Standing on an icy lake. Watching a 10-inch hole all day. Waiting for a fish to bite.
It’s a popular pastime in colder climates like the Adirondacks — especially when there’s cash on the line.
More than 1,700 competitors spread out across the icy expanse of Great Sacandaga Lake recently for the seventh annual Walleye Challenge. Contests like this that offer cash for big catches are common around the country — a frosty bit of Americana that combines fish, fun and money.
Participants on the southern Adirondack lake bored holes at dawn and stayed until dark. They kept an eye on their fishing holes from inside windblown tents and cozy trailers or simply stood out on the snowy moonscape amid single-digit temperatures colder than their cans of beer.
“This is where it’s at,” said Tim Delaney, out with his wife, Tina, and their sons. “You’ve got to live the winter and be outside and enjoy it to the fullest or it’s going to be a looong winter.”
Ice fishing is often associated with the Great Lakes region but is popular across the higher latitudes. The American Sportfishing Association says there were 1.9 million ice anglers in 2011, a 12 percent increase from five years earlier. Contests are a way to bring ice fishing lovers together. One of the most famous contests, the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake in Minnesota, attracted more than 11,000 people last month, according to organizers.
The all-day Sacandaga competition offered cash prizes totaling $1,649 an hour for the biggest catches plus big-ticket prizes like a snowmobile and off-road vehicles. Though ice fishing is popular on the lake all winter, the competition is an added incentive to go out in the elements.
Organizer Lou Stutzke, who operates a local convenience store, started the contest with Hank “Beaver” Ross, who was inspired by a competition in the northern Adirondacks that had hourly prizes. Seven years ago, they capped the number of contestants at 1,000 but have bumped that up since. Now, their 1,750 slots sell out in a few weeks.
“It grew into a monster, basically,” Stutzke said.
Fishing holes are topped by spring-loaded “tip-ups” with little orange flags that whip up when a line is pulled. But pulling a fish in takes skill. Bruce Gollmer knelt on the ice with the line in his hand, pulling it in with his bare hands then letting the fish run out some. He finally landed a 32-inch northern pike.
“They’ve got a mouthful of teeth and they’ll snap a line with one shake of the head so you want to tire them out and just slowly bring them in,” Gollmer said.
Gollmer’s big catch was not eligible for the walleye contest, but it qualified for a companion contest run at the same time by the Great Sacandaga Lake Fisheries Federation.
The main basin of the lake is about five miles wide, meaning shanties are spaced out and fish need to be motored to weigh-in stations by snowmobile and off-road vehicles. Walleyes are weighed and plopped back into the water through a hole in the ice. (Stutzke said he has been assured by wildlife biologists that chances of a walleye getting caught twice in a day are slim.)
The cash prizes are nice, but the competition has the vibe of a big party on ice. And if the cold bites more than the fish, few seem to complain.
“The brain gets frozen a little bit, I think, but nah,” Dave Mt. Pleasant said with a laugh. “We have fun just coming out and just getting together and fishing.”