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Jaycees anticipate 3,000-10,000 anglers for virtual Ice Fishing Extravaganza

The virtual event marks only the second time in 31 years that largest charitable ice fishing competition in the world has been shifted off its home turf on Hole-in-the-Day Bay on Gull Lake.

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Thousands gather on the ice Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020, for the 30th annual Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake's Hole-in-the-Day Bay. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

With COVID-19 prompting organizers to go virtual this year, the 2021 Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza this weekend has many more unknowns than years past.

The event typically draws roughly 10,000 participants to Gull Lake every January. This winter, however, anglers can fish on their own on any lake in Minnesota on Saturday, Jan. 30, and submit their catches virtually into a web-based application, called FishDonkey, which will go live the day of the competition.

The decision has garnered its fair share of debate among anglers who are either disgruntled with the format or fine with the opportunity to fish wherever they like during the competition. How this looks to shake out in terms of participation remains to be seen, said event Chairperson Benji Thoennes.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Thoennes said during a phone interview Thursday. “I know it’s probably going to be above 3,000 (anglers participating). We’re hoping for 3,000 to 10,000, but I can’t give you an exact number as we’re still letting people register and buy tickets on the FishDonkey app.”

Previously, Thoennes noted ticket sales for the event were down slightly from this point in 2020, but because roughly 40% of all tickets are typically sold on the day of the event, it’s too early to say if there’s a substantial dip.

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FishDonkey app
The FishDonkey app, which must be downloaded for the Brainerd Jaycees' $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay near Brainerd, looks like this. Screenshot.

The six species of fish eligible for competition this year include northern pike, walleye, perch, sunfish, crappie and tullibee. During the previous 30 years of the Ice Fishing Extravaganza — 29 of them hosted on Hole-In-The-Day Bay — the largest fish by weight would win their respective categories.

To deter cheating or tomfoolery of any kind, the competition’s prizes will all be distributed at various rankings on the top 500 board. For example, the full-sized truck grand prize, which traditionally went to the winning No. 1 submission, will instead go to the 128th spot. Other large prizes, like a Polaris all-terrain vehicle and an Ice Castle fish house, are scattered about on the scale of prizes as well. Raffle tickets will also account for a number of prizes, too.

All fish will be entered in by length and not weight. This requires all contestants to buy a bump board (ruler to measure fish), or a tape measure is acceptable. Each contestant will be required to take photos with their fish, ticket and measurer. The app will not allow people to upload photos from a photo gallery. Instead, photos will only be accepted when taken within the web application that will automatically time and date stamp the photo.

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That, Thoennes said, and the fish still have to pass a good old-fashioned eyeball test under the supervision of experienced anglers.
“The Jaycees will be on laptops or computers or devices and verifying the fish pictures. So, if the fish looks sketchy or if they haven’t measured it right, we can technically deny that picture and have them retake it,” Thoennes said. “Most of us are fishermen. So we know if a fish looks a day old, if it looks dead, so we’ll be verifying pictures, and we have the full power to accept or deny any that we don’t like.”

As such, the verification process will take longer than years past, Thoennes said, which means anglers will need to be patient and allow competition judges to do their due diligence until the Ice Fishing Extravaganza runs its course.

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Thin ice?

If there was ever a year to host a virtual version of the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza, this was it — according to Sherree Wicktor, owner of S & W Bait on Highway 371 near North Long Lake, and Nic Athnos, the owner of Nic’s Works LLC tree service, who also rents fish houses and plans to fish on Gull Lake during the extravaganza.

The winter of 2020-21 has had its fair share of warm spells and strong winds, they said, and it’s been difficult for the ice to freeze, set and build depth, leaving many lakes in the area with questionable areas that may pose a risk to anglers. Thus, Wicktor said, it’s probably for the best that health mandates limit ice fishing tournaments to 250 people on the ice and that the Ice Fishing Extravaganza is virtual this year, as Hole-in-the-Day Bay might not be up to supporting roughly 10,000 people like a typical year entails.

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Thousands of anglers gather at Hole-in-the-Day Bay on Gull Lake in Brainerd, Minnesota on Jan. 22, 2011, for the 21st annual Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“They’re getting on it. They’re starting to drive some trucks on it,” Wicktor observed. “But, we would probably not have been able to host the Extravaganza this year if we didn’t go virtual. You’re going to have some people out there — it’s still going to be pretty busy this year — but 10,000 people, doing activities, hanging out on the ice? Gull didn’t freeze very well. It keeps getting broken open, so I don’t think it would work.”

Athnos echoed this assessment and added a cautionary warning of his own. Out on the ice when he spoke via phone Thursday, Athnos said he measured ice between 9 1/2 inches to roughly 16 inches in parts, but a number of slush pockets were concerning, if not outright dangerous.

“That’s the biggest thing I can tell anybody, as far as going out anywhere: Just because you see somebody out there doesn’t mean you know how they got there, or if it’s still safe to get there,” Athnos said. “Just be safe. Get out there. Catch some fish. Have fun, but get back home. Be safe.”

In terms of fishing tips, Athnos said an angler can’t go wrong by using sucker minnows for bait, but also swore by big shiners or tungsten wax worms.

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Wicktor said red hooks have been popular and successful for anglers on Gull Lake and recommended rainbow minnows with a straight line, or a glow rig if they have them available. In such an unpredictable season, she said it’s difficult to confidently give people advice one way or another, but when there’s less competition on the ice, it’s probably best to search long and hard for the right spot, settle in that area, and fish deep.

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .

FishDonkey app
The FishDonkey app, which must be downloaded for the Brainerd Jaycees' $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay near Brainerd, looks like this. Screenshot.

FishDonkey app
The FishDonkey app, which must be downloaded for the Brainerd Jaycees' $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay near Brainerd, looks like this. Screenshot.

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