After prolonged cold temperatures descended on the area, an official ice check Thursday, Jan. 16, showed enough ice for the Brainerd Jaycees to receive the needed permit for their 30th annual Ice Fishing Extravaganza.
The event will run from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, on Gull Lake's Hole-in-the-Day Bay, with thousands of anglers competing for more than $200,000 in prizes. Tickets are $50 at certain businesses, online at icefishing.org and on the ice the day of the contest.
After unseasonably warm temperatures, freezing rain and a thick layer of insulative snow covered area lakes and postponed the ice fishing season, now people are eyeing Saturday's forecast for the contest. According to the National Weather Service in Duluth, that forecast calls for mostly cloudy skies and a high near 32 degrees.
Crow Wing County Sheriff Scott Goddard performed the annual ice check, finding as much as 18 inches of ice, only 1/2 inch of which was cloudy, questionable ice.
"The unique part about Gull this year is we had cold weather about deer hunting season. It warmed back up and we had some lakes that froze at that time and some never thawed," Goddard said. "Gull was unique because on this chunk where the contest is, it's been one continuous freeze with really no water on top. With area lakes around here it was a different story."
This finding did not change the sheriff's opinion on the majority of local lakes.
"We are cautioning people that good, solid ice is here and we are comfortable saying the permit will be issued. But for those unfamiliar with our area, even surrounding lakes, the ice quality is going to differ from location to location and lake to lake," Goddard said.
Even so, the news couldn't be much better for contest organizers.
"We feel great and we're ready to go fishing," said contest chair Jeff Baillif. "We're ready for 10,000 of our best friends to come up and have a great time with us Jan. 25."
Baillif said he and contest organizers were feeling somewhat nervous leading up to the event.
"That's no different from a lot of years," Baillif said. "Some years it can be weeks before the contest and the ice is fantastic and there is a decision made pretty much at that time. We still wait to do an official ice check the week and and a half before the contest. Then there's other years like this year where it can be a nail biter. You don't know what the weather is going to do, if it's going to make enough ice by the time we do ice checks. It ends up being a waiting game."
Unlike some lakes, Gull Lake did not yet have ice when snow first fell this year; otherwise the contest may have been outright cancelled.
"Had Gull Lake been frozen over when we had that Thanksgiving storm, we probably would be in the same boat as the rest of these lakes," Baillif said. "It's a little bit of a blessing that it wasn't frozen over. Had that happened it would probably be questionable if we'd be having a contest this year let alone a postponement."
Baillif said he had begun feeling more confident about the ice conditions approximately a week ahead of the official ice check, as he and other organizers had been monitoring thickness and weather forecasts. He said around that time he felt the event would avoid postponement, which happened in both 2012 and 2016. While postponement allows the group to still hold the contest, Baillif said it can cut into the estimated $1.1 million in impact the event has on the local economy each year.
"That dramatically decreases on postponement," Baillif said. "It's a consideration we have to take in mind, but it's always the second in line as far as considerations. Safety is always the main priority."
Like Goddard, Baillif said people should still be wary of other lakes.
"Going back to some of the warnings put out by the Crow Wing County and Cass County sheriff's offices," Baillif said. "They aren't wrong by any means. By and large there are a lot of lakes in the area that aren't in great shape."
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.