The annual Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Hole-in-the-Day Bay of Gull Lake in Nisswa is a great time for friends and family to bundle up with thousands of other anglers to try their luck at catching fish with hopes of winning one of 150 prizes, if not THE prize - a new pickup truck.
But this event means so much more to the lakes area.
"The money donated has a significant economic impact in the area," said Tad Johnson, chair of the Brainerd Jaycees board of directors.
Between 7,000-10,000 anglers from across Minnesota, the nation and the world converge on the lakes area for the event each winter, spending more than $1 million at local businesses, said Johnson and his sister and fellow Jaycee, Angie Nelson, who is chair of the 2016 extravaganza.
Those anglers - 76 percent of whom travel more than 60 miles to the contest - stay at area hotels and resorts, eat at local restaurants and bars and spend money at gas stations, sporting goods stores, bait and tackle shops, retail stores and other venues.
"I always call it the Black Friday for bait shops," Nelson said, noting the impact stretches from bait shops in Garrison to Brainerd and Nisswa.
Of course, other benefactors are the charities who receive donations, which totaled $186,618 in 2015.
When the event was first held in 1991, the goal was to create an economic impact in a tourist area during a down time - winter, Johnson and Nelson said. Organizers wrote their ideas on the back of a case of beer, noting the need to find a charitable organization to be the primary beneficiary.
That organization is Confidence Learning Center (Camp Confidence) on Sylvan Lake in East Gull Lake, a year-round outdoor center for people of all ages with developmental disabilities that has received $2.3 million in extravaganza proceeds. Those funds helped Confidence Learning Center grow to become a year-round facility, with the extravaganza funding 1,200 camper days a year.
"That's significant," Nelson said.
Confidence Learning Center isn't the sole recipient of the $3.3 million raised since 1991. In 2015, the extravaganza donated that $186,000 to 56 different charities, ranging from Boy Scouts and service organizations to senior citizen groups and church activities.
"Most years we give to all charities who submit an application," Nelson said.
The event is definitely weather-related. It's always planned for late January now, in hopes of ensuring good ice on Hole-in-the-Day Bay. With this year's extended warm winter, however, even the original date of Jan. 23 was too early. A January cold snap wasn't enough to make consistent ice on area lakes, so the event was postponed two weeks to Feb. 6.
"Bad" years for the extravaganza were 2002, the only year the event was moved to Round Lake because of ice conditions, and 2012, when the event was postponed three weeks for solid ice conditions.
Funds raised dropped by more than half in 2002, to $97,000, compared to $205,000 raised the year before and after. In 2012, money raised dropped to $100,000. The fundraiser has fluctuated from a low of $10,174 raised in 1994 to a record high $252,660 in 2004. With the help of warm weather, 2015 saw a record number of anglers at 13,600, with another 2,000 spectators on the ice.
Many charitable organizations that receive funds also help on the ice on tournament day.
"Charities range from Boy Scouts who help pick up garbage to seniors who ride shuttle buses and give instructions to everyone in between," Johnson said.
The event calls for 400 volunteers - and 50,000 volunteer hours over nine months to plan and execute the event -and the Jaycees only total 60.
"So we need volunteers," Nelson said. "Everyone knows the extravaganza. A lot don't know it's organized by volunteers. No one gets paid.
"It's a great partnership among the whole Brainerd lakes area," she added, from volunteers to local support for prizes.
Johnson said it costs $1 million to put on the event, and every penny is spent locally.
The extravaganza has also had a large impact on the ice fishing industry as a whole.
"We've shown that fishing contests are viable and ice fishing is very accessible to people. Any time we can get more sportsmen involved is a win, win, win," Johnson said, noting that in 1991 the Brainerd Jaycees contest was the only ice fishing contest around, and now they are everywhere.
Johnson said the ice fishing extravaganza has become the backbone of the local Jaycees group. State and national Jaycees organizations seek out Brainerd Jaycees members for their leadership,
"We're proud of that," he said.
The Jaycees organization is open to people ages 18-40 who want to develop leadership skills.
"The extravaganza contest site is looking good for the Feb. 6 event," contest chair Angie Nelson said in an email Tuesday, Jan. 26. "All participants should be aware that vehicle traffic is highly discouraged near Hole-in the-Day-Bay on Gull Lake."