Ice Fishing Tournament Madness

February 9, 2009 by  

Our Outdoors
Nick Simonson

 

Below zero temperatures and wind makes it tough to run an ice fishing tournament

Below zero temperatures and wind makes it tough to run an ice fishing tournament

“I must be crazy,” I thought, huddled over the rapidly shrinking hole in the ice. The wind howled around me as I confirmed it, “yup, certifiable.” In all directions, 1,500 anglers did the same, burning heaters under their chairs at full blast, scooping their pre-punched holes and doing what they could to keep warm, keep sane, and keep their chances for a whopper at the annual ice fishing tournament alive.

The night before, the usual road crew consisting of my fiancé and our law school friends staked a claim at a central table at the American Legion in Park Rapids, MN. The TV in the corner of the bar above the old couple playing pull tabs didn’t have hockey or basketball on it; rather the big story was the arctic blast that had settled in over the region.

The weather channel gave reports of the low temperatures in New York (18º), Chicago (-4º) and points east before addressing the area lows… “bottoming out around -30º actual temperatures with deadly wind chills down to fifty below…” the hosts stated, going on and on about how crazy we were to be living in this part of the world, while they were freezing somewhere warm in Connecticut.

“Perfecto!” Tory, the electrician from the tropics of southwest Minnesota exclaimed, “That just means less competition for us on the ice.” We smiled, picturing a trailer loaded down with fish houses, four-wheelers and a pile of cash resulting from all of the less-hardy anglers’ fish that we would catch the next day.

Morning broke with clear skies, and the winds already whipping outside the window. I walked to the kitchen and met the host couple, Nick and Erika. They instructed me to look at the thermometer display on the wall.

“Why,” I asked, “is it broken?”

“It might be, I don’t think it is supposed to go that low,” Nick chuckled in response.

“Negative thirty-one, sounds nice…almost sweltering. I bet our competition just got a bit lighter,” I stated, seeing visions of new snowmobiles and ice houses in the steam of my coffee cup. .

Erika agreed the competition would not be as fierce, as she made her early-morning opt-out of the tournament.

At times when its this cold a guy wants to set down the rod and run to the truck

At times when it's this cold a guy wants to set down the rod and run to the truck

By noon, everyone was on their toes. Nick, the carpenter/pilot, took us out to his shop to cut windscreens from a cardboard treadmill box. Winds were forecast to be up to 25 miles-per-hour; high for the relatively windless Minnesota lakes country, so we would need them.

We loaded up and headed back. There would be only four. Tory’s wife also took the easy route, and a nap, avoiding the fun the next two hours would hold. Erika helped dress my fiancé in a costume fit for the younger brother in the movie A Christmas Story.

“I hope I don’t fall down,” Angie joked from beneath four layers, two scarves, a hat and her hood, “I probably won’t be able to get back up.

Tory, Nick, Angie and I arrived at the tournament spot – the main area of Fish Hook Lake just outside of Park Rapids. Just like us, everyone else played the weather card, hoping the weak and less hardy would bail on the event. Apparently, when a new truck and a half-dozen ATVs are at stake along with cash and other prizes, it’s tough to turn down those odds.

We settled in and found four holes at the edge of the field of nearly 3,000 evenly-spaced punctures in the 22-inch thick ice. Angie and I paired up on one hole, working a spring bobber and a 1/64 ounce Lindy Fat Boy rigged with spikes. It wasn’t long after the national anthem that the fish began pouring into the registration area.

The announcer rattled off the incoming weights and the fish. For 16 below, the fish seemed active. Walleyes, pike, rock bass and perch were prevalent over the intercom. I knew I could only be so lucky. I’ve fished in seven derbies from Devils Lake to Brainerd and never once had a bite. Maybe this time would be different.

I reminded Angie how to watch the spring bobber for bites, and as I instructed her, I saw the tell-tale tap of a nibble. I set the hook and rocketed a four inch-perch from the depths. Beyond surprised, I grabbed it and took off running, telling her to do what I just did, but catch a bigger one.

I arrived at the registration trailer, and to my chagrin, every perch in line was much bigger than the now-frozen four-incher I held in my hand. I went back to the spot, with little more than a personal victory and watched as Angie pulled up a six-inch perch. It wouldn’t be enough for a prize, but our reward was another two hours sitting amidst the swirling winds and the sub-zero temperatures, contemplating which body function would shut down first.

We left before the event ended; by the time we had our lines up, the ice hole had shrunk from a radius of eight inches to about three. The wind ripped our windscreens from us, and worked its way under our layers. My hands were numb, my toes were frozen, but I left with the feeling that the lady on the PA system was right.

“You’re tougher than you thought,” she said, even to those of us shuffling our way of the ice.

“Or crazier,” I mumbled under my frozen face-mask.

Strength, endurance, and sanity are all important traits for those living up in this area of the world, and even more so for ice fishing derbies (lack of sanity, perhaps more important). However, for the rest of the time spent in the deep freeze, I’ll take a good dose of cabin fever to help get me back to the first warm spring day…in our outdoors.


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