Ice Crazy

Everything is backwards at the largest ice-fishing contest in the country, where tiny fish win huge prizes and most people don't catch anything. So why is everyone here smiling? BONUS PHOTO GALLERY: With exclusive out-takes not published in the magazine

Field & Stream Online Editors

Until very recently, my entire knowledge of ice fishing came from a story my father told when I was a kid. Driving along the shore of a lake in upstate New York one winter night, he saw the glow of lights from a fish house out on the ice. Never the shy type, he walked out, knocked on the shanty door, and proceeded to spend a very enjoyable few hours drinking beer with the two guys inside.

That tale goes through my mind as I stand in a Wal-Mart in central Minnesota on a cold (what else?) late-January day, trying to find clothes suitable for attending the largest ice-fishing festival in the country, and quite possibly on earth: the 15th Annual Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza (brainerd.com/ice). The festival draws thousands of anglers from all over the Midwest, who come to compete in a three-hour contest for more than $150,000 in prizes. Unlike my father's encounter, no shelters are allowed, though I'm pretty sure that if beer were forbidden, there wouldn't be much of a turnout.

Before coming here I had scrounged some gear from Northern Outfitters, a favored brand among Arctic research scientists. The only problem is that all of it except the boots is still sitting 140 miles to the south in the Minneapolis airport, so I'm forced to get replacements here. Unfortunately, thousands of ice fishermen had the same idea a few hours before I did. The place looks as if the "What's-in-your-wallet?" Vikings have already ransacked it. There is as much stuff on the floor as on the racks, and most of the sales staff has fled. Half an hour later I emerge with the following:

  • One pair of leather chopper mitts that would have fit Andre the Giant.
  • One woman's size XXL insulated polyester shirt, apricot (which the saleslady points out is a really gross color on someone with my skin tone).
  • One pair of expedition-weight polypro long underwear bottoms that are so long I could just tie the foot openings shut and forgo socks. $44 worth of hand warmers, which I will affix to various parts of my body with:
  • One roll of duct tape.

A Seething Mass of Badly Dressed People
At Gull Lake, the contest site, all worries about being unfashionably dressed vanish. There are people wearing whole bobcat skins on their heads, matching skunk hats and skunk-trimmed boots, fur mittens the size of tennis rackets. I quickly identify the pelts of beaver, raccoon, rabbit, muskrat, nutria, and possum. If it will stick its leg into a trap, you can wear it as a hat to an ice-fishing contest, and most guys leave the tail on to facilitate animal identification. There is a lot of waterfowl camo, blaze orange deer gear, and Carhartt coveralls. The true studs here are strutting around in full snowmobile drag: lime green jacket-and-pants outfits with yellow trapezoid shapes where their muscles would be and armor plates in the shoulders. All they need are ray guns to complete the look.

On the other hand, I'm not going to make any best-dressed lists, either. The three hand warmers I taped over my kidneys have already slid down to a crevice in my body which would be accessible only if I took off most of my clothes, and nobody needs to see a grown man in an apricot shirt. The boots, however, are working perfectly. My feet are so warm that they push a little puff of condensation through the outer boot with each step, which instantly turns white in the frigid air, as if my feet are little choo-choo trains. [NEXT "Story Continued..."]

Finger-numbing cold and nonstop inaction are not the only things that draw people to this festival. The $150,000 figure in the title refers to the worth of the prizes distributed by the Brainerd Jaycees. Apparently, rewarding skill alone makes no more sense in ice fishing than it does in finger painting, because the Jaycees spread the prizes around randomly and liberally. The angler who catches the biggest fish (which will be a 3.71-pound walleye caught by Sara Kitzman of St. Cloud) takes home a Ford F-150 truck. The 100th-place winner (Jason Himmelwright of Apple Valley, Minnesota, for a ¿¿-pound walleye) will pocket $10,000. And the lucky anglers in 20th, 40th, 50th, 101st, 125th, or 150th place each receive a new Polaris ATV. In other words, a rock bass or a perch that would get lost on a dinner roll could be the catch of your life.

The contest is held on a 250-acre section of Gull Lake. To prepare the area, the organizers drill 24,000 fishing holes, each 8 inches in diameter. It's a process that takes three days and massive amounts of Bengay. Thousands of people are out here, some of whom would be pretty hefty naked, let alone wearing five layers of clothing and mammoth Sorel Ice King pac boots, pulling sleds loaded with cases of beer, coolers, portable heaters, radios, lawn chairs, and-in some cases-actual fishing gear. These extra million tons or so causes the ice to sag, which sends lake water gurgling happily up through the holes. In effect, you are walking around in a large, gray Slushie, which within minutes freezes into a topo map of Hell, all knife-sharp ridges and slick hollows. The organizers are overlooking some great possibilities here. A combination three-legged race and EMT-wound-treatment derby would be a surefire way to maintain crowd interest during slow periods.

Proceeds from ticket sales benefit the Confidence Learning Center, a nonprofit organization that helps people with developmental disabilities. Many of us out on the ice appear to be prime candidates for the center. The organizers evidently think so, too, because there are emergency divers from the local rescue squad here, standing around in inch-thick neoprene. I'm sure it's a prudent idea, insurance-wise. But the only people likely to need their services today are those skinny enough to disappear down an 8-inch hole or fat enough to break through 20 inches of ice.

You have to walk a gauntlet of vendors demonstrating the latest gear to get to the fishing area. For a mere seven grand, you can buy the new Wilcraft amphibious vehicle, which is a little fishing shack on wheels. You drive it to your desired spot, pop the top up, and lower the platform hydraulically to the ice with the push of a button. Drill up to three holes through the guides in the floor and you and a buddy are good to go. Thin ice is a worry of the past because the Wilcraft floats and its tires have a paddle-wheel effect in calm water. When you're done, park it in the bed of your pickup and drive home. Or just stay out on the ice until it thaws in spring, then paddle home.

Television improves the quality of any experience, and ice fishing is no exception. The Aqua-Vu Quad 360 displays four images on one screen, giving you a 360-degree view beneath the ice, day or night. If you're watching your pole, you're going to miss strikes, no matter how good your reflexes. Why? Because many "strikes" are just nibbles, and other times a fish will slurp your bait up so quietly you won't even know it. Instead, watch the Quad monitor and see exactly how and when the fish takes your bait, vastly increasing hookups. Since you can also see the baits and fish around other anglers' holes, you may advise them to fish deeper or shallower if they are in danger of succeeding on their own. Used this way, the Quad 360 can pay for itself in increased tournament winnings. [NEXT "Story Continued..."]

Over by the StrikeMaster ice augers, a big guy with a snarling machine has a crowd around him. It's Sean Spraungel, world-record holder in power-auger ice drilling. In 2004, Spraungel drilled three holes through a little more than 2 feet of ice in an astounding 8.6 seconds. That was using a machine that ran on nitrous oxide, a somewhat unstable fuel that has a tendency to transform a working engine into flying shrapnel. For that reason, Spraungel is using regular gas in an auger with a modified 110cc chain-saw engine today. But he's still astoundingly fast, popping out holes as if he were drilling through Styrofoam. He is a seventh-generation stonemason, 6 feet 7 inches tall and 310 pounds. That size comes in handy during competition, when you have to start with one hand behind your back. He says there are really only two tricky aspects to competitive drilling. One is that the auger is so souped up that it pulls the operator down after it bores through the ice. The other is that it's easy to cut off a foot. He shows me a gouge in the sole of his boot, a close call he suffered in practice. A competition auger is a powerful beast and will chew through whatever it gets close to. I don't know what his summer job is, but the guy would be any groundhog's worst nightmare.

Cheers on the Ice
Past the vendors, I need my cellphone to locate Walleye Dan, a local guide who has invited me to fish with his family and friends. He offers me a folding chair, and I skim the ice out of my hole and hook a fathead through the tail. When the noon starter gun sounds, I open the bail and let it fall 42 feet, then crank the reel up a turn.

Within 30 seconds, a strange transformation steals over the crowd. The raucous party atmosphere is gone, replaced by the collective concentration of thousands of anglers, whose consciousness has suddenly narrowed to the 8-inch holes at their feet. Walleye Dan, whose real name is Dan Eigen, has told me to bump my bait against the bottom a couple of times to make the mud puff, then raise it up a foot and give it a jiggle every so often. This is pretty much what every other angler out here is doing, in depths from 15 to 70 feet. The fish, beneficiaries of the most monumental and simultaneous air drop of food since last year, must be stunned. For long minutes, the crowd remains quiet. Then a cheer goes up about 100 yards away, and a man with both hands over his head can be seen lumbering slowly in the direction of the weigh-in station.

Walleye Dan has been ice fishing so many years that he thinks nothing of clearing his hole with his bare hand if a skimmer isn't within arm's gleheadblue" target="_blank" href="/fieldstream/photogallery/article/0,13355,1156710,00.html">Click here to view this story's photo gallery, which includes outtakes not published in the magazine.
Photos by Jonathan Ragle

Over by the StrikeMaster ice augers, a big guy with a snarling machine has a crowd around him. It's Sean Spraungel, world-record holder in power-auger ice drilling. In 2004, Spraungel drilled three holes through a little more than 2 feet of ice in an astounding 8.6 seconds. That was using a machine that ran on nitrous oxide, a somewhat unstable fuel that has a tendency to transform a working engine into flying shrapnel. For that reason, Spraungel is using regular gas in an auger with a modified 110cc chain-saw engine today. But he's still astoundingly fast, popping out holes as if he were drilling through Styrofoam. He is a seventh-generation stonemason, 6 feet 7 inches tall and 310 pounds. That size comes in handy during competition, when you have to start with one hand behind your back. He says there are really only two tricky aspects to competitive drilling. One is that the auger is so souped up that it pulls the operator down after it bores through the ice. The other is that it's easy to cut off a foot. He shows me a gouge in the sole of his boot, a close call he suffered in practice. A competition auger is a powerful beast and will chew through whatever it gets close to. I don't know what his summer job is, but the guy would be any groundhog's worst nightmare.

Cheers on the Ice
Past the vendors, I need my cellphone to locate Walleye Dan, a local guide who has invited me to fish with his family and friends. He offers me a folding chair, and I skim the ice out of my hole and hook a fathead through the tail. When the noon starter gun sounds, I open the bail and let it fall 42 feet, then crank the reel up a turn.

Within 30 seconds, a strange transformation steals over the crowd. The raucous party atmosphere is gone, replaced by the collective concentration of thousands of anglers, whose consciousness has suddenly narrowed to the 8-inch holes at their feet. Walleye Dan, whose real name is Dan Eigen, has told me to bump my bait against the bottom a couple of times to make the mud puff, then raise it up a foot and give it a jiggle every so often. This is pretty much what every other angler out here is doing, in depths from 15 to 70 feet. The fish, beneficiaries of the most monumental and simultaneous air drop of food since last year, must be stunned. For long minutes, the crowd remains quiet. Then a cheer goes up about 100 yards away, and a man with both hands over his head can be seen lumbering slowly in the direction of the weigh-in station.

Walleye Dan has been ice fishing so many years that he thinks nothing of clearing his hole with his bare hand if a skimmer isn't within arm's