory alive,” said Hallin, a friend of Jolstad since high school. “He [Jolstad] was an ice fisherman galore, and this event is a win-win for everybody.”
The competition and raffle raise $3,000 to $4,000 a year, Hallin said. The money funds a college scholarship every year for a deserving local student.
DNR permits are required for ice fishing contests if they draw more than 150 people or if the entry fee is $25 or more. Permits also are required if trout are involved. But the DNR exempts ice fishing contests from permitting if contestants are under 19 years of age or if the prize value is less than $500. Exemptions also go to contests where rough fish are exclusively targeted or to derbies that don’t specify what water bodies are fished.
Stevens said he can’t recall the last cheating scandal. In 2013, a 72-year-old contestant in the Park Rapids American Legion Community Fishing Derby was arrested and later convicted of sneaking in a northern pike. The contestant, Alfred “Tom” Mead, had drawn local suspicion after winning two previous ice fishing contests.
An example of a major ice fishing tournament that has since fallen by the wayside is the old Golden Rainbow competition on Forest Lake. Once one of the largest ice fishing contests in the country, drawing some 8,000 anglers a year, the tournament fell on hard times in the early 2000s due to poor ice conditions.
Special prizes were awarded in that contest if you were lucky enough to catch a tagged rainbow trout. Stevens said the DNR no longer allows contest organizers to tag fish.
“You don’t need those shenanigans to get people to come out to your event,” he said.
Gabe and Brandi Miskovich, owners of Madden’s Dutch Room bar and restaurant in Grand Rapids, can attest. Their 26th annual Dutch Room Perch Jerk on Lake Pokegama, slated for March 12, will be the last permitted ice fishing contest of 2016. The object is to catch the biggest perch, but the purpose is to beat cabin fever.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” Gabe Miskovich said. “I think people are sick and tired of being locked up in the cold all winter.”