It appears it will take more than one of the warmest winters on record to halt two of Minnesota's most popular ice fishing contests.
The Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza and Walker's International Eelpout Festival, fixtures on the winter calendar for 12 and 23 years respectively, will go ahead as planned. The Brainerd contest was on life support as little as a week ago, but the recent cold snap has thickened the ice on Gull Lake and allowed the contest to return to Hole-in-the-Day Bay, where 15 to 19 inches of ice was found this past week. The contest was moved to North Long Lake on Jan. 10 and postponed Jan. 16 when the ice on North Long was determined to be unsafe.
"Logistically, it's just easier for us to do it on Gull," tournament organizer Bob Slaybaugh said. "MnDOT has requirements for road frontage and lake approaches and the area around Hole-in-the-Day Bay is safer than North Long."
Ticket sales are on pace to top 11,000, Slaybaugh said. Last year the contest drew a record 12,897. Tickets are $40 and available at most area bait and tackle shops. Hole drillers are needed. Volunteers with augers can get a free ticket in exchange for drilling holes. Call (800) 950-9461.
Slaybaugh predicts the contest postponement ultimately will be good for Brainerd.
"A lot of people came here (the weekend of Jan. 19-20) anyway. They had a blast and re-booked to come back, so Brainerd will get a double hit economically. Winter is a dull time for a lot of folks and they're waiting for this to happen."
Indeed, the winter lull and its impact on northern Minnesota's economy led to the creation of the International Eelpout Festival, according to founder Ken Bresley.
"That first winter in business I asked myself 'Where did I go wrong?' " said Bresley, who opened a tackle shop in downtown Walker in 1978. "I figured there had to be something we could do to drum up some business. Then one night I was ice fishing with some fellas from Walker and caught an eelpout. I didn't know what it was. They said kick it back down the hole. I said it must have some use. They said nope, just kick it back down the hole. So I did, but the more I thought about it the more I realized we could have some fun with this. We tossed some ideas around and eventually decided an eelpout fishing contest would let folks down in the Twin Cities know we're still alive up here. It's funny how many people take it seriously today. If you can get people to take an eelpout contest seriously, you've got a winner."
This year's contest is Feb. 15-17 from noon on Friday to noon on Sunday. It runs all hours between those times. Prize money totals $25,000. Past festivals have drawn as many as 10,000, but this year's attendance is expected to be about 5,000 due to fears of bad ice, Bresley said. "Folks should know there's nothing to worry about, the ice is plenty thick," he said.
All of Leech Lake is open to anglers but most of the action happens in Walker Bay and Walker City Park, where the weigh-in tent is located.
"This is a serious contest but we allow people to have a glass of sherry before it begins," he added.
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