Alan Wroolie, 14, sits on an upturned plastic bucket in the middle of frozen Gull Lake near Brainerd, Minn. (pop. 13,718), and drops his baited hook into a coffee can-sized hole in the 2-foot thick ice. "Just a hook and a hole," Wroolie says. "It’s about all you need to ice fish."
Every minute or so Wroolie lifts the tip of his pole up, then allows it to drop down a foot or two, hoping the movement of the bait—a large shiner minnow—attracts a fish in the deep dark water 30 feet below. Mostly, though, he just sits and waits, watching the thousands of other contestants in the world’s largest ice fishing tournament.
Last January, Wroolie and nearly 10,000 anglers paid $45 each to take part in the 15th annual Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza, a three-hour tournament in which participants endured subfreezing temperatures and bone-chilling winds for a chance to win $150,000 in cash and prizes.
"This tournament gives people who’ve never tried ice fishing a chance see how easy it is," says Bob Slaybaugh, president of the Brainerd Jaycees, who host the event and fund local charities with proceeds. "We’ve had 4-year-olds catch fish here."
Ice fishing is a popular winter pastime from Alaska to Maine, and in every state in between where freezing temperatures turn water into ice thick enough to support the weight of an angler, his gear, a shelter and maybe even his pickup truck. Depending on the location and the weather, the sport can commence as early as October and continue as late as April.
"People ice fish for the same reasons people climb the Grand Tetons or hike through the desert," Slaybaugh says. "It’s communing with nature, and nature, up North in winter, is cold."
Diehard anglers tolerate the bitter weather because fishing is a way of life in the frozen North, and hefty prizes provide an incentive to get off of the couch and wet a line at hundreds of ice fishing tournaments across the country each winter.
At the Brainerd tournament, anglers who catch the 150 heaviest fish win prizes ranging from fishing gear to a new pickup truck. Some contestants travel long distances to attend the festive event where people grill bratwursts, toss footballs and stand in line at one of the 40 food tents before a cannon fires a firework shell into the air signaling the start of the spectacular fishing contest.
"We live in Oklahoma, so we don’t do much ice fishing," says Wroolie, wearing winter boots borrowed from a cousin. "My family and I drove all the way from Konawa—it’s 908 miles—to visit relatives here and go ice fishing."
"It gives us a reason to get up North and get outdoors," says Alan’s dad, Dennis. "We’ve come here for eight years. It’s about the adventure and the camaraderie. It’s like the infield of the Indy 500, except the people are dressed warmer."
Across the ice, bride-to-be Shannon Rasch and six female friends are doing more celebrating than fishing. "I wanted a nontraditional bachelorette party, and this was it," says Rasch, 33, of Albertville, Minn., wearing green winter overalls, a large ring with a plastic diamond and a white lace veil. "Sometimes ice fishing is just a reason to force yourself to get out of the house and have some fun."
"A woman who loves ice fishing!" yells a man from nearby. "You’ll make the perfect wife!"
Ice angling and augering
"The beauty of ice fishing," says Slaybaugh, "is that you don’t need a boat to access the lake. You need a fishing license and about $10 worth of equipment."
Poles range from short cane poles to open-face spinning reels attached to an ultra-sensitive rod. Bait—minnows and worms—generally is the same as used for summer fishing, though a colored, weighted hook, which attracts more attention in the darker water, often replaces a standard one. A minnow bucket with a lid doubles as a chair.
Holes are dug with either a large steel chisel used to chop through the ice, or, more commonly, with a hand-powered or motorized auger that bores a hole with a 6- to 10-inch diameter blade.
"Once you dig a hole," Slaybaugh says, "it’s a lot like bobber fishing. You bait up a hook and try different depths. If the fish aren’t biting, you spend a few minutes hand-drilling another hole someplace else on the lake."
While gear is important, making certain that ice depth and conditions are safe for fishing is critical. Never venture on to a frozen lake unless you’ve done your homework.
"Always check with local resorts or bait shops and ask about conditions for the lake you want to fish," says Tim Smalley, a water safety specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "Nobody wants to die for a fish, no matter how nice that fish is."
Shelters, shacks and shanties
Across the Great Lakes region and beyond, some avid anglers set up shelters to stake out the same spot during the ice fishing season, forming temporary towns often larger than permanent nearby cities.
Some shacks and shanties are simple—two-by-fours and plywood nailed together for shelter from the wind. Others are more like cabins on skis, dragged onto the ice by snowmobiles or trucks and left on the lake for three months. They feature bunk beds and propane heaters and fishing holes dug through trap doors in the floor. Gasoline generators power radios and televisions.
When people talk about ice fishing, though, they are referring to the mobile, often solitary pursuit of finding and catching fish from under a layer of ice.
"People ask how I explain the appeal of ice fishing," says Slaybaugh, 39, whose first ice fishing experience came on the Mississippi River at age 7. "But I can’t explain why you’d drill a hole in the ice and sit on a bucket on a frozen lake when it’s 10 below. If you don’t do it, then you can’t fish up here for four months."
At 3 p.m., a cannon blast signals that fishing must cease on Gull Lake. A crowd gathers around the main stage, where a giant board lists the top 150 fish caught during the tournament. When the results are finalized, 24-year-old Sara Kitzman, of St. Cloud, Minn., has landed the day’s biggest fish, a 3.7-pound walleye. Kitzman—the second female and youngest winner in the event’s history—will drive home the new Ford truck.
Alan Wroolie, like thousands of others, did not get a single bite during the three-hour tournament, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
"This is a family tradition now," he says. "And I can go back and tell my friends I was walking on water. Maybe I’ll catch a big one next year. You just never know.
"You just need a hook and a hole."
Famed Ice Fishing Festivals
Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza—Brainerd, Minn. Jan. 21. They call it the "World’s Largest Ice Fishing Contest" and, with an average of 10,000 paid competitors crammed into a 1/3-mile-by-1/2-mile area, it’s hard to argue. (800) 950-9461; www.icefishing.org
Tip-Up Town USA—Houghton Lake, Mich. Jan. 20-22 and 27-29. Started in 1950, Tip-Up Town is more on-ice carnival than fishing contest, with an estimated 40,000 revelers taking part in carnival rides, ice slides, beer tents and pony rides. (800) 248-5253; www.houghtonlakechamber.org
Alexandria Ice Fishing Challenge—Alexandria, Minn. Jan. 28. An average of 4,000 people turn out for this family-friendly event. www.icefishingchallenge.org
Devils Lake Fire Department Ice Fishing Tourney—Devils Lake, N.D. Jan. 28. More than 3,500 anglers vied for $110,000 in prizes in 2005, the 21st year of this alcohol-free, family-focused event that raises money for the local volunteer fire department. (701) 662-3913; www.dlvfdicefishingtourney.com
Golden Rainbow Ice Fishing Contest—Forest Lake, Minn. Feb. 4. The contest kicks off with a slippin’-and-slidin’ shotgun start, as the 5,000-plus anglers race across the ice for the fishing hotspots. (952) 903-4903; www.forestlakeicefishing.com
International Eelpout Festival—Walker, Minn. Feb. 10-12. The eelpout—also called the spineless catfish and lawyer fish (due to its slimy skin)—has a disturbing habit of wrapping itself around the angler’s arm as its being unhooked. Events include a black-tie dinner on Leech Lake, the Eelpout Peel-out footrace, Polar Plunge, and, of course, a fishing contest, which draws 2,000 anglers and 10,000 spectators. (800) 833-1118; www.eelpoutfestival.com
Great Rotary Fishing Derby—Meredith, N.H. Feb. 11-12. An estimated 6,000 anglers compete in this statewide tournament featuring $60,000 worth of prizes. (603) 279-7600; www.meredithrotary.com
Sebago Lake Rotary Derby Fest—Windham, Maine. Feb. 25-26. An estimated 5,000 competitors catch 1,000 togue, a not-so-loved lake trout. (888) 423-3524; www.icefishingderby.com