When online registration coordinator Toni Bieser invited me to the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza, held annually the last weekend in January, I thought, “Central Minnesota in the dead of winter? What could be better?”
Naturally, I accepted the invitation.
I do not fish, ice or otherwise, so I had not heard of the Ice Fishing Extravaganza before the event became a SignMeUp event registration client in 2017. Turns out, the moniker is appropriate; the multi-day event truly is an extravaganza.
Held annually since 1991, the competition is the largest charitable ice fishing contest on Earth, drawing more than 11,000 participants. The weekend includes a Friday evening kick-off party (cocktail hour, plated dinner, raffle, and live entertainment), a Youth on Ice Olympics before the main contest on Saturday morning, a “Catch of the Day” prize giveaway, and a random drawing raffle.
Most impressively, it is organized entirely by volunteers, and since its inception has donated $3.3 million to local charities.
Gull Lake is 10 miles north of Brainerd, which is a more or less two-hour drive from Minneapolis (unless one inputs the wrong destination into one’s GPS, which I might have done—in which case, it’s a four-plus hour drive).
Stopping for lunch along the way, I happened to meet two Minnesotans who also were heading to Brainerd. They revealed the worst-kept secret about the contest: only a tiny percentage of contestants actually catch a fish.
In fact, so few catch anything that those who do are virtually guaranteed to win one of the 150 prizes. The two men confessed that neither one of them, or anyone in their group of 10 friends, had ever caught anything. Yet they returned year after year.
On Saturday morning—contest day—school buses started shuttling participants to the site before 8:00 a.m. Contestants eventually populated the ice to choose their preferred spots and to test the water depth. Being only a spectator and noting the frigid air, I arrived at Gull Lake about 30 minutes before the fishing began at noon.
To set the scene: Picture a 15-square-mile, snow-blanketed frozen lake, pock-marked with fishing holes and crawling with ten thousand Yeti-like fisher-persons.
Add tents with vendors hawking cheese curds, funnel cakes, fur-lined hats, fishing gear, souvenirs, and various alcoholic beverages. Position a stage with a leaderboard and an enormous American flag somewhere close to the center. It is quite a sight, especially to a city-slicker like me.
Initially, I was puzzled by the strict rules. For instance: contestants are not allowed on the ice before 8:00 a.m.; they cannot drop a fishing line until noon; fish must be alive when weighed; the fishing hole must be clearly visible.
Then I learned the reason: The grand prize for the heaviest fish was one of the new Ford or GMC pickup trucks parked near the weighing station! The event organizers must have learned, probably the hard way, that it is awfully tempting to try to sneak in a big fish caught elsewhere.
Despite the appearance of chaos, the event was extremely well organized and seemed to go without a hitch. The winning fish was a 3.1-pound Northern Pike. Although the final tally for 2018 is not ready, the event raised $200,717 in 2017. That’s worth a day on the ice.
I highly recommend that you attend the event in 2019. Click here to register.
About the Author
Diane Goldring, Director of Customer Support, has been with SignMeUp since 1999. She enjoys adventuring to meet clients all across the United States. This was her first time in Brainerd, MN.