The airhorn sounds through the crisp March air. 4” hand augers simultaneously cut through the Wisconsin ice like…well… a sharp auger through ice. Heavy insulated rubber boots kick away the perfectly formed ice shavings as the auger is launched from the hole. The chess match begins as competitors sprint to place their second flag, and secure their desired fishing area. Palm rods (glorified chopsticks with a tiny zip-tie-like strike indicator resting on the tip) gingerly present hair-like fishing line and micro tungsten jigs to whatever awaits. Every fish matters, and all fish count.
This is the world of competitive ice fishing, and USA Ice Team is looking for the next group to go after gold.
The United States has been competing on a international stage since the 90s in different events. USAngling, of which USA Ice Team is a part, is America’s representative on the world scale. If you want to fish competitively, you must go through USAngling. They got into ice fishing for the first time in 2009, and what they found, completely surprised them.
“Just don’t come in last. That’s what we were told our first year,” said Mike McNett coach of USA Ice Team. “I thought, come on! Give us more credit than that! But they were right…Everything was different.”
USA Ice Team got dead last in 2009.
The United States has the best hook and line ice anglers in the world. They proved it the next year when the World Championships landed in Rhinelander, WI. USA Ice Team took the gold. To them, though, world champions win medals overseas, something they have yet to do in nine years of competition. So what’s the big deal?
Ice fishing is ice fishing, right? Wrong.
“That first year we were the only ones using reels. They all had palm rods and smaller [fishing] lines. They were throwing their palm rods and hand-lining fish in,” said McNett. “We needed to learn the international system to compete on the world stage, and we’ve done that.”
Let me give you a quick run-down on how world competition works. There are no electronics, no power augers. Five anglers (along with 1 alternate) and 5 spotters (angler advisers monitoring the other competitors and suggesting strategic moves to their fishing teammate) try to catch as many fish as possible out of designated zones. When the horn sounds, anglers place one of their 2 flags to secure a fishing hole and a 5 meter (16.4 ft) radius around it. As long as that flag is there, no other angler can drill a hole nearby. Once competition begins, an angler may drill as many holes as desired and move their two flags throughout the heat to secure locations, or block other countries. Total weight is the name of the game, and smaller fish overseas can often mean that the team who catches the most will come out on top.
Speed and strategy are big parts of the game, too. The proof… Ukraine.
Their top angler is a spotter. HE DOESN’T FISH! Yet, he has helped turn the Ukrainians into a powerhouse in world competition. Myron Gilbert, a competitive angler and legendary guide from Michigan, has competed with USA Ice Team since the beginning. He is one of the best, most intense anglers they have. This year, though, he’s relinquishing his position as an angler to be a spotter. A move that resembles what the top teams in the world are doing to find success.
“When they’re winning world championship after world championship…It’s like watching Tom Brady, maybe pretty soon you better emulate that,” said Gilbert. “I see good things for 2018. I don’t know what will happen, but I want to win a medal so bad overseas… Somehow, we’re going to get it done!”
The 2018 World Ice Fishing Championship location has just been selected. Kazakhstan will play host to the world’s best next March. Tryouts are about finding those with the skill sets necessary to bring home a medal. They all understand what is on the line.
“I’ve been competitive ice fishing for 10 years, and I can’t say that there has been a tournament day that I haven’t been nervous one way or another,” said Ben Blegen, an angler from Becker, MN. “When I get out on the ice and I drill that first hole, instinct takes over and the nerves are gone. We all know how to get the job done.”
Ben is a part of a field of anglers vying for a chance to represent their country on the world stage. Tryouts consist of 2 fishing days simulating world competition as closely as possible. Anglers fish 3 heats on different areas of northern Wisconsin lakes, catching as many fish as they can in each heat. The angler with the most fish wins the heat, and receives a point equal to the place they take. If you get 1st place, you get one point, 5th place gets five points…and so on. The angler with the lowest points at the end of the two days will win a spot on the team. It came down to the final heat, but Ben, made the cut.
“To come in the top three is always something to be proud of,” said Blegen. “Just to be a ﬁsherman on Team USA is one of the biggest achievements in ice ﬁshing, and I’m feeling really good about that.”
Ice fishing season is right around the corner, and USA Ice Team will be fishing for gold. Follow the team by liking their USA Ice Team facebook page or visit usaiceteam.org. There you can learn about the history of the team, and make a donation to help make this dream feasible for all involved. These anglers are paying out of their own pocket to represent their country on the world-wide stage. Any contribution to the team will help lower their costs.
Fish Stories will be following the team to Kazakhstan in 2018 and posting audio stories along the way. Stay tuned to the Fish Stories podcast, or ﬁshstories.org to ﬁnd out if USA Ice Team can bring home a medal overseas. USA! USA!!