It was, in most every way, a quite unexpected day for Luke Botzek.
But at the same time, Botzek didn’t know exactly what to expect in this, his first Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza.
What he did experience took his breath away. In more ways than one.
“Let me catch my breath,” Botzek, of Foley, said after sprinting to the weigh-in station and registering his fish Saturday afternoon at the 22nd annual Extravaganza.
Botzek’s walleye, caught a little over an hour into the contest, weighed in at 6.37 pounds.
“Hopefully this will place me pretty high on the leaderboard,” he said.
Indeed. No other fish came close to Botzek’s catch, giving him his unexpected victory.
He caught the fish just after 1 p.m. Saturday on the northwest side of the contest site on Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay, he said. He was fishing with five friends, all from Foley, in 63 feet of water and using a Northland Forage Minnow. The victory was worth a 2012 pickup — he hadn’t yet made up his mind on whether he would choose the Ford or the GMC.
“I didn’t expect a fish like that,” Botzek said. “It just inhaled it. I was jigging like I would for any other walleye. It took about three to four minutes (to land). It was taking drag for a while. I’m glad I chiseled a big enough hole.”
Eric McGaffey of Clearwater was a distant second with a 3.98-pound northern pike, good for an Arctic Cat 450 FT ATV. Kelly Kohl of Brainerd was the top local finisher, placing fifth with a 3.35-pound northern. Jesse Hopkins of Brainerd also finished in the top 10, placing sixth with a 3.28-pound walleye.
Bradley Cox of Monticello, also in his first Extravaganza, caught the largest perch by an angler who had purchased a $5 perch stamp, and his three-quarter pound perch was worth a new Crestliner boat.
“I’ll be dancing all the way home,” Cox said.
Denise Yeager of St. Cloud won an Ice Castle fish house for finishing 100th, landing a .51-pound perch on a tip-up.
“This is exactly what I wanted to get my husband, Thom, for his birthday yesterday (Friday),” Yeager said.
The first fish was weighed at 12:02 p.m. and 764 fish were registered in the three-hour contest, hailed as the largest charitable ice fishing tournament in the world. The largest beneficiary is Confidence Learning Center, an outdoor recreational facility for people with developmental disabilities, but an estimated 50 charities benefit from the proceeds of the event. The Brainerd Jaycees have donated $2.7 million to charities since the Extravaganza was first held in 1991.
Saturday’s tournament was postponed from Jan. 21 due to poor ice conditions on Gull Lake. But when volunteers drilled the holes for the contest — 19,571 of them, according to Mary Devine of the Jaycees — they found 22 to 26 inches of ice, Devine said. The temperature at noon — when the contest kicked off — was 5 degrees, but with a brisk wind, the wind chill was in the 20-below range.
This marked the 10-year anniversary of the only other time the tournament was postponed, when it also was pushed back three weeks. Whether it was the postponement, concerns about ice or Saturday’s chilly temps, numbers appeared down slightly — the Jaycees estimated the crowd at about 8,000; the event typically draws about 10,000 participants. When asked if it was what he expected in his first Extravaganza, Botzek shook his head, as if still in disbelief.
“It’s a good experience for anyone who wants to come up here,” he said. “You have to experience it to know what it’s like.”