Sunday, Feb 18, 2018
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Matt Markey

Cold cash draws legions of ice fishermen to Irish Hills event

  • Ice-fishing-tournament

    The Midwest Open Ice Fishing Tournament on Devils Lake on Sunday is expected to have a full field of 300 anglers competing for the $20,300 first-place prize. Tournament officials say the event will go on as scheduled, despite the recent warm weather.

    Jeff Steers/Brooklyn Exponent

  • Matt-Markey-33

MANITOU BEACH, Mich. — They will come from just down Devils Lake Highway, from nearby Jackson, from Eaton Rapids and Beaverdam, and from across the rest of the state of Michigan, as well as Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New York. Ice fishermen from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Virginia, and Ontario also will be here.

Yes, anglers will change time zones and show their passports and cross the international border in order to take part in the Midwest Open Ice Fishing Tournament on Devils Lake on Sunday. The field of hundreds of fishermen was filled months before the event, and the participants, and the promoter, proudly proclaim this is the top fishing showcase on the ice.

“They come from all over — that’s 150 teams, 300 fishermen — coming from every direction, because this is the biggest event in ice fishing,” said Tom Knutson, the tournament director and proprietor of Knutson’s Sporting Goods in nearby Brooklyn. “There is nothing like this anywhere else in the country.”

Why are anglers going to such lengths to drill holes in the ice and fish this lake shaped like a sloppy backward “L” for sunfish, blue gills, and crappies?

“For a lot of guys, it’s that grand prize that brings them here,” said 31-year-old Zach Bivins of Tecumseh. “I’ve traveled around and fished in a lot of other tournaments, and this one is the best.”

Bivins and his 27-year-old brother, Isaac, teamed up to finish second in the 2015 tournament on Vineyard Lake and collected $3,500. This year, they will vie for the first-place check of $20,300.

“That amount of money gets a lot of people’s attention,” he said.

The tournament, which got its start in the 1990s, has been staged at various lakes around the Irish Hills area. Last year’s event had to be called off when unseasonably warm temperatures made for unsafe ice conditions, but Knutson said an inspection of the ice earlier this week left him confident there will be no such issues this time, despite the 50-degree weather as the tournament approaches.

“It’s all systems go for the tournament,” he said. “We lost a couple inches of ice in that warm spell, but there’s still nine or 10 inches of ice on most of the lake. The worst-case scenario at this point is we would make it a walking tournament (banning ATVs, snowmobiles, etc.), but we’ll make that decision closer to the start.”

With a couple of above-average temperature days to end the week, Knutson expects to make the call on whether it will be a walking or riding tournament at the mandatory team meeting Saturday evening. If the format calls for the anglers to walk, only the southern basin of Devils Lake will be open to the competitors.

The anglers will check in between 6 and 7 a.m. Sunday, take to the ice at 7:30 a.m., with the tournament starting at 8 a.m. The competitors must return to the launch site by 1 p.m., and the official weigh-in begins at 2:30 p.m. at Columbia Central High School, 11775 Hewitt Road, southwest of Brooklyn. The winners are determined by total weight, with each team allowed to check in up to eight crappie and eight sunfish and bluegills in combination.

And just so there is no temptation to engage in skulduggery, the tournament rules give the director the right to have all winners take a polygraph test.

With 300 anglers in the field, and all of that prize money on the line, Zach Bivins expects the competition to be intense. Twenty-three teams won cash in the previous Midwest Open, and another dozen took home prizes.

“It’s serious business out there,” he said. “I wasn’t able to do it this year, but in the past I would be out there a couple of days a week for the month before the tournament, just scouting and looking for the best places to fish. And the rest of the year when I’m fishing out of my bass boat, I’m making mental notes and putting GPS points in, just so I can go back to those places when this tournament comes around.”

Erick Hodgins and Rusty Heron teamed up to win the 2016 Midwest Open, held on Wamplers Lake. The duo from Ontario checked in its limit of 16 fish at 8.36 pounds, and will be back on the ice this time to defend their title, one of six former champion teams returning to the event. Poor ice or no ice forced the tournament to be scrubbed in 2006, 2011, as well as last year.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com, or 419-724-6068.

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