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Thousands drop a line at Park Rapids Community Fishing Derby

Dylan Moore, 5, of Park Rapids, was actually pushing slush over his fish hole so no one could discover it before fishing began. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

More than 1,750 people, dressed like a casting call for the movie "Fargo," surged out onto frozen Fish Hook Lake Saturday for the 13th annual Park Rapids Community Fishing Derby.

With volunteers, their numbers easily surpassed 2,000 on ice.

The catch and release festival registered 286 fish that anglers were willing to take to the weigh station.

Hundreds more, many as small as the live bait used, were chucked quickly back into the drink.

"Are you kidding me?" said one man eyeing a two-inch perch on his line. Then he thought better of it and asked his girlfriend to snap a photo. He posed, sheepish grin and catch. And holding this specimen closer to the camera didn't obfuscate its real size. It was smaller than the angler's grin.

The massive volunteer effort starts pre-dawn as volunteers drilled the ice holes, fried the pancakes for the breakfast meal at the American Legion Club, gassed up the fleet of school buses and wiped off the antique farm wagons that shuttle contestants out onto the ice.

More than $100,000 in prizes awaited the winners. This year a Chevy pickup and Chevy Cruze auto went to lucky raffle winners Dacle Schmid, and Sylvia Harvala, both Hubbard County residents. The icehouse went to Steve Davis of Wadena, for catching the 10th largest rock bass, a 1-pounder.

Although the conditions were relatively balmy, the temperature hovering right below the freezing point, some fishing avenues ran with ankle-deep water seeping up the holes from all the weight on the ice.

Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes reported no incidents or accidents. Except a few cell phones that fell down fishing holes.

And as a testament to how high-tech the event has gotten, anglers kept in touch with others across the one-mile circle, checking via cell phone on depth and fishing conditions and moving accordingly.

When emcee Karol Savage announced a trivia contest featuring record fish caught in the state, someone yelled "Google it!" and dozens of iPhones were whipped out of insulated coveralls.

Four-year-old Jaydon Hafner came to his first derby. He apparently was familiar with the center ice shenanigans.

"He kept wondering where the boats and fish houses were," said Gramma Jo Hafner. "Then he told me to 'hurry up so I can eat a minnow.'"

Speaking of minnows, Julie and Tim Englund were doing a land-office business with their "derby mix" of live bait, a combination of suckers, fatheads and rosie reds.

And some minnows went down gullets, not fish, but human. The usual half-time show featured young and old contestants gagging down live minnows.

Six Carsonville firefighters did volunteer duty at the entry gates. "We got this job because of our good looks," said Becker County firefighter Kevin Byer, laughing.

Parking attendants Mike Swanson and Ed Christofferson were offering anglers good luck and giving fishing pointers. Rotary Club, local Boy Scouts and Main Street Meats set up food trailers on the ice, doing a brisk business of selling hot beverages and hot dogs.

Five-year-old Dylan Moore of Park Rapids was so protective of his fish hole he spent a few minutes before the starting bell covering it up with slush so he could disguise it from possible human predators.

Six-year-old Dustin Ohm of Bluffton kept his eyes peeled on his Hummingbird fish finder. "He's been watching that thing all day," said an angler down the ice avenue.

"There's so many down there!" exclaimed Randy Heald of Motley, using the low-tech method of looking into his fish hole. But looking over the sea of anglers, he remarked there were almost as many people hovered above the ice as fish below.

Jack Schouweiler of Alexandria holed up in a snow fort he built to shelter himself from the breeze. A pile of dropped potato chips dotted his "campgrounds."

At the end of the day, a similarly massive effort cleans up the ice.

"These things really take a beating out here," Noel Allard remarked of the Antique Tractor Club's shuttle wagons. He said club members would likely spruce them up for the summer, replacing seats.

Overall registration, like the tides, has ebbed and waned since 1999, when 5,825 purchased tickets. This year, 3,418 tickets were sold.

And to highlight the tourney kick-off, 12-year-old Amber Johnson once again sang the National Anthem and flawlessly got her ramparts in all the right places.

More prizewinners will be posted on the Enterprise website.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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