Brainerd’s Ice Fishing Extravaganza attracts anglers as far as the eye can see.
All photos by Ackerman + Gruber
At January’s tail end, a veritable army of anglers with icy veins will swarm the friendly confines of Brainerd for the largest charitable ice fishing tournament in the world. This is the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza, and it draws enough contestants and onlookers to effectively double the north-central Minnesota town’s population of 13,000 or so.
Dominating the northern portion of Brainerd’s sizable Gull Lake, the Extravaganza’s 700-some volunteers drill thousands of fishing holes. Then, when the cannon sounds at noon, it’s off to the races. Catch the biggest fish and win a GMC or Ford truck.
“I’ve always wanted to be a fish down there, just to see what this looks like the moment it starts and 10,000 lines go down at one time,” jokes Extravaganza chairperson Clint Meyer.
A Jaycee since 2006, Meyer is in his final year as the event’s chairperson before he ages out of the 40-and-under Jaycees next year. In addition to his full-time gig as a CNC programmer, the Brainerd native spends up to 35 volunteer hours each week on Jaycees duty. He estimates that more than 50,000 volunteer hours will be tallied by the time the last sled leaves the ice. For their efforts, the Extravaganza will donate at least $150,000 to more than 50 charitable causes, while bringing in $1 million to the Brainerd business community.
“It’s kind of a carnival atmosphere,” Meyer says, adding that many downtown business owners now count on the yearly bustle to boost sales.
The word on the ice (backed up by Meyer) is that the Extravaganza was founded by a few Jaycee fishermen after one long day in the ice house in 1990. The crew were scheming up a way to attract tourists to the Brainerd lakes area during the desolate winter months, and they scratched out their plans on the side of an empty beer case. A nearby nonprofit, the outdoors leadership-focused Camp Confidence, became the primary beneficiary of their tournament, and the rest is history.
Meyer and his Jaycees cohort have been the subject of occasional national news coverage since those early days, but two major events surrounding last year’s Extravaganza drew far more cameras. The first was Super Bowl LII, and with it, an influx of outfits like Vice News looking for a slice of north-woods culture. The second was a cheating scandal.
Occasional grousing about leaderboard standings over the years notwithstanding, 2018 marked the first time that the Jaycees had to put a real controversy to bed. Ohio residents Stephan, Ivan, and Rostik Lyogky traveled to the tournament for the first time this past year and finished in the first, third, and 98th place, respectively. This didn’t sit right with the locals. Following accusations of misconduct, the Lyogkys were required to take a polygraph exam to prove their innocence—and they passed. (Hey, with a new pickup truck on the line, anything’s possible.)
A fresh catch gets judged.
“It turned out that everything was on the up-and-up with that,” Meyer says. “The judges that we had placed on the ice, they made the right call, and even though a few people thought they were cheating, we did the necessary precautions and everything was all good.”
Shortly after, an op-ed in the Brainerd Dispatch read, “We need to accept the conclusion and not dwell on the result because doing so only hurts the main purpose of the Extravaganza, which is helping out area charities that benefit from event.”
Meyer adds that the Lyogkys are welcome back for this year’s Extravaganza—if they choose to return. At the end of the day, good-natured spirit is exactly what has made the Extravaganza such a success.
“It’s just anglers trying to help raise money for a great cause,” he says. “The community backed us, as it always has, and helped out as much as they could, and everything came out perfect.”
The $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza is Saturday, January 26, on Gull Lake near Brainerd. More events and details at icefishing.org