By Jennifer Kotila
HOWARD LAKE, MN The fishing derby, sponsored by the Howard Lake Sportmen’s Club, began in 1946.
Ever since, the derby has been a great way for Howard Lakers, and those from surrounding communities, to get out of the house and enjoy some fresh, brisk Minnesota winter air.
This year, the derby will take place Saturday, Feb. 12 from 1 to 3 p.m. on Howard Lake, with events at The Country Store before the derby.
The sportmen’s club began the derby as a way to promote local wildlife projects and contribute to conservation organizations that promote its beliefs, according to Ken Durdahl, club secretary.
Each year, the firearms safety classes given by the sportsmen’s club are funded with proceeds from the derby.
The club has also donated money for landings on all the local lakes, and cleans up around Howard Lake every spring.
In addition, turning Smith Lake into a good duck hunting slough again is something the club has helped to fund for several years, according to Erv Luhman.
Several years ago it donated $2,500 for the fish trap, and recently donated another $2,500 for the draw-down.
Fun throughout the years
“The derby has been filled with great fun and liberal libations for many of the 65 years,” Durdahl said.
One of the most anticipated events each year is the ice chiseling and auger contest.
“The hole cutting contest is always awesome,” Luhman said. “There is anywhere from 200 to 1,000 people watching each year, and I’m sure there’s some side-betting that goes on.”
Some of the champions hold the title as the fastest hole maker for several years, such as champion chiselers Gordy and Bobby Gruenhagen, Gerry Burau, and Donny Laxen, according to Jim Wackler, a sportsmen’s club member, and Luhman.
“Gordy has since passed away, but he could really chisel a hole,” Luhman said. “Both Gerry Burau and Laxen worked at Millerbernd and brought chisels they had made out of heavy scrap rebar.”
“This year should be interesting for the ice chiseling, with 22 to 24 inches of ice to chisel through,” said Wackler.
For many years, the sportmen’s club served food and drink out of a fish house, then liability and the laws made it prohibitive for the club, Durdahl said.
“Now, Charlie Bush provides excellent food for the contest, and, if you’re so inclined, you bring your own beverage,” Durdahl said.
“It (the sportmen’s club) is a great organization and it is fun to be out there and enjoy the fun with everyone else,” Bush said. “Everyone is there to have a good time, and they do.”
He recalled a few years ago when he and his daughter were selling food, and everyone gathered for the raffle drawings in their cars.
Soon, there was water coming up through the holes on the ice. His daughter looked at him and said, “Dad, I think it’s about time we get going.”
Everything was pretty much over, so Charlie said, “I think you’re right.” Although nothing happened, and the ice held, it was an experience.
“I always encourage our foreign exchange students to come out on the ice and see what we crazy Americans do in the winter,” Bush said.
About 25 years ago, some of the men from the sportsmen’s club decided to put on a skit for those in attendance at the derby, according to Luhman.
Kevin Gruenhagen and Verdell Stenberg pulled an aluminum boat behind either a pickup or snowmobile with fishermen in it “trolling for fish,” Durdahl said.
Behind the boat, Vic Gauger was “water skiing,” dressed as a woman. “He had on the make-up, panty hose, the whole nine yards,” Luhman said. “They all came rolling through, right in the middle of the contest.”
Vic Gruenhagen donated chickens one year that were turned loose for kids to capture and take home, Durdahl said, noting it was also discussed to let pigs loose one year, but he cannot remember if it actually happened.
For a number of years, snowmobile races took place at the same time as the ice fishing contest.
Charlie Dahlberg started a tradition of throwing candy for the kids participating or watching the derby, Wackler said.
Wackler has been the announcer for many years at the derby, and carries on the tradition of throwing candy for the kids, Durdahl said.
The contest would not be the success it is today of it were not for the help and generosity of many people and businesses, said Durdahl.
Lynette and Terry Thorson draw names and place them on the winners boards.
The winners boards are displayed at Joe’s Sport Shop, along with the fish house before the contest.
For the fishing derby’s 50th anniversary, the sportsmen’s club began giving away a fish house for a $2 raffle ticket.
Raffle tickets are sold at Joe’s Sport Shop and The Country Store.
Durdahl noted many others could be mentioned, “but they know who they are.”
Country Store events
The Country Store first became involved with the Howard Lake fishing derby seven years ago, providing bison burgers to members of the public before the derby. In past years it has also offered hot dogs, chili, and fried fish.
This year will be the third year The Country Store has featured a wild rice recipe tasting. Members of the public are encouraged to purchase wild rice at The Country Store, make a dish, and bring it to share with others between 11 a.m. and noon the day of the derby.
Minnesota author Scott D. Gottschalk will be available at The Country Store, signing books for fans, said Wade Serfling, Store manager.
Gottschalk lives near Kimball and has written two books; “The Folk and Their Fauna,” written more than 30 years ago, and “Nine Lives to Eternity,” written just recently following a motorcycle/deer collision that nearly took his life.
Also available by silent auction at The Country Store are more than 24 framed wildlife prints. Proceeds go to support Ducks Unlimited.
“The big issue this year will be how to figure out where everybody will park because there’s too much snow,” Serfling said.
The Country Store has helped with printing costs for posters and raffle tickets, along with entertainment and food each year it has been involved with the fishing derby. This year, Sunni’s Grille will help with the food, as well.