Nisswa, MN — Leaden skies and a cold northwest wind couldn’t dampen the spirits of the multitude of anglers gathered on Gull Lake’s Hole-In-The-Day Bay Saturday, January 28, 2017 for the Brainerd Jaycees 26th Annual $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza.

The conditions didn’t slow the fishing, either. The event produced exciting tournament action and above-average catches for contestants who converged upon the two-square-mile competition area to battle for their share of $200,000 in cash and prizes.

Anglers began sprinting to the weigh-in area with their catches literally seconds after the starting cannon roared at noon, flooding the scales with a multispecies smorgasbord dominated by yellow perch and tullibees.

When the dust settled at 3 p.m., however, a 5.54-pound northern pike landed by Les Laidlaw of Mankato, Minnesota, topped the leaderboard.

Tullibees were a hot ticket, claiming an incredible 137 of the top 150 places. Seven walleyes and six pike held the remaining places in the money. And while perch were plentiful, not one of the tasty panfish earned a coveted place on the leaderboard.

Laidlaw hooked his toothy trophy barely two minutes into the event, then spent the rest of the day nervously waiting to see if anyone would knock him out of first. “It was really nerve-wracking,” he laughed, adding that the portly pike was his first fish in six years of competing in the Extravaganza.

The fishing area offered a variety of depths and structure, from shallow flats to sharp breaks and the deep basin. Tournament organizers reported that some anglers arrived early in the week to scout potential fishing areas. Laidlaw took a different approach, however, allowing lady luck and elbow room to guide him. “My buddy and I rolled in around 11 a.m. this morning and it was already real crowded,” he said. “I was just looking for two holes next to each other so we could fish together.”

He fished a live minnow on a jig armed with a treble hook 10 feet off bottom in 60 feet of water. “I marked a suspended fish, so I raised the bait about two arm-lengths,” he explained, noting that his riggings included a bobber, rattle reel, 10-pound monofilament mainline tied directly to the hook, and a small sinker a foot above the minnow.

“When the fish hit, it took the rig straight to the bottom,” he recalled. “I waited a few minutes for it to move again, but when it didn’t swim away, I set the hook.”

At first, Laidlaw didn’t realize what he had on the line. “The fish just came straight up,” he said. “I didn’t know I had a big fish on until I saw his head in the hole.”

His actions fueled by adrenaline, Laidlaw executed a daring maneuver to bring the fish to the surface. In doing so, however, he ran afoul of the jig’s treble hook and added a bit of agony to the thrill of victory. “I reached in and grabbed him,” he recalled. “And that’s when I hooked my hand.”

Undaunted, Laidlaw dashed to the weigh-in tent, with the hook still firmly embedded in his bloodied hand.  Only once the pike was certified would the veteran angler submit to medical care at the first-aid tent.

For his efforts, Laidlaw was given the choice of a brand-new Ford F-150 or GMC pickup from the Mills Auto Group. He opted for the Ford. “I’ve got a 1984 F-250 diesel; this will be an upgrade,” he smiled.

Brian DuBois of Afton, Michigan, finished a close second with a 5.44-pound pike, while Florence Anderson of Owatonna, Minnesota placed third with a 4.63-pound walleye.

Operated entirely by volunteers, the Brainerd Jaycees tournament raises funds for local charities including Confidence Learning Center, an outdoor recreational facility and camp for people with developmental disabilities. Over the past quarter century, the Extravaganza has raised and donated more than $3 million to over 50 worthy organizations, and Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle was once again a proud sponsor.

Lindy offered a number of prize packages plus a special Lindy Big Fish Bounty for the angler who finished in 27th place, provided he or she purchased a special edition Lindy Rattl’n Flyer Spoon prior to the event. “I had mine in my tackle bag, but never got a chance to use it,” Laidlaw grinned.

The epic event also provides a boost to the local economy. It typically lures 7,000 to over 10,000 anglers to the ice of Gull Lake, with more than 75 percent of competitors traveling over 60 miles to get there. Collectively, the anglers funnel more than $1 million into area hotels, restaurants, bait shops and other businesses.

For more information and complete results, visit icefishing.org.