Brainerd's ice fishing contest turns 20
BRAINERD, Minn. — It could be called the little ice fishing contest that could — and does well.
The Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza will celebrate its 20th anniversary when an estimated 10,000 anglers take to the ice on Hole-In-The-Day Bay on Gull Lake Jan. 23 to compete for nearly $200,000 in prizes.
The contest has emerged as one of the premier ice fishing competitions in the Midwest, not only putting Brainerd on the map but elevating the status of the Brainerd Jaycees within the national organization. The event has been featured in National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Field and Stream, among other magazines. Some fishing-related companies vie for an opportunity to sponsor the event each year.
The contest has raised nearly $2.5 million for about 50 local charities with $1.7 million raised for Confidence Learning Center alone in the past 20 years. It brings thousands of anglers from throughout Minnesota, many neighboring states and some as far away as South America to Brainerd in the dead of winter. They spend their money at area restaurants, hotels and other businesses in a time of year when tourism dollars are harder to come by.
The event also has molded many community leaders who started out as young Jaycees members and who now say that their lives were forever changed by their experiences in helping to organize the massive event.
But the fishing competition could have met a different fate many years ago. That first year was disastrous, a few of its original organizers recently recalled.
Chris Dalbec, who now lives in Arizona, came up with the idea of hosting an ice fishing contest while he was attending a Jaycees convention. The Brainerd Jaycees only had about 27 members. The chapter wasn't winning any state awards or gaining any new members.
Dalbec figured a successful fishing contest could accomplish several things: bring in more Jaycees members and allow the chapter to win some awards while also raising money for area charities and bringing in money for area businesses, said Bob Slaybaugh. A similar event had been hosted by the Brainerd Jaycees decades earlier and had been successful.
"He was enthusiastic and motivated. You could hardly say no to him," Slaybaugh said of Dalbec. Slaybaugh joined the Jaycees because of Dalbec and because he works at Confidence Learning Center, which receives 70 percent of the proceeds from the event.
"I think the man ate, drank and slept that whole tournament," added Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan of Dalbec. Ryan had moved back to Brainerd in 1989 after graduating from law school and joined the Jaycees.
While a lot of thought and planning went into that first year, none of the members had ever planned something of this magnitude and didn't know what to expect. They had no electricity on the ice, everything was written by hand using lantern light. Now the staging area not only has electricity but the contest is fully computerized, complete with wireless Internet to get results quickly online. The event is also broadcast live online. The coverage features live webcams, including underwater cameras that show fish being released in the lake. Slaybaugh said organizers have heard from soldiers serving in Iraq who appreciate the online coverage and who had fun showing off the event to their buddies.
The first year they used large appliance boxes for garbage and there weren't nearly enough, said Slaybaugh, who was in charge of garbage collection that year. He said they had about 20 portable toilets, all located in one location. That was nowhere near enough.
"When we got on the ice we realized we were over our heads," Slaybaugh said with a laugh. "We had 5,500 people. If we would have had 10,000 people we would have had another Woodstock."
"The very first year it was all a gamble," said Dr. Kevin Dens, also a former Jaycees member who helped organize the first contest. He chaired the event the following year. "We were trying to gauge how much advertising you do and how much return you'll get. Are we going to break even or are we going to lose money? A lot was riding on those first years. The second year I said I'd do it if Bob Slaybaugh co-chaired it. We didn't have enough biffies, we didn't have enough garbage cans. We weren't prepared just with the sheer numbers of people who had to be moved."
Ryan said the Jaycees had buses that dropped off anglers at the fishing site but organizers didn't think it through on how everyone was going to get off the ice at once. They had created only one ramp onto the lake. People were getting impatient in line and walking up the banks of the bay.
"What I'll remember most about that first tournament is we spent many months figuring how to get these people on the ice, but we never thought about how many (portable toilets) we'd need and how to get people off the ice. Who thinks of that? We're all young adults, we'd never done that before. It was like the Israelites coming out of Egypt. People were walking up the bank."
"We had tons of complaints," said Slaybaugh. "People still joke about it."
The rest is ice fishing history.
The Brainerd Jaycees has now grown to about 200 members and is one of the largest and most active chapters in the state. It has won state and national awards for the ice fishing contest. In 2001, the contest prize purse grew from $100,000 to $150,000 and this year nearly $200,000 in prizes will be available.
Ryan chaired the event in 1994, which has the dubious distinction of being the least profitable year. It had been bitterly cold for weeks and was one of the coldest days on record for the contest. This year organizers, in partnership with Mills Fleet Farm, sold Extravaganza tickets for $20 for 20 days before Dec. 1 to celebrate its 20th anniversary. As of Jan. 1, tickets are $45.
As of Jan. 7, 8,174 tickets have been sold, far more than are typically sold by this time each year. If weather conditions are favorable, it could be a banner turnout for the contest, which original organizers had hoped would last at least 10 years.
"The best friends of my life I've made through the Extravaganza," said Slaybaugh. "It was probably one of the better things I've done. It gave me the opportunities I wouldn't have had otherwise. It helped me develop speaking skills and the ability to organize meetings and to help other people realize they have the same abilities."
"You can't do something like that and not be a better person for it. Hopefully I am," Dens said with a laugh. "It's benefited the Jaycees, it's benefited the community and it certainly benefits the charities. Those first years we had to convince people that this was going to work — the (Brainerd) Dispatch, the (Brainerd Lakes) Chamber. We've got so many people on board now that help us in so many ways that it's truly a community effort."
"There's something really special about that particular group of people that got together and created the Jaycees at that point in time and put us back on the map," said Ryan.
On the Net:
Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza: http://www.icefishing.org
Information from: Brainerd Dispatch, http://www.brainerddispatch.com