It’s not yet official, but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources “in all likelihood” will not issue permits for ice fishing contests with more than 250 participants this winter as COVID-19 cases continue to increase, a DNR fisheries manager says.

“That’s a near-certainty at this point in time,” said Henry Drewes, Northwest Region fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji. “There’s a lot of concern about ice fishing contests as they have been conducted in the past becoming spreader events right now.”

Henry Drewes, Northwest Region DNR fisheries supervisor, Bemidji. (Photo/ Minnesota DNR)
Henry Drewes, Northwest Region DNR fisheries supervisor, Bemidji. (Photo/ Minnesota DNR)

The big concern, especially with the large contests, is the risk of congregating participants into areas where physical distancing isn’t possible, Drewes said.

“You can drill holes 10 feet apart to spread out on the lake, but there’s always pinch points and gathering points,” Drewes said. “A lot of these events have a big tent set up for weigh-ins, they have a beverage and hospitality tent, they have a raffle tent.

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“So even if you’re spread out, you’re going to get a lot of people in a small area, especially if it’s cold.”

According to a listing on the DNR website, the agency in 2020 issued permits for about 70 ice fishing tournaments with estimated participation of 250 people or more, although a half-dozen or so were canceled. The biggest event is the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza, which draws tens of thousands of anglers to the frozen surface of Gull Lake.

The DNR for the past month and a half has been working with the state Department of Health and fishing contest organizers to discuss ideas for safely holding large events and “bouncing their ideas off leadership” from the two agencies, Drewes said.

“We’ve had really good dialog to try and figure out how to make these work because we know these are very important for local communities for fundraising, for mental health and for getting outside, but we’ve got this huge COVID beast right now,” Drewes said. “It’s tough.”

Plans are in the works to set up a virtual meeting with contest organizers to talk about what might be possible, Drewes said, given the increase in COVID-19 cases.

“We’re going to invite any and all ice fishing tournament organizers to participate,” he said. “The Department of Health and DNR would talk about how we can move forward with some contests in very limited form this winter.”

Even for smaller contests, it won’t be business as usual, Drewes said.

“If we permit these things, we have to figure out how to do it without somebody coming back to us, coming back to the organizers and saying, ‘You just created a super spreader event and five people died,’” Drewes said. “We don’t want that to happen.”

Tournaments that do receive permits will face a variety of requirements and conditions for spreading people out, he said.

“And ice organizers that I’ve talked to, they get it, they understand,” Drewes said. “They know what’s going on, too, so we’re just trying to find where we can thread the needle on this.”

No N.D. restrictions so far

In North Dakota, meanwhile, there are no restrictions on ice fishing contests at this point, but that could change if the state further tightens its coronavirus guidelines, said Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

Greg Power, fisheries chief, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
Greg Power, fisheries chief, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

Every tournament organizer receiving a permit also gets the following note from Game and Fish, Power said:

“Your tournament has been approved contingent upon there are no further coronavirus group restrictions. At this point, we strongly recommend that social distancing is practiced by all, including at rules meetings and post-tournament socializing/activities that concentrate the public.”

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North Dakota has about six ice fishing tournaments that draw more than 250 participants and another half dozen that have from 200 to 249 participants, Power said. The Devils Lake Volunteer Fire Department’s annual ice fishing tournament is the largest, regularly drawing upwards of 4,000 anglers onto Six-Mile Bay. Held the last Saturday in January, the department’s 37th annual tournament is set for Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021.