Ice fishing is a form of recreation that seems to be ideally suited for a pandemic. It’s an outdoor activity that by its very nature is an exercise in social distancing, and it can be enjoyed pretty much anywhere there’s a sheet of ice over a body of water. That means in Wisconsin, with its more than 15,000 fresh-water lakes, no one has to venture too far from home to find a place to ice fish.
Despite the solitary nature of this outdoor sport, large ice-fishing contests—a beloved winter tradition in our lake-heavy state—have not been immune to the effects of COVID-19. Restrictions necessary to protect public safety have forced some longstanding ice-fishing tournaments to be canceled or postponed, while others have been adapted as virtual events.
One contest that is proceeding as usual is the ice-fishing event held each February by the St. Croix Valley Sexual Assault Response Team (SART). Now in its third year, this event hasn’t needed any retooling to ensure its safety as it was created on a model that’s already about as pandemic-proof as possible. Held the entire month of February, the SART ice-fishing contest is open to anyone, and fish may be caught from any lake, in Wisconsin or even beyond the state’s borders.
“You can go anywhere—we don’t care where you fish, because everything’s done electronically,” said Tom Gunderson, vice president of SART. Gunderson is a criminal justice instructor at Chippewa Valley Technical College’s River Falls campus with 30 years of experience in law enforcement. He’s also an ice-fishing enthusiast himself and one of the event’s organizers.
Registration opens on January 15 each year and remains open throughout February. Prospective participants simply go to the SART website at stcroixvalleysart.org to sign up. Upon registering, participants are given a list of contest rules, including an email address where they submit a photo of their fish alongside a measuring device such as a tape measure or ruler to verify size of the catch.
“The contest starts February 1 at 12:01 a.m.,” Gunderson said. “People can start fishing and then submitting photos of their fish to the email address that’s included with the information that they get on the website. We just start logging every week, going through all the pictures and keeping track of what people submit on a big spreadsheet.”
Ice fishing is a family-friendly activity for all ages.
At left, Adams-Columbia Electric Cooperative member Adam Sengbusch and his daughter, Finley, enjoy a day on the ice together in Oxford. At right, Jessica Wohlfert holds up her catch—a 33-inch Northern pike. Photos courtesy of Keith Wohlfert.
This year’s contest has four categories: Walleye, Northern, Pan Fish, and new this year, Trout. The participant who catches the longest recorded fish in each category wins, with ties determined from a drawing.
“We added another category this year because we had a bunch of people who wanted to include trout,” Gunderson said. “A couple of the lakes around here are connected by rivers and you can catch trout on the lakes in the wintertime when you’re ice fishing.”
Door prizes, many of them donated by area businesses, are awarded weekly in a random drawing of contestants who submitted photos during the previous week. Examples of door prizes include ice-fishing gear, gift cards to local businesses, and hats and T-shirts. At the end of the contest, winners in each category receive a grand prize of an item such as a fish locator or an ice auger.
Prizes aren’t all contestants are fishing for. This event is one of two major fundraisers that support the mission of SART, a nonprofit organization that offers services free of charge to individuals of all ages, male and female, who are victims of sexual assault. SART is the only such provider in the region. Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services, St. Croix Electric Cooperative, and Barron Electric Cooperative are among the community organizations that support SART’s services through donations.
Those services include examinations by licensed nurses with extensive training in collecting sexual assault evidence, either at one of the SART locations in River Falls or Rice Lake, or at one of the 10 hospitals in Pierce, St. Croix, Polk, or Barron counties, with whom SART partners.
The organization also provides personal advocacy services for anyone who may have questions about their experience and/or need someone to talk to, or for anyone in need of a personal advocate alongside during an evidence exam. Clients make their way to SART through a variety of channels: Some contact the organization directly, while others report assaults, or suspicions of abuse on behalf of another, at one of the partner hospitals or law-enforcement agencies in the four-county St. Croix Valley area, which then reach out to SART. No one is turned away. People from outside the four-county area who would like SART’s services can either come to one of the organization’s two facilities or stop at one of the hospitals that SART contracts with and request the organization’s services.
“We provide services to them for free as well. They don’t get a surprise bill in the mail for anything, if it’s done through our facility,” Gunderson said.
This is where the fundraising events come in. Forensic evidence kits, pay for qualified nurses, etc., are not cheap. SART keeps victims from having to foot the bill for these necessary services by turning to grants, community donations, and fundraising efforts like the ice-fishing event.
Enjoying a winter day on a frozen lake is a nICE way to help out. —Mary Erickson
For more information about the SART ice-fishing event, including rules and regulations, visit stcroixvalleysart.org and click on the Events tab in the menu.