The largest ice fishing tournament in the state will go on this month, but in a different way.
The Brainerd Jaycees sponsors the largest ice fishing tournament known as the $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay on Gull Lake north of Brainerd. In late November, the Jaycees announced, due to COVID-19, the tournament will be a virtual event in 2021.
Since the contest began in the early 1990s, it has raised more than $1 million in revenue for area businesses and more than $150,000 annually for area charities, according to the contest website.
So what does a virtual ice fishing tournament look like? How can the Jaycees make sure no one cheats in a virtual contest? And how was the decision to go virtual made?
As the Jaycees worked with the state on the COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines, their number one concern was safety for all involved — the anglers, the vendors, the volunteers, emergency responders and the Jaycees. In the end, the Jaycees made the difficult decision to go to a virtual format.
Benji Thoennes, the 2021 Ice Fishing Extravaganza Chair, and Jon Hansen, fisheries program consultant with the Minnesota DNR in St. Paul, took some time this week to answer questions and offered more details on the virtual event.
Background leading to decision
For any ice fishing tournament in the state, organizers must apply for a permit with the DNR if they plan on having more than 150 participants. As the pandemic hit across the state and the nation, DNR officials adjusted some of their restrictions, starting with open water fishing tournaments in the spring. As winter hit and the lakes froze over, ice fishing tournaments proved to be a whole other ball game, as the tournaments can create a tiny city on the ice.
“We knew it was gonna be kind of complicated for these ice fishing events,” Hansen said. “They’re huge ... like thousands, if not 10,000-plus people coming together. I mean, the Brainerd Jaycees’ one is really unique and it is giant so we knew that given we're in a pandemic that creates complications. We didn't know what we were going to do but we certainly knew we needed to engage with some of the organizers early just to get a sense of how do you run these, what are the things we need to figure out and what are the pinch points, so we can figure out some best practices.”
Hansen said the DNR worked with organizers who ran the bigger ice fishing tournaments in the state, which included contests on Gull Lake and the Fishing For Ducks on Mille Lacs Lake. As of Wednesday, Jan. 6, organizers with the Fishing For Ducks stated once they have a plan in place it would be updated on its website at fishingforducks.org/.
There are between 80-100 ice fishing tournaments in the state, Hansen said.
The DNR had to follow two guidance documents from the state when issuing an ice fishing tournament permit: the outdoor recreation document, which covers tournaments that do not cordon off fishing areas with controlled entrances and exits; and the guidance for entertainment and meeting venues, which covers tournaments that cordon off fishing areas.
Under the state guidelines, ice fishing tournaments are considered an outdoor, non-seated venue as well as outdoor recreational facilities. Guidelines include limiting social gatherings, requiring people to wear masks and face coverings and urging people who are at a higher risk of a severe illness to stay home. It also means the capacity of the venue can be no greater than 25% and not exceed 100 people. Venues also cannot be divided into multiple areas that result in more than 100 people.
Hansen said he knows the state restrictions are frustrating to people organizing events, as venues were restricted to a maximum of 250 people for a time and then limited to 100 people at a time. He said when you count all the people who attend an ice fishing tournament, you have to count all the anglers, the spectators, the vendors and the volunteers. That adds up to a lot of people.
“I don’t want to paint this in a positive way because really it’s a massive bummer things are the way they are,” Hansen said. “So many tournaments either had to cancel their event or totally adjust what they’ve been doing. Working with the (Jaycees) was really great communicationwise. At the end of the day it was like none of us knew what was coming and we still don’t know as there is still a lot of uncertainty, which is challenging.”
Hansen said the tournaments that have 150 people or less and don’t need a permit but still have to practice and follow the Minnesota State Department of Health’s COVID-19 restrictions.
For tournaments with more than 150 participants, Hansen said the DNR is not issuing any ice fishing permits, so organizers, such as the Brainerd Jaycees had to think outside the box.
Brainerd Jaycees stance
“It was a tough decision because we either had to start putting some work into it and figure out how to hold the tournament or throw up the white flag,” Thoennes said. “And we didn’t want to cancel it so we put our minds and our resources together and we came up with what we have now and I can tell you that it was a roller coaster ride.”
Thoennes said having newer and older members work together and offer ideas was fun to see as that is what the Brainerd Jaycees are about — a nonprofit leadership organization engaged in making an impact in the Brainerd lakes area. The Jaycees determined that due to the ongoing pandemic the most responsible choice is to continue the tradition of the Extravaganza, but host it virtually.
The 2021 contest
The 2021 virtual Ice Fishing Extravaganza is scheduled from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30. Anglers will be able to fish on any body of water in the state of Minnesota.
“You can fish inside your fish house, you can fish outside your fish house or a pop-up or just kick it old school and sit on a bucket,” Thoennes said, which is different from the traditional tournament where no fish houses or shelters were allowed inside the tournament perimeter.
Anglers can catch and register six species of fish for the tournament — northern, walleye, tullibee, crappies, perch and sunfish. This year, the tournament is basing the fish off their length, not weight.
Anglers have to download the FishDonkey app at fishdonkey.com/extravaganza and sign up for the contest through the FishDonkey platform.
Thoennes said once an angler catches a fish during the contest time, they go on the FishDonkey app and register the fish using a bump board, which is a device made out of wood, plastic or metal that measures the fish. The fish has to be alive. Anglers must take the fish they just caught and, through the app, will have to take the live photo and video. Photos cannot be downloaded into the app.
The Jaycees will place the top 500 fish on a prize board. The Jaycees scattered the 150 prizes the tournament typically hands out throughout the 500 spots, which means about every third spot will receive a prize.
Traditionally the biggest prize in the tournament has always been a truck.
“The neat thing that we did to prevent any cheating or any backlash is we took the truck and moved it to the middle of the pack,” Thoennes said. “So the biggest fish will not win the truck. We put the truck way down in the lower spots. We also put the Ice Castle (another big prize) that's usually in, I think, 100th place and put that in the 500th place. So I mean, if a group of guys think they can go catch a big northern and keep it overnight or two days or whatever and then register it thinking they're gonna win a truck — good luck with that because all the prizes are so scattered right now.”
Thoennes said the tournament will be live on the app and he may also do a Facebook Live video to keep some of the traditions alive, such as the countdown to start the contest. He’s hoping they’ll be able to fire a cannon or fireworks to kick off the start of the contest.
If people have already purchased a printed ticket, they’ll have to convert it to a FishDonkey registration to participate, by going to the website at icefishing.org. If the person does not want to attend this year they can turn their ticket in for a ticket for the 2022 contest. There are no refunds.
More details on tickets and the rules of the virtual tournament can be found at icefishing.org.
The Jaycees also will continue to sell raffles and do the Catch of the Day contest.
The Jaycees struggled as they knew that by not having a live contest on Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay it would negatively impact the local economy. Thoennes said they tossed around some ideas of having people fish lakes in Crow Wing County, but were not able to do this as it would promote large social gatherings and traveling throughout the state, which is against state guidelines.
Since the Jaycees made the announcement to go virtual, members received a mix of emotions from people. Thoennes said some people were upset as the tournament weekend was always their “boys’ fishing weekend” getaway and others were excited as they were able to fish anywhere in the state and could use a shelter and bring their entire family out to fish the tournament.
“We got a lot more positive than negative comments.” Thoennes. “We know we can’t please everybody in the state.”
Thoennes said as of this week, the Jaycees are close to where they want to be for ticket sales, but obviously want to see as many tickets sold as possible. Money raised from the contest goes back to charities and nonprofits in the lakes area.
“We know that they have been struggling, like everybody else has been struggling this year, so we want to make sure that we can keep those organizations afloat.”