BELCOURT -- They ascended on Jarvis Lake in the scenic Turtle Mountains. The North American Ice Fishing Circuit staged a competitive event there Jan. 22.
The two-time defending "team-of-the-year" was there. So were several place winners from past NAIFC national qualifying events. Some of the top ice fishermen from the region were waiting for them too. The "Ice Man" television series was there. The competition was keen.
"It doesn't get much better than the Turtle Mountains in North Dakota," said Jack Baker, NAIFC vice president of operations. "Lake Jarvis is a fantastic fishery. We've got monster bluegills and very big perch."
Teams had been pre-fishing Jarvis Lake for a week or more, hoping to discover a pattern to bluegills and perch that would result in a winning combination for the tournament. When the tournament got under way the weather couldn't have been more cooperative. Temperatures reached into the 20s and the wind was so light that most fishermen didn't bother with setting up artificial shelters for protection.
Jarvis Lake is as pretty a fishing spot as can be imagined. It sits quietly among the white aspens of the surrounding Turtle Mountains. The fish are there too, which was one of the major drawing cards for the NAIFC.
While all teams entered were well aware of the caliber of competition, most paid particular attention to the team of Jacek Gawlinski and Zbigniew Wojcik of Illinois. They own back-to-back NAIFC "team-of-the-year" honors and are favorites to repeat in 2012. Although familiar with English, the two Polish fishermen use their own language while on the ice. Why let the competition know what you are saying? Their catch usually speaks a language all ice fishermen can understand.
"They go to a lot of our tournaments," Baker said. "We cover literally anywhere that freezes. These guys are good and the equipment they use is very good. Ice fishing is one of the few outdoors sports that is really growing. The industry is getting behind it more and more. We are the competitive arm of ice fishing, like the FLW or BassMasters."
Not far from where Gawlinski and Wojcik were jigging for bluegills and perch, was the North Dakota team of Courtney and Henry Larocque. They were closely watching their electronics and gently trying to entice fish to bite.
"We knew we couldn't be all bad when they moved in here too," said Courtney Larocque, referring to the team-of-the-year about an hour before the end of the tournament. "It has been a decent day as far as perch but we haven't caught any bluegill yet. We'll see what happens."
A cameraman from the Ice Men television series was paying particular attention to Jacek Gawlinski. The veteran ice angler had pulled a couple of perch from one hole before switching to another a few yards away. He hooked another perch almost immediately, secreting it away as quickly as possible to avoid any unwanted attention.
"It's reality TV. The camera is always on you," Baker said. "It's a lot of fun and it has helped to grow the industry. Ice Men is in its fourth year on Versus, now NBC. It talks about the trials and tribulations of guys who are out on the ice in the NAIFC."
Those "trials and tribulations" often lead to innovative techniques and equipment in the ice fishing industry. Many of the competitors experiment with homemade lures or fashion other gear to make their journey onto the ice more agreeable. Often their ideas spawn new products.
"Most of our guys are in the trades and have the winter off to ice fish," Baker said. "You'll see a lot of homemade stuff that works well. The manufacturers watch it and, within a year or two, you'll see it on the shelf touted as their idea when it really came from somebody's garage."
Although Jarvis Lake has a population of walleyes and northern pike, the teams were fishing for perch and bluegill. Each team was allowed to weigh-in eight of each species. Prior to the tournament it was believed that an abundance of bluegills in Jarvis Lake would inevitably lead to bluegills leading the catch list. It didn't work out that way during tournament hours.
"A trophy bluegill is one of the hardest fish to catch," said Baker, who is also an NAIFC pro-team member. "They are extremely finicky."
"I think we got our gills first thing in the morning," said Bill Demming, Bottineau. "We caught the perch later on. The tourney was fun, well-run and the weather was great."
Demming and fishing team partner Steve Schepp of Bottineau made a serious run at first place. In the end it turned out that one more bluegill or one perch a few ounces heavier was all they needed to claim the title. They came up three-tenths of a pound short, weighing in 10 fish, eight of them perch, for 6.48 pounds.
The winning team was Ben and Luke Blegen, a pair of Minnesota ice anglers who are no strangers to placing in NAIFC events. They weighed in 11 fish for a total of 6.78 pounds, good enough for first place and an automatic entry into the NAIFC nationals.
"We're affiliated with the United States Ice Fishing Team. It's like an Olympic team," Baker said. "Most of the U.S. team comes out of the NAIFC circuit."
A team of Canadian fishermen Roger Sterns and Todd Williamson made the trip to Jarvis Lake to tangle with top fishermen and bluegills.
"I've always been interested in seeing what all the hoopla is about with little bluegills," said Roger Sterns from behind a broad smile. "We really don't have any in Canada, not in Manitoba anyhow."
The ice fishing appearance for Sterns and Williamson was a shift in gear of sorts. Both are walleye guides on Lake Winnipeg during the spring and summer months. During the winter they take the time to ice fish.
"We're aware of who is here," Sterns said. "We're used to being around good fishermen and we like fishing for different fish."
The Canadian team did very well, sitting on a spot where perch were abundant. Like so many other teams discovered, the bluegills were not in a biting mood. They were there, just not cooperating. During pre-fishing a week prior to the tourney Sterns and Williamson got into the bluegills and hoped they would have no trouble catching them during the tourney. However, they had only one good bluegill in the bucket with a hour of tournament time remaining. The Canadian duo finished with eight perch and a lone bluegill, good enough for a respectable 16th place.
The three-day event kicked off with an ice fishing seminar on Friday night, followed by a Kids Clinic on the ice on Saturday. Ninety-eight ice fishing rods were given away during the clinic.
The next stop for the NAIFC is Feb. 5 at Hebgen Lake near West Yellowstone, Mont. Other February stops are Lake Maxinkunckee, Ind., Long Lake, S.D., and Lake Menomin, Wis. The circuit's final qualifier is set for March 4 at Croton Dam Pond, Mich. No site has yet been announced for the 2012 championship Dec. 15.