It’s not necessarily the fishing or even the chance of winning cash and prizes that brought thousands of anglers out to Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay for the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza Saturday, Jan. 25.
“I think for me it’s the camaraderie, it’s just fun to hang out with everybody and do something in the winter with all these people,” Christine Olson said Saturday, Jan. 25, during a mild 30-degree day which fittingly greeted participants for the event’s 30th anniversary.
A group of former Brainerd Jaycees and past ice fishing contest chairs felt the same.
“This, the camaraderie,” they said in answer to what keeps them coming back year after year, while spreading out their arms to encompass all the friends in the group.
After volunteering at the tournament for years, the group of about 20 former chairs now gather under the Exhausted Rooster flag — representative of Jaycees who have aged out of the organization composed of young adults ages 18-40 — and get to sit back and enjoy the contest from another perspective — fishing.
But they still recall years past and all the changes that have come in the last 30 years, especially Bob Slaybaugh, who was there for contest No. 1 in 1991.
“The first year, when Chris Dalbeck, who’s a good friend of mine, ran around saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to put 10,000 people on the ice,’ we all thought he was nuts, but we followed him,” Slaybaugh said. “He put 5,500 people on the ice, and after that it just kept going up. And all the Jaycees just bought into it, and it’s become a leadership development thing for the Jaycees that can’t be beat. People in their own jobs don’t have the opportunity to develop themselves that do with something like this event.”
Slaybaugh and his group recalled the change in technology over the years, remembering back to when they had to update the leaderboard by hand and it took them at least 45 minutes just to figure out the winners.
Brian Lindberg, 2004 chair, spoke of how the Jaycees worked their ways up to the top spot as chair, filling many different positions on the way.
“You’d start with something small, like organizing the hole drillers … or raffles or security or sound systems,” he said. “Everybody kind of had their niche. And then you’d kind of work your way through the ranks delegating, and eventually you’d become a co-chair. And your responsibility as the co-chair was kind of just to help the chairperson out and learn.”
While the former Jaycees just enjoyed being out on the ice with their buddies, the highlight of the 2020 contest for Warren Arnold was catching an 8.29 pound eelpout to earn first place among the hundreds of entries.
It took less than half an hour after the noon start for Arnold to reel in the prize-winning fish from the outside edge of the contest area in about 8-9 feet of water with a shiner on his line.
Speaking of watching his rod as it hooked the eelpout, he said: “I saw it fall, picked it up, set it, and it was fun.”
Coming from Sauk Rapids, Arnold said he’s known about the contest for a while and just decided to try it out with a friend this year, which proved a fortunate decision for the man who has never ice fished before. As a kayak angler, Arnold said he caught his first muskie this year, his biggest pike and now on the ice, his biggest fish yet.
His prize for first place is a choice between a brand new Ford or GMC pickup. Right after the contest Arnold wasn’t sure yet on which one he’d choose. It depended on the engine, he said, noting he needs a V8 engine to pull large loads for his business, Warren’s Famous BBQ. And his current truck?
“It’s a rust bucket,” he said.
Coming in second place was Gregory Silkey of Monticello with a 3.58 pound walleye, which also earned him the Catch of the Day prize package consisting of an Ice Castle fish house, Aqua-Vu underwater camera, StrikeMaster ice auger, $500 cash, Vexilar ice fishing system and a $250 Fleet Farm gift card. For second place, he won a 2020 Polaris Sportsman All Terrain Vehicle.
Third prize went to Ryan Frane of Minneapolis, who caught a 3.07 pound walleye, earning him $1,000 cash.
Two northern pikes made it into the Top 10 and five more walleyes made it into the Top 10, with several tulibees earning other anglers prizes.
Out on the ice
Likely about 10,000 people gathered for this year’s event, from Slaybaugh, who was there 30 years ago for inaugural tournament, to 4-year-old Emma Kes, a first-timer waiting in line at the weigh-in tent, hoping her little perch would earn a prize.
Jim Thomes, a 20-year veteran and former lakes area resident, came from Albany, and he came prepared, with a portable grill and bacon-wrapped steaks.
He said he comes for “the party,” but hasn’t had much luck catching fish over the years.
First-timer Amber Bauer came back to her hometown from Cold Spring in hopes of catching the big fish and had a fun time hanging out with friends and family.
Joann Shierts and Christine Olson came north from Annandale and Scandia to meet Pequot Lakes friends Donna and Wes Wilson, bringing with them a tropical oasis of inflatable palm trees and a Santa hat-wearing flamingo yard stick.
“We thought it’d be a lot of fun to come out here and act like it’s summertime,” Shierts said, adding it was a good way to spend time outside and get some fresh air.
Michelle Hanson and 9-year-old Jeffrey Brown helped their group stand out with a 5-foot-tall snowman donning Cheez-It eyes and nose and a Love Your Melon hat, built from the slush around their holes.
“We’re embracing the slush,” Hanson said, adding they had to do something to pass the time after getting out on the ice at 8:30 a.m.
Brown was hoping for a more slush-free day so he could have fun sliding on the smooth ice, as waiting for fish takes a lot of patience.
Dave Ubl was hoping for a new truck to replace his Toyota that’s racked up 520,000 miles. He may not have been fortunate in that respect but was having a good time out on the ice with family and friends, including the three Jackson brothers, dressed as the hockey-playing Hanson brothers from the 1977 movie “Slap Shot.”
Father and son Keith and Blair McKibben, from Esko and Grand Rapids, were floored by how many people they saw gathered on the ice during their first time out at the Extravaganza.
“It’s great,” Keith McKibben said. “I’m just loving it.”
Their fishing spot stuck out from others with a tall copper rod topped off with a heart-shaped balloon. Keith said it collected rays from the fishing goddess to bring good luck to his hole.
“Copper is a very good conductor of everything, of all this beautiful Minnesota lake property,” he said.
Whether it brought him good luck or not, Keith planned to take the balloon home to his wife after the contest as an early Valentine’s Day present.
About the contest
Billed as the largest charitable ice fishing contest in the world, the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza draws thousands annually from all over and now doles out more than $200,000 in prizes, including a pickup truck, ATVs, ice houses, ice augers, cash prizes and much more.
All proceeds from the volunteer-driven event go to about 45 area charities, primarily the Confidence Learning Center, which provides outdoor activities for people with developmental and physical disabilities. Since the event began in 1991, it has raised $3.3 million for local charities.
For a full list of 2020 winners visit http://icefishing.org/leaderboard/.
For more photos, go to https://bit.ly/30UxnJE.