Miracle On Ice

Have you ever seen a 13,000-angler ice fishing party?

Balmy temperatures topping 30 degrees and an incredible array of prizes valued at nearly $200,000 lured a record-setting field estimated at more than 13,000 anglers onto Hole-in-the-Day Bay on Minnesota’s famed Gull Lake last Saturday for the Brainerd Jaycees 25th Annual Ice Fishing Extravaganza.

Spanning two square miles and dotted with 20,000 holes pre-drilled the day before, the event drew contestants from around the world.

Extravaganza veteran Steven Baumgartner of Owatonna, Minnesota, pulled off a last-minute miracle to vault from zero to hero and claim victory. Baumgartner, who said he’s fished the charitable event more than 10 seasons without weighing a fish, shifted from a fruitless deep-water walleye attack to ply the shallows for northern pike with a mere 15 minutes remaining in the contest, which ran from noon to 3 p.m.

“I had been fishing in 26 feet, but cloud cover and lack of other anglers fishing shallow water encouraged me to try a hole in six feet of water,” he reported. Baumgartner had barely slipped a shiner minnow rigged on a pink hook with a glow bead attractor into the icy water when a feisty pike took the bait.

“It hit like a ton of bricks,” he recalled. He quickly wrestled the fish onto the ice and made a mad dash for the weigh-in tent before time ran out. As he raced toward the scale, thousands of fellow contestants cheered him on. A 3.67-pound walleye caught by Anthony Welch of St. Paul had paced the pack since the early minutes of the event, but everyone in Baumgartner’s wake knew the girthy pike threatened to topple the leader.

Exhausted and emotional, Baumgartner made it to the scale in the nick of time. Officials put the pike’s weight at 6.73 pounds and minutes later whisked Baumgartner onstage to claim the crown in front of a roaring crowd. His last-ditch heroics were rewarded with his choice of a brand-new Ford or GMC pickup. Baumgartner opted for the latter, explaining diplomatically, “I know Ford makes the best truck in America, but I think GMCs ride a little nicer.”

Everything at the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza is larger than life, including the line of anglers waiting to weigh in their fish.

Welch slipped to second, while Brandon Freudenrich of Little Falls, Minnesota, landed in third with a 2.88-pound walleye. Tournament officials said approximately 1,000 fish crossed the scales, including perch, pike, walleyes, tullibees and rock bass.

Prizes were awarded out to 150th place, which was claimed by Tony Miller of Litchfield, Minnesota, for a .57-pound walleye, and included an Arctic Cat Prowler 550 XT and Ice Castle wheelhouse. Lindy Fishing Tackle offered a Big Fish Bounty worth $3,000 in cash if the 25th-place finisher had a Lindy Perch Talker in their possession. As Michele Sullivan of Coon Rapids, Minnesota, took the stage to accept 25th place for her 1.64-pound walleye, she claimed the cash by proudly displaying the lucky lure.

Pulling off a tournament of such epic proportions is no easy matter. Site set-up alone takes two days, and the entire event collectively requires more than 50,000 hours of volunteer service, fueled largely by the 150-member Brainerd Jaycees. Logistics also include a fleet of shuttle buses, traffic control courtesy of state and local law enforcement, plus critical emergency service providers. To the delight of many contestants, media coverage was engendered by a squadron of camera-toting aerial drones buzzing overhead, along with a full-size helicopter patrolling the perimeter.

“It’s well worth the effort,” says 2015 event chair Sarah Stenerson. “The Jaycees are proud to have raised over $3 million for local charities since 1991.” Beneficiaries include more than 40 causes including Confidence Learning Center, a year-round facility dedicated to engaging people with developmental disabilities.

Related video: Ice Fishing Reel Management

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