Inside the largest ice fishing tournament in Minnesota

The tournament only lasts one afternoon, but for hundreds of local volunteers, it takes all year long to put together.
Posted at 9:21 PM, Feb 02, 2023

On frozen Gull Lake in central Minnesota, a group of volunteers have one afternoon to achieve one massive goal — drilling 15,000 fishing holes through ice nearly two feet thick. 

"I think it's about 20-24 inches," said a volunteer.

The next morning, 12,000 fishers descend on the lake, laying claim to what they believe are the best holes to compete in the super bowl of ice fishing. 

Stephen Douangpangna is a contestant in the competition. 

SCRIPPS NEWS' BEN SCHAMISSO: How hopeful are you there's a fish in here? 

STEPHEN DOUANGPANGNA: Not too much, but good. As long as I have a good time, it'll be good.

It’s around zero degrees, but Minnesotans know a thing or two about staying warm.  

Contestants have three hours to reel in the largest fish possible. Scripps News spoke to some contestants who say they are feeling optimistic about catching something big. 

When someone does make a catch, it’s a rush to bring it alive to the weigh-in tent. 

After volunteers record the fish's weight, they release as many as possible back into the lake. 

The tournament only lasts one afternoon, but for hundreds of local volunteers it takes all year long to put it together. 

Tad Johnson is the chairman of this year’s Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza 2023.

"Having them all show up and just work their butts off to make this happen. It's really humbling," Johnson said.  

The annual event, which started in 1991, is entirely run by volunteers. 

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"In my volunteer life and my community service life, this is by far the biggest thing I've ever done," Johnson said. 

At 6am the day before the competition, Johnson and other leaders meet up for breakfast ahead of a long day of prep work on the ice.  

"We got a bunch of snow fences up. Heaters are in tents. I mean, things are looking good out there. Let's go out there and kick some butt," he said. 

SCHAMISSO: Why do you guys do this? Why do you spend all this free time doing this?

TAD JOHNSON: That's a good question I ask myself sometimes. It’s about the community, right? All the proceeds of this contest go back to non-profits. We've donated over $4 million since this contest started.

It’s not only charities that benefit from the tournament. 

Organizers say in one weekend it brings in over a million dollars to the local economy — a godsend for local small businesses. 

"It's our busiest time and doubles anything else we have in the wintertime," said Sherry Wicktorl, the owner of S&W Bait and Tackle.

Back at the tournament, fishers of all ages are walking off the ice waiting to know who won it all.  

On the main stage, there's a final and ironic surprise. The big winner taking home a brand-new pick-up truck is only 13 years old.  

Zac Padrnos won the day thanks to a catch of a lifetime: a 9.45 pound walleye. 

And for everyone else, as the saying goes: "there’s no such thing as a bad day when you’re fishing."