Minnesota ice fishing contests adapt amid pandemic

Gull Lake's Hole in the Day Bay
More than 10,000 anglers from Minnesota and across the Midwest took part in the 24th annual Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake in January 2014.
Bruce Bisping | Star Tribune via AP 2014

Large ice fishing contests — a beloved tradition of Minnesota winters for outdoor enthusiasts — are expected to be on hold or look completely different this winter due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because of restrictions on large social gatherings aimed at preventing the virus’ spread, organizers of many ice fishing events are considering whether to cancel their contests — or even make them virtual events.

Tournaments with more than 150 anglers require a permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. In a typical winter, the DNR issues about 100 permits. 

DNR fisheries program consultant Jon Hansen said the agency has told tournament organizers that COVID-19 restrictions will make issuing those permits difficult.

"Unfortunately, we still don't know what the landscape is going to be like,” he said. “But expect some restrictions that are going to make these large events pretty challenging to hold, if not totally unlikely.”

Hansen said he expects many tournament organizers to cancel their events or significantly change them. 

The state's largest ice fishing contest is going virtual this winter. The 30-year-old Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza typically draws about 10,000 anglers to Gull Lake every January.

Angie Nelson, a committee member with the Brainerd Jaycees, said this winter, organizers decided COVID-19 restrictions would make it difficult to host the event safely.

"Our ice holes that we pre-drill are 10 feet apart. We knew that the issue wasn't with the contestants on the ice,” Nelson said. “The issue is with the tents, the weigh-in tent and the ticket tent, and when people gather around the stage. It's hard to socially distance."

Participants in the virtual contest will be able to fish on any frozen Minnesota lake for six fish species native to Gull Lake. They can use an app to enter their catch.

Contest organizers are working out details, but still plan to give away more than $150,000 in prizes, Nelson said. She said they hope to sell about 5,000 tickets for the event, which raises money for charity.

While large contests may need to adjust, Hansen said ice fishing itself is still a safe, fun outdoor activity to do this winter.

“We still really want folks to get out fishing,” he said. “We just don't want a whole bunch of people gathering from a bunch of different households in one spot.”

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