While the 2021 Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza is done, it is not yet in the books as organizers undergo an intensive process to verify the results of the competition’s first virtual event.
In its 31st year, the Ice Fishing Extravaganza — the internationally-renowned and world’s large charitable ice fishing tournament traditionally hosted on Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay — had to go virtual with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging across the country. Organizers opted to run the tournament statewide through an app, FishDonkey, which enabled over 4,700 anglers across Minnesota to take part in the event from 12-3 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 30.
“Given all the changes and the hurdles and everything we overcame, it actually turned out better than we were hoping,” said Tad Johnson, one of the Jacyees and a judge of the event, via phone Sunday evening. “We were really nervous. We only had 2,000 people signed up three weeks before the tournament. So we were like, ‘Oh no,’ so to have over double the amount of participants in the last couple weeks? People jumped on. They joined us for the virtual event. We were really happy it worked out.”
The results of the virtual tournament — most notably, the various prize winners and catches garnering places on the 500-spot leaderboard — were still being verified as of Sunday evening, Johnson said, as the Jaycees toiled into the night to authenticate, verify, and tabulate more than 10,500 photos submitted of 4,198 fish measured for competition. Johnson said judges will continue to work until they can finalize results, which will be released to the public once winners are notified.
Participants in the tournament — both online and in-person on Gull Lake — said they were happy with the event, but also expressed frustration with the app. It was touch and go sometimes, they said, with a propensity to lag, which was complicated all the more when anglers experienced low cellular reception.
Johnson echoed these sentiments and said the app was overloaded in the initial stages of the competition, but said the fact that each photo was time-stamped when it was taken meant these delays had no bearing on the outcome of the tournament.
“The first 30 minutes of the tournament was where it was slow. The technology was running slow, the app servers for the app were running slow, but we tried to communicate that all fish that were taken, photos were received on a consistent schedule, even if it didn't get uploaded until later in the day.”
“Then after that first bit, it ran pretty well,” Johnson added. “We were really, really happy with how the FishDonkey app worked. They were a good partner. We're really thankful they were able to tweak it to fit our style of a contest.”
One concern going into the 31st iteration of the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza was cheating — or tomfoolery, as the organizers describe it — and how organizers could ensure the results were legitimate during a virtual event when judges couldn’t view the fish in person for themselves.
In response, the Jaycees decided all fish would be entered in by length and not weight. This required all contestants to buy a bump board (ruler to measure fish), or a tape measure as an acceptable alternative. Each contestant was required to take photos with their fish, ticket and measurer. The app would not allow people to upload photos from a photo gallery. Instead, photos would only be accepted when taken within the web application that automatically time- and date-stamped the photo.
In turn, Johnson noted, each photo would have to be examined by judges to determine the fish was viable for competition. He said some fish were disqualified so far, but they were a marginal number as of Sunday evening, accounting for less than 10 submissions out of 4,198 fish throughout the day.
The success of Saturday’s tournament may mean future Ice Fishing Extravaganzas will feature a virtual component, but it’s too early to tell, Johnson said. That will be something members of the Jaycees will deliberate on in the coming months.
If there was one benefit to a tiny group on Hole-in-the-Day Bay, it’s that there’s more room and less competition from other anglers.
After eight years on the ice, Tim Feekes of South Dakota finally caught his fish on Gull Lake — although, in Feekes’ estimation, fishing always took a back seat to the unique experience of sharing the bay with friends from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and abroad, sitting among roughly 10,000 people any given year.
“It was definitely different,” Feekes said. “The normal tournament is just kind of a crapshoot, if you will, whether you're gonna catch something or not. Without that many people it was easier to actually fish … But, it’s not so much the fishing, it's just about having a good time.”
Noting there were difficulties using the tournament app, FishDonkey, Feekes said he was hoping for a wide open 2022 Ice Fishing Extravaganza like they’ve had in years past.
John Schilling of St. Paul was up for his second outing on Gull Lake and agreed that the Ice Fishing Extravaganza — with the relatively low likelihood of catching a decent fish, let alone a prize winner, during the best of years — was all about comradery and spending time with loved ones on the ice.
“It sucks that it had to be virtual, but we understand it,” Schilling said with a shrug. “It’s still fun to come out here and do it. It was nice to kick back and hang out with friends, meet new people, so I’m glad we were able to do it.”