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Extravaganza brings out the spirit of brotherhood

On the frigid surface of Hole-in-the-day Bay, among thousands of anglers huddled over holes in the ice, thoughts of southern India and its tropical climate might seem unfathomable.

Thousands of anglers gather on Hole-in-the-day Bay on Gull Lake Saturday for the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice-fishing Extravaganza. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video
Thousands of anglers gather on Hole-in-the-day Bay on Gull Lake Saturday for the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice-fishing Extravaganza. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video
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On the frigid surface of Hole-in-the-day Bay, among thousands of anglers huddled over holes in the ice, thoughts of southern India and its tropical climate might seem unfathomable.

But for Amber Alam, a native of Bangalore, India, the first time he laid eyes on the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice-fishing Extravaganza it was a sight he couldn't fathom himself. Nothing had prepared him for the experience.

"This is a crazy cool thing for me because a place where I come from, in Bangalore, we don't even get close to this-there's no snow, nothing. My first thought is 'This is amazing!'" Alam said. "I would have never imagined something like this on a frozen lake."

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But, it was an experience he returned for a second time. Alam was among more than 12,000 anglers who took part in Saturday's ice-fishing contest on Gull Lake-an event that drew attention from national and international media outlets, reeled in nearly 900 fish and raised more than $200,000 for 57 charities across the nation.

Around this time of year, temperatures in the city of Bangalore peak around the mid-80s during the day.

In contrast, Gull Lake's smooth, snow-dusted surface, featuring no obstructions and a strong gust, left visitors in a chill. The thermometer may have registered 20 degrees, but felt like 1 or 2 degrees in the howling, open expanse.

It was, Alam said, the coldest temperatures he had "survived" for five or six hours. A lesson learned from last year, he said he clambered onto the ice Saturday wearing about six or seven layers and that made the difference.

Alam said the most interesting aspect of the Ice-fishing Extravaganza-aside from the sight of 12,000 anglers congregated on a lake amidst freezing temperatures-is the strong sense of community, of which the contest serves as a celebration of brotherhood. He was the newcomer among a group of friends whose ties stretch back to college, when they graduated in 1970 together.

One of these friends, Dave Levine, works with Alam for United Health Optum. After attending a conference together, he invited Alam to the contest in 2017. Alam returned for 2018 and he credited bonds of friendship as the highlight of his visit.

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That, Levine said, makes perfect sense-even if the group hasn't made a splash in the rankings during all the contests they've attended.

"We haven't had any good luck. We haven't got on the (leader) board in the 10 or 12 years we've been coming," Levine said, smiling easily. "But, it's more of an excuse to get together for dinner and drinks, fellowship."

Coon Rapids resident Chad Johnson along with his group of friends-spontaneously christened the "Bobber's Up, Bottles Down" group-bantered around a makeshift flagpole, a black skull-and-crossbones banner flapping grimly on the top. He said they were out with the aim of catching tullibee-though, he emphasized, the main focus was having fun, relaxing and enjoying the camaraderie.

"If we get something, we get something," Johnson said, giving a shrug. "If we don't? We've contributed to the community."

Alongside Johnson was Pat Zerwas, a resident of Brainerd and the owner of Paddle Anglers, a kayak fishing service. Zerwas said that the packed nature of the contest, ironically, makes it difficult to have a truly competitive event. Instead, it's better to treat it as a gathering for friends, as if often the case for anglers on the ice.

"You're kind of trapped where you are. When there's no competition going on and the lake's open, if you're not catching anything you can just move on," Zerwas said. "Right now we're in 55 feet. If you're not reading any fish here, you can go 20 feet. When you're stuck in one area it limits your choices. There about 10,000 people on the ice, every hole is pretty much picked over."

That isn't to say everyone went home without a winner. Stephan and Ivan Lyogky, a father-son duo from Hartville, Ohio, took home the grand prize and third place respectively-they caught large northern pike (weighed at 3.10 pounds and 2.89 pounds), despite coming to the lake to catch walleye.

Ivan Lyogky said the event represents a gathering for the family, with cousins and uncles fishing alongside the father and son. Ice fishing has been a Lyogky staple for generations, a pastime Ivan's father shared with him when he lived as a child in Ukraine.

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"When I was raised in Ukraine, my father took me as little boy and we ice fished every day," Ivan Lyogky said. "That's how I fell in love with that."

Hugh Clarke, a Lincoln, Neb., native, won the "catch of the day" with a 2.47-pound walleye and was awarded an Ice Castle fish house-the prize for a competition that requires an extra tag to participate, he noted, which is why his catch won over a larger walleye belonging to an untagged owner.

Clarke caught his walleye on the western side of the fishing site, using a spoon with a minnow head at a depth of about 64 feet.

"Yeah, I knew that the minute that I had him that I had a nice fish," Clarke said. "It was obvious to me that it wasn't a perch, it was a top gunner. I'm very happy. I knew from previous years that I'd be on the leaderboard, I never expected to be top five or top 10. Patience and time, it paid off to win something."

According to a press release, the 28th annual Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice-fishing Extravaganza was one of the largest in the event's history-the result of 20,000 hours of labor by 500 volunteers from the area.

The contest is the largest charitable ice-fishing event in the world, accruing more than $3.5 million for philanthropic causes since its inception in 1991. Next year's contest is scheduled for Jan. 26, 2019.

Related Topics: GULL LAKE
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